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
By Regina Sexton
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
The area’s food renaissance began when a young Dublin couple,
Veronica and Norman Steele, migrated to the area in the 1970’s
and began to experiment with cheese-making on their small farm. After
trying various approaches, they focused on a semi-soft, washed-rind raw
cow’s milk cheese called “Milleens," (named after the
townland where they lived).
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
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.
Dining out Area restaurants make the best of what’s available, with simple
but wonderful dishes (see restaurant list attached). In autumn,
there’s nothing tastier than mackerel taken straight from the
sea, simply chargrilled or fried in a little butter and taken with
fresh soda bread. Equally delicious is an impromptu meal of thickly
sliced black pudding, (normally served at breakfast) along with sweet
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 The Customs House, Baltimore 011 353 28 20200
A classic. Fish, including cod, brill and turbot, dominates the menu.
011 353 28 37292
Contemporary cooking with fine local produce, in a picturesque town.
Island Cottage, Heir Island, Skibbereen
011 353 28 38102
Tiny restaurant on a little island. Access by boat.
Casino House, Kilbrittain
011 353 23 49944
Sophisticated dining in a stylish setting.
Fishy Fishy, Kinsale
011 353 47 74453
A new restaurant with a great reputation for fish dishes. Prepared meals are also sold in the attached shop.
Blair’s Cove House, Durrus
011 353 27 61041
A grand high-beamed dining room with an open chargrill where great
steaks are prepared. Great shellfish, roast game and excellent
Artisan Food Producers in West Cork
Woodcock Smokery, Castletownsend
011 353 283 6232
In my opinion, the home of Ireland’s best smoked salmon. Proprietor Sally Barnes is famous.
Clonakilty Black Pudding, Pearse Street, Clonakilty
011 353 233 3733
Made to a late 19th century recipe, this flavorsome, dense pudding includes pinhead oatmeal.
Durrus Farmhouse Cheese, Durrus
011 353 276 1100
A sweet, complex semi-soft cheese that offers the best flavors of the diverse West Cork flora.
Milleens Farmhouse Cheese, Eyeries
011 353 277 4079
The first Irish farmhouse cheese. Eyeries is a lovely little town on the Beara Peninsula.
Caherbeg Pork, Rosscarbery
011 353 234 8474
Avril and Willie Allshire produce excellent free range pork. Pigs are
reared over 30 weeks, fed on barley and greens, and are
Gubbeen Cheese and Bacon, Schull
011 353 282 8231
Subtle and complex cow’s milk cheeses. The proprietor’s son produces excellent free-range bacon.
West Cork Natural Cheese, Schull
011 353 282 8593
Hard piquant cheeses made with summertime mile only. They’re excellent for cooking.
Staunton’s (pork butcher), Timoleague
011 353 234 6128
A wonderful selection of brown, black and white puddings. A great meal at any time of day!