Saturday 24 September 2016

A Foodie Tour of West Cork: From brilliant breakfasts to the best SuperValu in the south

Short breaks in Ireland

Gemma Fullam

Published 12/09/2016 | 02:30

Located between Cape Clear and Mizen Head, the iconic Fastnet lighthouse, known as the teardrop of Ireland, has long been a symbol of west Cork
Located between Cape Clear and Mizen Head, the iconic Fastnet lighthouse, known as the teardrop of Ireland, has long been a symbol of west Cork
Interior of Liss Ard
Gemma relaxing in a sitting-room of the beautiful Liss Ard House Hotel
Catherine Fulvio

Gemma Fullam travels to the Taste of West Cork Food Festival for a sublime taste of the south west.

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When you hail from Kilkenny, a county that, per capita, comes second only to San Sebastian in the Michelin-star stakes, it takes somewhere special to lure you away on the promise of phenomenal food, but west Cork - specifically A Taste Of West Cork Food Festival - delivered in abundance.

My mother and I set off on our epicurean expedition on a muggy Saturday, but the M8's monotony soon segued into the lush hedgerows of the south west.

After a detour to O'Callaghan's of Mitchelstown for super salmon and salad, we arrived in Clonakilty, at the family-run Dunmore House Hotel, perched on the hillside a few kilometres outside town, with stupendous views of Clonakilty Bay. The hotel, famous for its breakfasts - more of which anon - has a soothing interior of taupe and eau-de-nil, with contemporary artworks lending an edge. It was too wet to go exploring, but we were happy to relax in our restful room - which had L'Occitane toiletries, and a huge Nespresso machine - and take in the panoramic sea view.

Suitably refreshed, we headed to Richy's Bar & Restaurant on Clonakilty's Wolfe Tone Street for dinner. We instantly loved the cosy interior, and the food didn't disappoint either.

Richy Virahsawmy, a Mauritian, initially came to west Cork to chef at Inchydoney, but fell in love with Clonakilty and is now a stalwart of the local food scene. He came over to chat as I was salivating over my starter - Harrington's crab risotto with curried prawns and scallops - and entertained us with tales of marathons: crab-cracking ones in his kitchen, and the wine marathon of Medoc, for which he was in training; the only one where they ask "Rouge, blanc, eau?" at the rest stops.

Gemma relaxing in a sitting-room of the beautiful Liss Ard House Hotel
Gemma relaxing in a sitting-room of the beautiful Liss Ard House Hotel

Provenance is paramount at Richy's and it shows; the food is stellar. They also do gorgeous gluten-free goodies, always a bonus in my book.

We awoke to wind and rain, but the sumptuous breakfast at Dunmore House made up for it. Lashings of fresh fruit, local yoghurt, and dinky little pots of carrageen (seaweed mixed with milk and vanilla) to start, followed by an omelette for me and Union Hall kippers for my mother, left us feeling more than capable of dealing with the summer showers.

We headed for the fishing port of Baltimore, via the Wild Atlantic Way stops of Rosscarbery; Glandore, which has a megalithic stone circle at Drombeg (warning: the banshee has been heard here); and Skibbereen, where we made a pit stop at our lodgings, the magical Liss Ard Estate. The 'high fort' is set in 163 acres of woodland, and the landscape is utterly romantic. The 19th-Century main house - you can also stay in the Garden Mews or the Lake Lodge (dogs welcome) - is decorated in a simple style, with huge artworks and earthy colours a perfect counterpoint to white walls and warm wood floors.

"The gardens are the star," explained owner Timo Stern of the minimalist interior, and they are, for sure, but the food at the estate is pretty dazzling too. We had promises to keep, so we only had time for a light bite of local goat's cheese with beetroot and greens (Liss Ard has an organic garden) but once ensconced on the chartreuse sofa, with Chopin's Tristesse drifting on the air, we were loath to leave.

But Baltimore beckoned. As with so many establishments in this neck of the woods, The Glebe is multi-hyphenate: it's a cafe, restaurant, farm shop, venue and gardens, run by the Perry family for over 20 years. Despite the dismal day, it was buzzing inside and out when we arrived, just in time for cake.

And what cake! We plumped for front-of-house Kez Perry's recommendation of gluten-free chocolate mousse cake, and a vanilla panna cotta with fruit compote. Between utterances of delight, my mother and I agreed we'd never tasted better.

Interior of Liss Ard
Interior of Liss Ard

The wow factor extends to the five-acre gardens; they are very obviously a labour of love and dreamy to wander through, rain or shine. We also met chef Tessa Perry, who like her sister, was aglow with her passion for food, the region's produce and their family's excellent enterprise.

