While I was in Ireland, I was lucky enough to be invited by Fáilte Ireland on a foodie day tour though West Cork. We set off bright and early from Killarney, winding through little country lanes with the occasional traffic jam.
Our journey was filled with stories by Marie and Lorraine from Cork County Council. The region actually has a fascinating history. During the Cold War, lots of rock stars and swanky city folk flocked to West Cork to escape the threat of nuclear annihilation figuring that if one place was left standing after a nuclear war it would be the rolling fields of western Ireland. They acquired a taste country life, but were also accustomed to a certain standard of living, and so began producing some of the finest
Our first stop was the charming little town of Skibberean. As we only had one day to explore all of West Cork had to offer, many of the producers were kind enough to come and meet us at Kelboe Cafe.
Having grabbed a strong latte, I headed straight over to Avril from Rosscarbery Recipes who had some black and white pudding sizzling on a hot plate. It’s the most amazing cure for a raging hangover at nine in the morning – not that I’d know this firsthand, or anything.
Avril, her husband Willie, and their two sons have been producing pork products out of their little farm in Rosscarbery. They’ve also just launched a delicious, preservative-free biltong that I’ve been nibbling on non-stop.
Helena from Skeaghanore Duck made the most delicious smoked duck. The ducks are raised on a family farm on the Mizen Peninsula, using only natural farming techniques.
I tried both the smoked duck and smoked chicken – both were was absolutely delicious. It had a really unique sea salty flavour cutting though the smoke that was reflective of their coastal location. It’s no wonder why you’ll find Skeaghanore Duck on menus of top restaurants throughout Ireland.
I also spoke with Sally from Woodcock Smokery, who had a whole variety of smoked fish for us to try. She works exclusively with wild fish caught from the Atlantic, using traditional techniques free from anything artificial.
Everything I tried was delicious, but her hot smoked tuna was out of this world. If there’s one thing you order from Woodcock, make sure it’s that! Sally also runs workshops if you want to learn to smoke fish yourself that can be easily arranged by contacting her directly.
I also got to chat with Sadie and Mark from Pilgrim’s in Roscarbery about some of the more unusual local herbs, flowers, and berries that they’re using on their menu at the moment.
Their approach to cooking is hyper-local and hyper-seasonal, with a menu that changes daily based on what’s available and what they fancy making. You can see their menu of the day here once it’s decided, which will certainly keep me day dreaming until I make it there myself in June.
Paul from West Cork Pies had a whole selection of everything from Scotch eggs to Cornish pastys. He began his business with a small market stall after being frustrated at not being able to find any good pork pies himself, and has since snowballed into something of a little empire. Although his pies can now be found in supermarkets, he still uses only the best ingredients from local farmers, where he can ensure not only the quality of meat but also that the money he spends goes directly back into the local community.
Last I spoke with Ahmed and Luke, two of the guys behind The Mews in Baltimore. They used to work as chefs in Dublin, but couldn’t afford to open their own restaurant with the high costs in the city. Instead, they drove along the Wild Atlantic Way until they found a little restaurant for sale at the end of a long, winding road beside the sea and decided to set up shop.
Their menu is modern and creative, relying on local foraging and hunting to create a menu specific to their little peninsula. They had us taste some seaweed and samphire pulled fresh from the sea that morning, as well as examples of finished dishes they’d serve with those same ingredients.
The Mews is sadly only open seasonally from March until September, but having had a small taste you can you can bet I’ll be back when they’re open to try all of their creations.
Reluctantly leaving our new friends at Kelboe, we headed just down the road to Fields of Skibbereen. It’s a family run grocery store that started off with humble beginnings back in 1935. They’ve since expanded into a little empire, but have maintained their commitment to serving their community with the best local produce available.
And when I say the best, I truly mean the best.
Everyone we spoke with in Fields took such pride in their work. Christy popped up several times during our tour, with more energy and enthusiasm in the morning than I knew was possible, to give us samples of everything from strawberries to whisky.
Piotr, the fishmonger, had arranged a spread of local catches from Baltimore and Union Hall. Kevin, their cheese expert, arranged a beautiful board of award winning cheeses for us to try. He also showed us photos of wedding cakes made of cheese – apparently the latest trend in West Cork!
Full to the brim, we took a stroll through the eclectic streets to the Skibbereen Heritage Centre.
Visiting the Heritage Centre was honestly one of the most memorable parts of my entire trip to Ireland. We were taken through on a tour by, who is an incredible orator and brought a very complex history to life (and our entire group to tears) in just thirty minutes.
The Famine is a story that is almost collectively forgotten, or oftentimes reduced to the brunt of a joke about potatoes. The Heritage Centre hopes to change that through simple storytelling. It made me understand my own family’s history in a more profound way, and added another layer of depth to our journey through the region. The Heritage Centre also offers the chance for descendents of Irish emigrants to contribute to Diaspora Stories, a project that aims to bring light to a largely forgotten history.
Although our visit was brief, it completely changed the way I saw Ireland, and made every subsequent part of my trip more meaningful. It’s the one thing that, even if you’re visiting Ireland for the thirtieth time, I’d insist on you going to. And while the museum itself was interesting, I’d absolutely recommend arranging for a guided tour while you’re there, as it was the storytelling that truly brought everything to life.
We hopped back on our bus and headed off through winding roads once again, this time headed for Clonakilty. We stopped for lunch at The Emmet, which has got to be one of the coolest little boutique hotels I’ve been to.
Every little detail is unique and . I’ll take you on a full tour of the place later.
I also popped very briefly into the Michael Collins House, who is essentially ‘The George Washington of Ireland.’ He was the leader behind the Easter Rising, plotting both the battles in war and later peace negotiations that eventually lead to Irish independence.
With the day closing in on us, we raced over to the tiny town of Timoleague, where we were treated to a little feast and tour at Dillon’s Restaurant.
Richard and Valeria grow everything they can right in their garden out back, resulting in a menu that is seasonal and unbelievably fresh. I could go on and on about the million little details and stories that make Dillon’s incredible, so I’ll save it for a later post.
You might think that Timoleague is an unlikely place to find such a fantastic restaurant, but just next door is Monk’s Lane.
Monk’s Lane is a bit older, larger, and more colourful but has the same commitment to community and local, seasonal produce. There, we were treated to a delicious spread of just about all they had to offer. Like Dillon’s, it was far too fantastic to summarise and squeeze in here, so keep your eyes peeled for a full post later on.
After a quick wander through Timoleague’s streets, we headed to our final destination of the day.
For nearly fifty years, Ummera Smokehouse has been making some of the finest smoked salmon around. Anthony took over from his father twenty years ago after traveling around the world as part of the wine industry. He and his daughters took us on a tour of the production facilities, showing us the process from start to finish, and popping a bottle of fizz.
If there is one thing my little tour through West Cork taught me, it’s that I could spend a lifetime exploring its little towns and trying its delicious food. It’s a region filled with countless pioneers and passionate creatives, and I know I only scratched the surface of what it has to offer. I’m already plotting a trip back where I’ll be able to take my time and truly experience everything – the little seaside farms, the restaurants tucked down winding lanes, and the people that make it all happen.
If you fancy planning your own visit there, the annual Taste Of West Cork food festival makes for an excellent excuse to come and explore.