I was somewhere around Gortavallig, on the edge of the Sheep’s Head peninsula, when the hunger pangs began to take hold. Damn it. I knew I should have taken up the B&B lady’s offer of a packed lunch before leaving Bantry. But it was too late now.
The Sheep’s Head Way is a network of old trails in the extreme southwest of Ireland. Walking a stretch of it, I had passed old milk churn collection points, clambered over the loose limestone husks of a deserted village, and given a wide berth to belching blowholes and abandoned mineshafts. Looking out over the Atlantic Ocean, I remember thinking if the clouds parted for long enough, and the light was willing enough, you could probably see Boston. And now I was hungry.
Luckily, I was in the right place. Ireland is in the throes of a foodie revolution, and West Cork is at the vanguard. This may sound surprising. For decades, the notion of foraging around the Irish coast on a dedicated food trip would have had you choking on your canapés. Ireland has scenery. It has Guinness. It has guesthouse fry-ups. This we know. But an emerging — and genuinely exciting — Irish cuisine that goes beyond dodgy boxties (potato pancakes) and stews? That just didn’t compute.
Well, it does now. Nowhere was the fact brought home to me more than on a time-worn, violin-shaped chopping board at Manning’s Emporium in Ballylickey. A short drive from the Sheep’s Head, this unassuming roadside gem should be the poster child for the West Cork way of doing things. If you didn’t know it, you’d drive right past. Stashed in a two-storey house crawling with ivy, it’s an Aladdin’s Cave of local produce with three menu options: a selection of cheese, of charcuterie, or both.
I went for both. Andrew Manning asked me what kind of cheese I liked, got chopping behind the counter, and delivered the results with a flourish. There was a sweet Hegarty’s cheddar from Whitechurch; a gungy — and gorgeously pungent — washed-rind cow’s cheese from Milleens on the Beara Peninsula; and tangy chorizo and salami from the nearby Gubbeen Smokehouse. They were neatly arranged around a little bowl of relish, a dollop of butter and some crusty white bread. For a modest €7 (£5.95), it was a minor revelation.
Afterwards, I stuck my nose inside the shop. Manning’s was like a culinary crossroads for the region, its shelves and wicker baskets overflowing with local vegetables, freshly-baked breads, Pónaire coffee, O’Conaill’s chocolates, Ummera smoked chicken — a who’s-who of artisan produce in the region.
Living in Ireland, I’m a regular visitor to West Cork. Trip by trip, meal by meal, I’ve learned how the dazzling landscapes of Ireland’s biggest county feed into its food — from honking farmhouse cheeses to free-range pork; from sourdough bread to lobsters wriggling in off the boats at Schull or Castletownbere. This time, I got a real feel for what British and European ‘blow-ins’ have brought to the table — small producers who came in search of a different life, and whose artisan goodies have lit up the local foodie scene. People like Anthony Creswell at Ummera, or Sally Barnes of the Woodcock Smokery. When top chefs began cottoning on to the quality on their doorstep, the momentum really picked up.
As always, my journey began in Cork City. This coastal hub is a sort of touchstone, market and kitchen for food in the region. Vegetables from Gort-na-Nain Farm are at Cafe Paradiso in time for lunch. Fish landed at Ballycotton or Kinsale is filleted at Greene’s or Les Gourmandises for dinner. It was here that Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed a famous belly-laugh with fishmonger Pat O’Connell at the English Market. There’s even a Cork Butter Museum, piled high with churns and firkins.
When you leave the city, however, you really start to get a feel for the ingredients. Driving west, the old Chetwynd railway viaduct arches over the N71, giving the impression of a portal to Cork’s pantry. First stop? Kinsale, where bright Georgian terraces stack up around the mouth of the River Bandon. Restaurants and cafes poke out of every nook. You can pay a lot of money for fresh seafood here, but my most memorable meal was a casual bite at Fishy Fishy Chippie, a fish shop and deli run by one of West Cork’s celeb chefs, Martin Shanahan.
Step inside, and you’ll find a bubbling tank of lobsters by the door, their meaty claws bound by red elastic bands. The menus are festooned with black-and-white portraits of local fishermen — Christy Hurley (‘60 years fishing’), Billy Lynch (‘47 years fishing’). I ordered battered hake with fresh tartare and a wedge of lemon. The tempura batter tasted like it had been made with sparkling water.
“That’s some fish ’n’ chips,” the man sitting next to me sighed.
It was indeed, and it cost less than a tenner.
“Fish is nature’s fast food,” Shanahan enthuses in his Fishy Fishy Cookbook, which I later pick up as a keepsake. “You can cook fish faster than you can cook a sausage or a rasher, and if you can cook a sausage or a rasher you can cook fish.”
His gung-ho attitude typifies the place. Where else could you pull into a petrol station like Harrington’s of Ardgroom, as I did one rain-veiled afternoon, to find a menu featuring local mussels? Where else would you find a young couple setting up the Firehouse Bakery on Heir Island (population, 25-30)? Or Cronin’s of Crosshaven, a Victorian pub where you can slip into a cosy snug and sup a house chowder that mixes a Mediterranean-style tomato base, a drop of brandy and lashings of cream with whatever arrives off the boats?
