A taste of the sea, and West Cork
With their mother and sister away sunning them selves by a swimming pool on the continent, my two young lads and I eyed each other across the kitchen table a few weeks ago. "Let's go somewhere," I said. "Where"? they replied in the manner of the sullen teenagers that they are. And so it was the following morning, bright and early, that we found ourselves on the motorway from Dublin to Cork, West Cork to be precise, to Clonakilty and Baltimore.
The first thing to be noted is that the trip is surprisingly short, thanks in large part to the Celtic Tiger, during which the country was criss-crossed in motorways which made the trip not quite a joy, more a pleasant surprise. Less than three hours later we were in the Jack Lynch tunnel, destined for that part of Ireland which really is a joy, West Cork, the culinary capital of Ireland.
The second thing I noted is that this part of the country, like much of main street rural Ireland, has become populated by barber shops and bicycle shops, servicing the latest fads of well-groomed men in lycra shorts. Beyond that, you are struck by how well West Cork seems to have managed the recession, probably because it is a tourism mecca, but in this regard I have an alternative point of view.
Take Clonakilty, for example, the most perfect example of a town its size which is positively booming with positivity. I wondered where I might park to take lunch to satisfy the ravenous lads. I need not have worried. I drove directly into town and pulled in.
This is a testimony to the local planning officials, I suspect, who allow free parking. Towns all over the country are dying on their feet because shoppers have been forced into shopping centres on the outskirts. Not so Clonakilty. It is a lovely town, full of book shops, sweet shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants, all seemingly doing a good trade.
As it happened, we were staying at the Dunmore House Hotel & Golf Course, which is a few miles out the coast, across the bay from Inchydoney. This is a 30-bedroom, family owned and managed hotel with the most spectacular views across the Atlantic that I have ever had the pleasure to see.
Checked in, in advance of a wedding party, the eldest resumed his reading of Infinite Jest, I jest you not, and Vincent and I headed for the nine-hole golf course, the tidiest little course imaginable, which requires a delicate touch around the greens. I had not played in years, but, like riding a bike, you never forget just why you can equally love and hate this game: this day, I loved it, when I reverted to my hurler's grip.
That evening, we called a taxi and headed for the bright lights of Clon, to take a pint, before dinner, in the famous DeBarra's, where I regaled the lads with tales of musicians and politicians, the many faces of which adorn the walls on this spot, where Michael Collins is held in special reverence.
Later, we had dinner at The Farm, which is a new restaurant which sources quality produce from independent and small-scale producers. It was a fine meal in a restaurant I would heartily recommend if you intend to attend the 12th A Taste of West Cork Food Festival which takes place in 32 towns and villages and eight islands from 4-13 September.
Of course, West Cork is populated with fine restaurants, from fine to casual dining, to local cafes, nearly all of which seem to come recommended by various experts and guides in these matters. You really are spoiled for choice. In any event, the following morning I had a hearty breakfast of kippers at Dunmore House, where couples who attended the wedding, imbued by the love of the occasion, whispered sweet nothings to each other, I imagined, across the crisp white linen.
Onwards, then, to Baltimore, a most curious little outpost which has turned to face a harbour laden with history, these days divided between pleasure craft and working vessels. The weather was poor, which was something of a disappointment to the locals, who depend in great measure on the tourism industry, but it did not get them down. Fishermen and sailors, of ruddy face and tousled hair, looked out to sea together, waiting for the winds to change as it always does.
We stayed in the Waterfront Hotel, which is one of those places whose name and reputation go before it, in large part thanks to its enigmatic owner, Youen Jacob, whose son Youen and wife Kate now run the show. Kate is the steady hand on the tiller; Youen is more a renaissance man. He is a hotelier, restaurateur, publican indeed; but more than that, for he is also a man of the sea, the calm or swirling moments of which he captures by photograph with the sweet eye of an artist. One morning he took us down to see his lobster tanks, the contents all freshly caught by local fishermen, which are served up in his restaurant.
When Kate wants a quiet moment, she told me, she heads back out of town towards the Glebe Gardens & Cafe, so on the advice of locals we wandered in that direction. This really is a special place. Run by the Perry sisters, who I imagined to be as creative as the Brontë sisters, the gardens, stretching down to the sea, are worth a visit alone; but the restaurant - oh, the restaurant - the tastes and flavours, herbs and vegetables freshly drawn by their father, leaves a lasting impression, even with the young lads who, before this, had begun to wonder aloud when we might have a burger or pizza. Perish the thought.
Of course, West Cork is not just about great food, although I would happily spend my time there experiencing little else, but the land, sea and its people. One morning we came across Maria Coleman in Baltimore, a former Olympian sailor, who extended an invitation to sea on the sailboat of Grahame Copplestone, who would be a good friend in another life.
And so it was on a Saturday morning we found ourselves getting to known the ropes and, by chance, in the middle of a race which we did not win, but the experience of which we greatly enjoyed, what we three agreed afterwards was the highlight of the weekend. When you find your sea legs, you might also like to try out some snorkelling, or whale-watching in the capable hands of Rianne at Aquaventures.
Baltimore by night, like Baltimore by day, catches up on you slowly, the squall of seagulls where such a squall should be, the blue-white light even under grey skies, the oil slicks and conversation, where people look you in the eye as if to say this is who we are. I will take them every time. Do not miss Baltimore.
The 12th A Taste of West Cork Food Festival takes place in 32 towns and villages and 8 islands from 4th-13 September. Ireland's largest food festival will see 140 events in 80 venues from Bandon to Beara. Expect guest chefs, cookery workshops, two conferences, formal and informal dinners, exhibitions, food demonstrations and great country markets. With the Belling Food Awards, farm visits and on-water activities there's lots for all the family! www.atasteofwestcork.com
Award-winning guest chef Derry Clarke will once again be behind the coals cooking up a feast in what is fast becoming a fixture in the West Cork calendar - the annual fundraiser in aid of the RNLI Baltimore Lifeboat Station. The event will take place on Sherkin Island, with dramatic views from the island across to the Baltimore Beacon.
Sunday Indo Living