Meet The Makers In West Cork
Ireland’s artisan food production has gone from strength to strength in recent years. But today we celebrate the region that started it all off. West Cork is home to the original producers of speciality foods which earned Ireland its culinary reputation. A clutch of award winning producers and cooks forged a path for others to follow, in the diverse landscape and rugged beauty of West Cork. All will be featuring in the A Taste of West Cork food festival running from 8th to 17th September.
Milleens, long credited as Ireland’s first farmhouse cheese, came from a farmhouse on a hillside close to the remote village of Eyeries on the Beara Peninsula in the 1970’s. Produced by Veronica Steele from the milk of her husband Norman’s cows, Milleens became a legend in its maker’s lifetime. Sadly, Veronica passed away at the start of this year, but she leaves behind a legacy that will never be forgotten.
To eat a piece of this cheese at its absolute best - runny, ripe and fragrant with beckoning aromas, is to sit in the company of the great lady herself. As the earthy tones burst through in the mouth and the tingle of intense flavours tantalise the tastebuds, you can almost hear Veronica’s voice, sense her wicked comic humour and revel in her generous nature, all captured forever in her magnificent cheese. Quinlan Steele now carries on the work at Milleens, maintaining the award-winning status of his mother’s famous cheese and taking the Milleens range to a new set of customers.
Durrus is another of the original cheeses of West Cork, also first made in the late 70’s by Jeffa Gill. Jeffa first used the milk from her own small herd of cows which grazed at her home on the Sheep’s Head Peninsula to make this powerful farmhouse cheese. The flavour and texture of Durrus marries the creaminess of rich local milk with the nuances of the wild grasses and herbs in the grazing on this beautiful peninsula.
Scooping major awards here and abroad, the name of the little village of Durrus has gone far and wide via this beautiful and unique cheese. Curds are still cut by hand with a Swiss ‘Cheese Harp’, giving Durrus its familiar irregular little holes, punctating the smooth semi soft texture of the pate. Still made by hand by Jeffa and her daughter in the same dairy it has always been made. Nothing much changes here - and that’s a very good thing.
On the Mizen Peninsula, Ballydehob village is a bright little hub for locals and visitors. Known for great music in its traditional pubs and the laid back lifestyle you expect in West Cork. Just outside the village, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, Eugene and Helena Hickey have been farming their barn reared ducks since the 1990’s. Skeaghanore Duck first made its name with local chefs, but has gone on to attract the big hitters in cooking all over Ireland.
Something about the Hickey’s down to earth approach to creating a superlative product represents the resilient, can-do attitude these local farmers adopted, in order to provide a life for themselves and their family. Eugene is the second generation farmer to live in this house, on this land. His forward thinking has created a thriving business. At Christmas, the farm also produces magnificent free range geese for the seasonal market.
You’ll see the birds dotting the hillsides like cotton wool balls, if you travel down west in the autumn months. Eugene is aided generously by his wife Helena, whose keen marketing savvy and passionate enthusiasm for her product isn’t something she learned from a book. The Hickey children also played their part as youngsters, bringing the geese in and out of the fields in the run up to the festive season. Now one of the grown up Hickey daughters is taking the farm to the next level, with new duck products being conceived and created.
There was a time when Valerie Kingston packed a cool box and took her homemade cheesecakes to the original Clonakilty Farmer’s Market to test them out on the locals. She found a platform and great support for her wares, created at home on the kitchen table from the milk of her husband Alan’s dairy herd. Glenilen Farmhouse in Drimoleague was first a small family business, now grown in strength and stature.
Today the farm supplies its range not just to local shops, but top restaurants, supermarkets and food shops all over Ireland, with a host of dairy produce still made on site at the Kingston family home. Things have changed since Valerie began, with a state of the art production dairy and viewing gallery now in place, and milk from neighbouring farms also now sourced to supplement the milk from the Kingston dairy herd. But nothing of the original ethos has been lost. Farm tours are still available and Alan is on hand to guide visitors through the farm and dairy.
Glenilen employs local staff and takes part in many local and national food events and initiatives, always working to promote West Cork. Glenilen’s latest participation is in providing the Training Academy fake milking cow to the Milking It event in Bandon Farmer’s Market on Saturday September 16th, to showcase the quality of West Cork dairy as part of the Taste of West Cork food festival programme. Alan and Valerie Kingston have navigated the choppy waters of transition from small family business to substantial dairy production, without losing their original sense of why they wanted to create artisan produce in the first place. Quite some achievement.