Continuing towards Clonakilty, fuchsia blooms turned the hedgerows pink. Here, driving out to Inchydoney Island and renting a surfboard is the ideal way to work up an appetite for Richy’s Bar and Bistro. Run by Mauritian chef Richy Virahsawmy, it’s one of dozens of casual eateries in a town painted like a box of pastel sticks, but the only one doing ‘West Cork Fusion’, I’ll wager. My favourite dish was Richy’s Mauritian curry, mixing beef from local butchers with lots of chilli, basmati rice and poppadoms. Yum.
Pushing further west, nature felt close — in the murmurations of starlings over Rosscarbery Lagoon, and in the gin-clear (and ice-cold) waters of Lough Hyne, a marine lake strewn with sea caves near Baltimore. I joined Atlantic Sea Kayaking for a night-time expedition near here in Castlehaven. We slipped out into the bay at dusk and, as darkness fell, bioluminescent plankton began to fizz and sparkle beneath our paddles, like sub-aquatic splashes of the Northern Lights. Along for the ride was Sally McKenna of The Irish Food Guide, and she told me of her foraging trips for edible seaweed in the area. That’s West Cork for you. No matter where you are, someone always has an eye on the dinner.
Not that it’s all gravy, of course. West Cork, like everywhere else in Ireland, is still capable of throwing up plastic sandwiches, soulless chowders, and paninis that could heel a boot. The trick is to do your research, take recommendations and follow your nose.
Next up was Skibbereen, another crossroads in the county. You can turn south here, catching a boat at Baltimore to offshore islands such as Sherkin; you can continue west, to the wilds of Mizen Head; or you can veer north, towards the Sheep’s Head or Beara peninsulas.
After Ballylickey, I headed for Beara. As with the Sheep’s Head, the further west you travel here, the more remote the terrain becomes. Thin roads hairpin and corkscrew around the Caha Mountains, winding towards the old copper mining town of Allihies and beyond. It’s the kind of place where you could round a corner, and come a cropper in a cow’s backside. And yet, even here, people are farming buffalo, making cheese, producing sea salt.
It’s not quite the ends of the earth, though. For that, you need to board Ireland’s only cable car, connecting the mainland with Dursey Island. Swaying on rusty pylons, rattling like a Coney Island fairground ride (albeit one that carries cows and sheep), it inches over the thrashing sound below, disgorging visitors onto an outpost with no shops, no restaurants, and no produce. Just six souls, their animals, and an old signal tower.
I wasn’t worried about going hungry this time. I’d learned my lesson, and already spotted my next meal. Overlooking Garnish Beach, a couple of miles back, was a takeaway van with a special on its sandwich board: pan-fried mackerel with soda bread. Bon appétit.
■ 9am: Kick off with breakfast at the Farmgate Cafe in Cork’s bustling English Market. A creamy bowl of porridge with West Cork honey, perhaps?
■ 11am: Drive to Kinsale, where a browse among the medieval ruins and Georgian terraces will whet your appetite for a seafood lunch.
■ 1.30pm: Lunch in Kinsale, Skibbereen or Clonakilty — West Cork’s foodie hubs.
■ 3pm: Time for a postprandial, with a trip to Gougane Barra Forest Park, or a journey to the ends of the earth along the Sheep’s Head or Beara peninsulas.
■ 8pm: A well-earned dinner at Blair’s Cove, on the shores of Dunmanus bay.
Ryanair flies direct from Gatwick, Stansted and Liverpool to Cork Airport. Jet2.com flies Cork to Newcastle. Aer Lingus flies direct from Heathrow, Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh. www.jet2.com www.ryanair.com www.aerlingus.com
Average flight time: 1h20m.
Travel with Irish Ferries from Holyhead to Dublin, or Pembroke to Rosslare, or with Stena Line from Holyhead to Dublin and Dun Laoghaire, or Fishguard to Rosslare. Both ports are a 2h45m drive from Cork City. www.irishferries.com www.stenaline.ie
There are bus services, but driving is the best way to explore — there are a range of car hire options at Cork Airport.
When to go
Peak tourist months are July and August, but May, June and September can be just as pleasant. Catch the Taste of West Cork food festival (5-16 September). www.atasteofwestcork.com
Sheep’s Head Way. www.thesheepshead.com
Manning’s Emporium. www.manningsemporium.ie
Cork’s English Market. www.englishmarket.ie
Fishy Fishy. www.fishyfishy.ie
Richy’s Bar & Bistro. www.richysbarandbistro.com
Cronin’s Pub. www.croninspub.com
Atlantic Sea Kayaking. www.atlanticseakayaking.com
Where to stay
Inchydoney Lodge & Spa. www.inchydoneyisland.com
Liss Ard Estate, Skibbereen. www.lissardestate.com
Blair’s Cove, Durrus. www.blairscove.ie
Cottages for Couples, Skibbereen. www.cottagesforcouples.ie
Heron’s Cove, Goleen. www.heronscove.com
Gougane Barra Hotel. www.gouganebarrahotel.com
The Irish Food Guide — The Bridgestones Guides by John & Sally McKenna. RRP: £15. (Estragon Press)
How to do it
Cities Direct offers five nights at the Jury’s Inn in Cork from £329 per person, including flights. www.expedia.co.uk
Published in the April 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)