West Cork's New Delights for Food TouristsSearch Ireland Fun Facts:
West Cork food producers have started a whole new industry, bringing new culinary treats to southwest Ireland and helping to preserve the area's rural feeling
Let’s face it, until quite recently, a lot of Irish food was quite dismal and bland, overcooked and made with less-than-top-quality ingredients. It was in this bleak food landscape that I grew up.
But in the 1970s, something extraordinary took place. In my home area of West Cork, a new industry of small, high quality food producers began to spring up. Since then, West Cork has evolved into one of the best parts of Ireland for fresh, top-quality foods in home kitchens and restaurants. If you’re traveling through southwest Ireland this year, you’ll find lots of small specialty food producers to visit, great farm markets to shop and a variety of good but reasonably-priced restaurants in West Cork.
A flavorsome start
Before Milleens arrived, Irish consumers were largely restricted to factory-made cheddar and processed spreads. Health farms, organic food and the like were almost unheard of here. But demand for Milleens grew so fast that by the mid 1980’s, West Cork was seeing an explosion of new producers -- not just for farmhouse cheese, but all sorts of other foods as well. Today, the area has Ireland’s greatest concentration of “artisan food producers,” including pudding makers, fine bacon producers, butter makers, organic meat producers and even chocolate makers. West Cork is also home to Ireland’s most celebrated producer of smoked wild salmon, Sally Barnes.
West Cork, less than an hour’s drive from Cork City, includes the picturesque towns of Macroom, Bandon and Clonakilty and the coastal towns of Kinsale, Bantry, Schull, Castletownbere and Castletownsends. It’s a world apart, where hedgerows are overcrowded with wild flowers from late spring all the way through autumn. Even in winter, There’s an unexpected warmth in the air here, due to mild south-westerly winds warmed by the Gulf Stream. This unusual “microclimate” allows for almost year-round agricultural activity. Even before the newer specialty food producers rose up, there was an extraordinary bounty of migratory fish like salmon and eels in the inland waterways, great shellfish from the ocean, and find sheep, lambs and cows raised on a complex mix of grasses in local fields.
One of the most unique restaurants in the area is Island Cottage on tiny Heir Island. Diners cross by boat from Cunnamore Pier to this intimate spot (Phone: 011 353 28 38102, advance booking required). If you prefer less formal dining, local markets are the best places to stock up for outdoor picnics. Locals quickly snap up what’;s best on a particular day, so it pays to arrive early. You’ll be invited to taste everything before you purchase. Bring a large bag to hold your choices from a selection of organic meat and eggs, olives, pates and terrines, smoked salmon, mackerel and trout, olives, yogurts, clotted cream and home-baked breads.
Today, a whole new wave of small specialty food producers are coming into their own, offering everything from pork, ham and bacon to non-traditional contemporary products like clotted creams and salamis. But the vibrant food culture of West Cork is doing more than producing fine ingredients for cooks. By making more farms viable, it’s helping to preserve the region’s distinctive, rural identity.
Regina Sexton is a food historian and food writer living in County Clare.
West Cork’s Recommended Restaurants
Island Cottage, Heir Island, Skibbereen
Casino House, Kilbrittain
Fishy Fishy, Kinsale
Blair’s Cove House, Durrus
Artisan Food Producers in West Cork
Woodcock Smokery, Castletownsend
Clonakilty Black Pudding, Pearse Street, Clonakilty
Durrus Farmhouse Cheese, Durrus
Milleens Farmhouse Cheese, Eyeries
Caherbeg Pork, Rosscarbery
Gubbeen Cheese and Bacon, Schull
West Cork Natural Cheese, Schull
Staunton’s (pork butcher), Timoleague