Siobhan O’Callaghan’s baking is legendary. The word on her cakes, buns, pies and tarts spreads thick and fast in the West Cork region. Not only does she serve these scrumptious offerings in her two Kalbo's cafes in Skibbereen, but she also makes them to order for special occasions. Alongside an array of outside catering dishes to suit any party. Siobhan’s husband Anthony is the farmer of the family, growing chemical free salads and seasonal vegetables available in Skibbereen farmer’s market on Saturdays and also in local shops. Occasionally he also farms his own free range pork.
All these goodies are used on the menu in Kalbos and in dishes for the outside catering menu. Kalbos is a huge supporter of the Taste of West Cork Festival, hosting the launch evening and taking part in this year’s programme in a collaborative cookery evening with foodwriter and Chef Joe MacNamee of the Irish Examiner. One of West Cork’s stalwart food businesses, Kalbos has constantly provided a supportive platform for the local produce and cheeses of the West Cork region. And there’s the cakes – great cakes!
DIVA BOUTIQUE BAKERY, CAFE & DELI
Ballinspittle in West Cork is home to the moving statue of Our Lady and Shannen Butler-Keane of Diva Boutique Bakery & Café and Deli. Two legendary women in one great place! This tiny village in West Cork throbs with life in the summer months and hums along quietly in winter. For most of the year Diva Boutique Bakery,Cafe and Deli provides a hearty stock of homemade foods and deli items to keep the locals and visitors going. Across the road, Diva Café serves a selection of all day refreshments and light lunches in a vibrant buzzy atmosphere in the summer and early autumn season. Diva is one of the great bakeries of this area.
Shannen’s wholesome and hearty approach to good food creates wonderful loaves voluminous with life, divine pastries, extravagant cakes, full flavoured pates, soups and dressings and many other delicious things. Celebration cakes are made to order. Great coffee to go here too, always very welcome for anyone passing through in the colder months.
UMMERA SMOKED PRODUCTS
The West Cork food scene would be nothing without Anthony Creswell of Ummera Smoked Products. He’s been at the forefront of proceedings since West Cork first got its name as a superb region of food production. Helped, in no small way by the excellent quality of the smoked salmon, Anthony originally smoked with his father, before taking on the business himself. Ummera has moved with the times, creating a sustainable business by abandoning the use of wild salmon from Irish stocks which were in decline, in favour of using best quality organic farmed salmon from the West coast. Alongside the king of fish, Anthony also smokes local chickens from Clonakilty, cures and smokes his own bacon and raises his own free range pigs for bacon from time to time.
The smokehouse has been an early adopter of environmentally friendly practices, using reed beds for filtration of grey water and a wormery for composting. Ahead of his time, is Anthony Creswell!
SEYMOUR’S FINE FOODS
Bandon in West Cork is home to Seymour’s Fine Foods. Philip and John O’Connor use local butter from Bandon town, which has a rich history in dairy production and butter making, combined with West cork eggs, buttermilk and oatmeal to make a superb range of elegant biscuits. Seymour’s Shortbread is a wonderfully rich all butter shortbread which leaves nothing to chance in the taste or texture department. This stuff melts in your mouth.
It’s addictive. A range of other cookies made by Seymours are just as delicious. To have just one is always too few. Seymour’s represents West Cork fully in the quality of its ingredients, all made into sweet treats to die for.
TOONS BRIDGE DAIRY
In the hamlet of Toons Bridge just outside Macroom in rural West Cork, great things are achieved in the culinary world. The country dairy in this village, owned by Toby Simmonds and Jenny Rose Clarke, produces world class Italian style cheeses from local cow’s milk. Expert cheesemaker Franco Picciuolo from Capua in Southern Italy is at the helm at Toons Bridge Dairy, the fifth generation of his family to become a Head Cheesemaker. Among the range of cheeses he makes is Fior di Latte – a cow's milk mozzarella made with raw milk cultured with whey starter, fully acidified and then stretched by hand in a traditional mastello. Slightly drier and firmer than the buffalo version, with less acidity. Fior di latte means flower of the milk, a cheese incomparable to the tasteless direct acidification version sold in supermarkets.
Kerry Cow's milk is also used for Caciocavallo and Scarmorza cheeses. Scamorza is straw smoked to give a subtle savoury taste and the fragrance of an Irish meadow. The culinary combination of Irish milk with Italian cheese styles is producing winning results at Toons Bridge. You can also enjoy the cheeses and home baking at Toons Bridge Dairy Café next door, where Jenny Rose and her team serve a lovely all day menu plus great stonebaked pizzas laden with homemade Fior di Latte.