After a refreshing post-prandial, supped outside Jacobs Bar in Baltimore, we made our way back to Skib via Lough Hyne. I had been booked in for kayaking, but the weather scuppered that, so we made do with taking in the vista from the roadside. Lough Hyne, a deep saltwater lake, is home to a singular biodiversity of marine life and has a magical twice-daily changing of the tides at Barloge Creek, when the birds fall silent and the seaweed tendrils signal the altered flow.

Back at Liss Ard, we strolled through the coppiced woodland to the Newgrange-like entrance of the Irish Sky Garden, created by artist James Turrell. It's living art, and on entering, you become one with the art and with nature. At its heart, you lie, toe to toe, on a plinth, cradled by a grassy crater, with the sky as your cinema. We left, transformed.

And so, to dinner, and The Church, in Skib. Once home to a Methodist congregation, the now-restaurant was destroyed by arson in 2006, but has risen from the ashes to showcase the finest fare west Cork has to offer. Think Clonakilty pudding with crispy bacon; Donal Finn's hake stuffed with Gubbeen . . . heaven.

Coincidentally, Sophie, our beaming waitress, double-jobs at Gubbeen, and her infectious enthusiasm and pride in the food of her locality mirrored that of all those we met. At a local field day, Sophie's daughter asked of the swine she had backed to win the pig race, "Whose bacon is this?" That's how aware they are of food provenance in west Cork. It gives one hope.

Monday dawned sunny, and after a gorgeous Liss Ard breakfast of scrambled eggs with Union Hall smoked salmon by two, we set out for Bantry, and home, via the famous Field's of Skibbereen, a SuperValu like no other, and justifiably proud of its heritage and family tradition.

Owner John Field, a fiercely intelligent, passionate man, showed us around his superlative supermarket, set, as it always has been, smack-bang in the middle of the country town it serves. John Field knows good food, and it shows. Folk come from far and wide to make a trip to his award-winning store; the produce is that good.

There's albacore tuna from the Woodcock Smokery; Union Hall salmon; Thornhill Farm salad leaves; Union Hall strawbs; Skeaghanore potatoes; Quinlan's crab; locally caught lobster and the cheese - oh my, the cheese! A piece of Coolea alone was worth the journey. Drop in; you'll love it.

Our final foodie pitstop was Organico in beautiful Bantry. Friends had passed through weeks earlier, happened upon family-run Organico and were so taken by the food that there was no way I was leaving Munster without stopping by. A health store and cafe, it's healthy-eating heaven. We feasted on lentil burgers with beetroot and chickpea salad, followed by raw tiffin and polenta cake, all washed down with organic wine. Organico takes health very seriously; 95pc of their ingredients are organic; their bread is made fresh every morning and their water is fluoride free; you can taste the difference in the tea.

There was one more detour as the fuchsia thinned out on the road home. It's in the back-arse of nowhere, but all the more poignant for it: Beal na mBlath; the place the Big Fella was ambushed. We stood in the sunshine of late summer, then headed home, silent; sated.

Getting there

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Finishing on September 18, A Taste of West Cork Food Festival embraces 32 towns and villages and eight islands of west Cork, with over 170 quirky, tasty and fun events being run from Bandon to Beara and all points west, taking in the Wild Atlantic Way. Dubbed as their 'most ambitious festival to date' visiting chefs include Derry Clarke, Catherine Fulvio, Martin Shanahan, Darina Allen, Takashi Miyazaki, Rob Krawczyk and several other talented chefs. With west Cork 'specials' and tasting menus running all over the region, forums on food and its origins and uses, gardening and foraging trips, farm visits and creative exhibitions and workshops, exciting food safaris and activities afloat and ashore, the full programme of events can be viewed on atasteofwestcork.com,  or book directly with venues.

Stay: Four-star Dunmore House Hotel & Golf Club, Clonakilty, see dunmorehousehotel.ie.

Four-star Liss Ard House Hotel & Estate, Skibbereen, see lissardestate.com;

Restaurants & Food: Richy's Bar & Restaurant, Clonakilty, see richysrestaurant.com;

Glebe Gardens & Cafe, Baltimore, see glebegardens.com; The Church Restaurant, Skibbereen, see thechurchrestaurant.ie;

Field's of Skibbereen (SuperValu), see fieldsofskibbereen.ie;

Organico, Bantry, see organico.ie;

Pubs: Jacobs Bar, see waterfrontbaltimore.ie; Bushe's Bar, Baltimore, see bushesbar.com;

Activities: Baltimore Sea Safari, see baltimoreseasafari.ie; Atlantic Sea Kayaking, see atlanticseakayaking.com

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