Archive for June, 2008

Sally Barnes, Fish Smoker, Castletownshend

In the last few weeks fishermen have quite rightly forced their way to the top of the agenda in discussions about how we feed ourselves. With their backs to the wall, they have turned their anger to resolved action and their internal disagreements to a unified campaign. We are hearing a clear and reasonable message and seeing a campaign to win the public over. They appear to making some headway with the EU on a short-term aid package and have also impressed their message on the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, which has acknowledged the need for a “fresh start”. But the big problems won’t go away overnight – what can be done to reduce the cost and usage of oil? How can we manage our fisheries sustainably so that they provide a good living now and into the future? What do we as consumers need to be aware of when buying fish? Are there some fish that we just can’t afford to eat?


I wanted some answers and if I’m honest I wanted someone to hold my hand and tell me it would be alright. I wanted to hear that there was light at the end of the tunnel and some interesting new things to eat. So I decided to chat to Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery in Castletownshend, because I knew these questions affected her, but the first thing Sally asked me was if I could get used to eating jellyfish. Whatever way you look at it there aren’t too many bright lights on the horizon.


Sally has been a fish smoker since she acquired a mini-kiln as part settlement of a bad-debt in 1981. She learned this ancient food preserving craft by trial and error, at the time having easy access to fish from her husband, a commercial fisherman. “I experimented with my own palate and the palates of many of my friends”.  Over the years Sally grew Woodcock Smokery into a business that made a valuable contribution to the local economy, employing 6 people full time at its peak and providing a good outlet for local salmon fishermen. She has won international acclaim as a fish smoker, notably winning the Supreme Champion award across all food categories at the Great Taste Awards in London in 2006. But the salmon fishery is now closed and without local salmon Woodcock Smokery can only provide 2 part time jobs. In the short term Sally is sourcing salmon from sustainable sea fisheries in Scotland but in the medium term she plans to retrain and pursue a career in mediation.


Sally will only work with wild fish, ideally landed locally and is very set against fish farming as it is generally practiced. Apart from salmon, she smokes a wide range of fish including mackerel, herring, tuna and haddock. But Woodcock Smokery is not about scale and cannot compete on price at the lower end of the market. What makes Sally’s smoked fish worthy of its luxury tag is the difference in taste and texture achieved from the time that she and her skilled team spend preparing it. Everything is done by hand, and there are no shortcuts. Wild salmon, in particular, rewards this extra attention and Sally’s customers around the globe recognise that. “I’m very glad I’m small because I can be flexible and work with the freshest fish available. I have customers who value that and will take what I produce. It’s getting harder to get really fresh fish though because most of the boats are now landing only once a week. Most of the time I can’t get fresh haddock, it may have been caught and kept on ice for five days at sea before it’s landed. In fairness the co-op auction officers in Skibbereen and Castletownbere are a big help, I trust their information on what is fresh. My job is to preserve fish but if it’s already 5 days old it needs to eaten right away, not preserved. So, instead of haddock I’m trying pollock which is caught inshore locally. It would great if we had an active fleet of half-deckers, small boats that would land every night. To make sure that they didn’t have to travel too far we’d need protected nursery areas for the fish stocks, maybe 6 mile no fishing zones. We also need flexible chefs and fishmongers who are willing to work with whatever is available and fresh. Most restaurants have a set menu and so if they’re going to have cod or turbot every day they need to the buy frozen imported variety.”


Commenting on the current regime that fishermen have to work within, Sally told me, “the strict enforcement of quotas at present makes no sense. Perfectly good fish that come up in nets are being thrown back dead rather than landed. Then when they do land the fish allowed under their quota, they face competition from imports. I spoke to a fisherman last week who had to sell turbot at €10.50/kg! A ridiculous price, but it’s hard to get buyers interested when they can guarantee a continuous flow of imported farmed turbot at €12/kg.” Woodcock Smokery also needs continuity in supplies, but Sally does this by maintaining a stock of fish that she freezes at a nearby plant in Baltimore. She has a lot of money tied up in stock which for a small business presents cashflow challenges. However, being part of a fishing community, she is very attuned to the needs of her neighbours “Fishermen have to be paid week on week, some processors try to pay for their salmon at the end of the season, but a fishing household needs regular income.” Sally believes that it will be possible in time to restore salmon fisheries in Ireland. To achieve this in West Cork will require the establishment of a few up-river hatchery sites which Sally is currently campaigning for.


At this point the conversation turned once again to jellyfish. “If we continue to just grab fish from only one level in the food chain then we create an imbalance, a vacuum and something else will come in to replace it, something that we don’t have a use for, like jellyfish. We need to balance our consumption over the food chain and eat fish that are lower down. One fish I am looking forward to smoking later in the year are sprats. They are delicious and because they’re so young they’ve no contaminants and so are very good for us.”

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Dianne Curtin

Dianne Curtin

Provided by Dianne Curtin:

Sherkin Island is the pearl in West Cork’s crown of culinary beauty. This nugget of rock has a gastronomy all its own. Atlantic waters off the island are famous for finest oysters, mussels, periwinkles, shrimps, crabs, and an array of fresh fish. Come and join us to celebrate all these and more in an idyllic setting just ten minutes by ferry from the mainland.


Saturday 5th July 2008

A day of workshops dedicated to island life:

This day is packed with gastro-education, tastings, and above all – fun

Venues and times: Various. Call Matt Stephens at Sherkin Island Development Office 028 20802 for details.

