The sky is blue and in the distance the sea sparkles in the autumn sunshine as we travel the lanes of west Cork searching for the elusive smokery we are due to visit. We are lost.
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It is almost symbolic of the emphasis on local food in this area that a short while later we are looking at local dry-cured, oak-smoked rashers with Anthony Creswell of Ummera Smoked Products in the village of Timoleague.
Creswell, whose father founded the business 30 years ago, also smokes chicken crowns and silver eels but the bulk of his business is salmon. He now uses organically farmed fish to reduce pressure on wild stocks. Committed to the environment, he shows us his wetland system and amazing vermicomposting units in which, with no trace of smell, millions of worms put paid to all the fish waste.
Clonakilty black pudding, an essential ingredient of a full Irish breakfast, was created in the village of the same name to a secret recipe in 1890.
Colette Twomey, whose late husband Edward owned the recipe, explains that, yes, black pudding is made with blood but also contains beef, oatmeal and secret spices. White pudding, Edward’s own creation, is the pork variant. Now 12 tonnes of black pudding and eight of white are produced each week – quite a change from past centuries when countrywomen would come into town to sell an individual pudding.
Throughout Cork we encounter passionate people producing first-rate local food: bakeries with rows of floury rolls and soda bread, farmhouse cheeses of every shape and flavour, morning-caught fish and jewel-like displays of ripe fruit and fresh vegetables.
However, it is towards Kinsale, which claims to be the food capital of Ireland, that we head, hoping to taste some of this bounty. On arrival, in happy anticipation, we set off to explore. Little streets of colourful houses tempt us to climb upwards to where views extend over the harbour, now full of yachts (despite the recession) and pleasure boats – although we are glad to see one big grain ship, proof that the area is still living a real life as well as entertaining tourists.
Later we take a harbour cruise aboard the Spirit of Kinsale, passing Charles Fort and James Fort, the two historic sentinels of the harbour.
Local guide Dermot Ryan tells us how, in 1601, this harbour was the site of a naval battle which changed Irish history. An armada of 26 Spanish ships entered the harbour and landed 3500 men to fight the British. Irish chieftains were supposed to come to their aid but were delayed, and eventually the Spanish were besieged and surrendered. Their troops were given safe passage back to Spain, but the Irish chieftains, O’Neill and O’Donnell, fled to the continent – and this, The Flight of the Earls – signalled the end of Old Gaelic Ireland.
We catch up with these earls again in another of Kinsale’s historic buildings, Desmond Castle, a tower house dating from the end of the 15th century.
This, in fact, served as a gunpowder store for the Spanish during the battle but later became a prison and workhouse. Now it is also a wine museum which highlights a surprising connection initiated by those fleeing earls between the Irish and the wine regions of France.
We enjoy the visual pleasures of pretty Georgian townhouses on Compass Hill and old almshouses on the Mall, admire the elegant Assembly Rooms, now the municipal offices, and their bowling green, and are intrigued by Mermaid Cottage with its surreal dolls’ houses in the windows and a sign “And They Lived Happily Ever After” on the door – but we are getting hungry.
Kinsale contains no fewer than 80 eating places, the undoubted stars of which are the 11 members of the Good Food Circle, which also runs the annual Kinsale Gourmet Food Festival (October 8-11 this year).
Hal McElroy, managing director of the Trident Hotel and organiser of the event, says: “It’s not just about great cuisine, it’s also about fun.” Packed into this year’s weekend programme are receptions at which chefs will serve canapés to reflect their individual styles, a trail in which ‘Alice’ and her Wonderland colleagues will lead costumed revellers on tours of the restaurants, and a Fruit De Mer day at which great platters of lobster, prawns and other seafood will be served.
In Kinsale we eat magnificently: local Oyster Haven oysters and warm salad of chilli seafood in Fishy Fishy, brochette of marinated tiger prawns and oven-baked sea bass at Blu, creamy, delicious chowder at The White Lady, crab claws in garlic butter at Jim Edwards, and superb prime fillet of Irish beef at The Trident Hotel’s Pier One.
However, the place where we find the very best aspects of Irish food under one roof is Ballymaloe House in East Cork. This comfortable, elegant guest house set amid 400 acres of farmland is blissfully tranquil. Rooms redolent with the scent of flowers are furnished with comfortable elegance. It was founded 45 years ago by Myrtle Allen, who almost single-handedly put Irish cuisine on the map and whose family now writes cookery books, hosts TV cooking shows and runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School.
At the very heart of the guesthouse is its restaurant, where you can experience Myrtle’s food philosophy (local, seasonal, organic, flavoursome, sustainable and superbly cooked) in action.
Our five-course dinner began with a rosé sorbet flavoured with sweet geranium leaves (from the garden), followed by hot buttered Ballycotton lobster (from four miles down the road), then traditional roast duck (from Middleton farm nearby) with chive buttered potatoes (from Willie Scannell in Ballycotton), carrots and salad leaves (from the garden). We then tasted a selection of Irish farmhouse cheeses including Ardsallagh goat’s cheese (from Jane Murphy up the road), and finally a dessert of meringue (eggs from Ballymaloe Cookery School) and fruit (from the garden.)
East Cork on a plate – and one of the best meals we’ve ever eaten.
Patricia Cleveland-Peck travelled courtesy of Discover Ireland. For information, visit www.discoverireland.com/gb or call free on 0800 039 7000.
For more on Kinsale Gourmet Food Festival, go to www.kinsalerestaurants.com. For more on Ballymaloe House, Shanagarry, Co Cork, visit www. ballymaloehouse.ie