Workshops include:

  • Kids in the kitchen! with Dianne Curtin – Cook, Food writer, Author. A Cookery Demonstration specially for kids and their mums – fresh fruit smoothies, real burgers and more – with lots to taste!
  • The Art of Traditional Seed Saving – the secret of growing veggies from your own seeds with Madeline McKeever, Ardagh Organic Farm, Church Cross West Cork
  • Start a Kitchen Garden: A small patch of ground is all that’s needed to produce a glut of homegrown herbs and vegetables with Marian Crudge – Horticultural expert
  • Cookery Demonstration: Utilising garden vegetables for summery salsas and relishes with Karen Austin, Acclaimed Cook of Lettercollum Kitchen Project, Clonakilty
  • How to keep a few hens in the garden – and enjoy your own free range eggs every day. Workshop with Giana Ferguson, Rare Breed Hen expert of Gubbeen Farmhouse
  • Food Integrity: Get to know where your food comes from and how it’s produced, and enjoy a tasting of Caherberg and Roscarberry Recipes award winning pork products with Avril Allshire Howe, Caherbeg Free Range Pork, Rosscarbery
  • Home brewing and Wine making: Taste some delicious home brews made from wild and cultivated Sherkin island fruits with Chris Dobin, Sherkin Island wine and beer maker

Saturday Evening

Go Fish!

A simple supper of the freshest fish, caught in the waters of Sherkin – who could wish for more? Catch of the day, cooked on the barbie by food writer and Slow Food campaigner Dianne Curtin and artisan producer Iain Flynn of McBride and Flynn. Enjoy the feast in the company of a traditional story teller weaving a magical tale of the sea – an evening designed to bring out the big kid in all of us! Music till late.

Venue: Jolly Roger Pub Food served 6.30pm – 8 -30pm


Sunday 6th July

Ireland’s First Ever Off-shore Artisan Food market!

Yes it’s true – it’s never been done before! Stallholders from Sherkin and the mainland come together, to bring an array of artisan specialities to the island. Browse the stalls of hand made farmhouse cheese, fresh Sherkin vegetables and seafood, artisan sweets, chutneys, preserves, and dressings, pastries, hand made breads, speciality west cork charcuterie and Caribbean pickles – we’ve got them all. Guest of Honour, Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cookery School. After all that gourmet retail therapy, you’ll need a good lunch with a Slow Food theme – and we’ve got that too! Tuck into spit roast whole hog, fresh Sherkin oysters and mussels and delicious salads from island vegetables and herbs , and enjoy some trad music while you munch.

Venue: Hotel Garden , Time: 12pm – 5pm Lunch served 1pm – 3pm.

Music for Sunday evening venue to be decided

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Iain Flynn of McBride & Flynn, Kinsale

Iain Flynn of McBride & Flynn, Kinsale

Through all the great years of the Good Food Circle in Kinsale it had always puzzled us at Fuchsia why the area remained a blank on our maps of food producers. The gourmet capital of Ireland heaved with culinary talent and energy but you wouldn’t find the name Kinsale in your fridge or cupboard. Gladly in the last 2 years this anomaly has really begun to rectify itself and the key catalyst has been the Tuesday farmers market. This week I met with Iain Flynn of McBride and Flynn, an enterprise that draws together the strengths of the town, pairing the culinary flair of chef Paul McBride with Iain’s skills, appetite for work and determination to succeed.




The business started with jams and chutneys, which the pair produced on their days off from Acton’s Hotel where Paul had taken Iain on an as an apprentice. Their plan was to sell from the hotel and a few local shops but then the farmers market opened in 2006 – “We said we’d come down and try it out for a laugh. And we were there on the first day and doing fine with our preserves, but we looked at each other and said we’re both chefs, we’re good at cooking for people let’s do more and use our skills.” So to their stall they added pates, dressings, quiches and meals, like beef stroganoff, chicken a la king, pepper beef and Thai curry. The range changes over time in response to feedback and requests from their customers. “I love the feedback at the market; once you build up a relationship with people they are comfortable being really honest. It’s also great to see people sitting down to enjoy our food, which they can do at the Kinsale and Blackrock markets. When you sell to shops the only feedback you get is how many are on the shelf at the end of the week.”


The markets have also been important for Iain in sourcing produce. “We try our utmost to use local produce. I buy most of our vegetables from guys at the markets, they know what’s good and I know where it has come from. It also puts a bit of pressure on me because I want to get the best out of their ingredients and do justice to the work they’ve put into growing them. As chefs we’re part of a chain not the sole creators. We buy our beef from O’Connells at the Lough, they really look after their meat, no shortcuts like electronic tenderizing. It’s hung for 21 days and you can taste and see the difference, when you cook it, it doesn’t shrink to half its size.”


Iain is now working full time in the business and Paul McBride comes in on his days off. Iain’s passion for culinary learning and discovery is something he says has rubbed off from Paul, who describes his own involvement at the markets as more enjoyable golf. For Paul to have retained the enthusiasm of the hobbyist after decades in commercial kitchens shows a true calling. With this ethos their business will never be about making a quick buck, a motivation that Iain feels has let down most of the local restaurant scene. Iain also has an intuitive understanding of real food from his home life and is not impressed by showiness. “My mother and sister are great cooks and love cooking at home.” In fact, Iain has persuaded his mother to supply their stall with her brown bread, wonderfully enriched with treacle, eggs and oatmeal.


Working alone in food preparation can be a lonely business, starting at 6am and sticking to a demanding schedule. So Iain is looking forward to his chance to do some live cooking at the Eat Sherkin festival on the first weekend in July.


“It will be fun, as a chef I haven’t cooked live in a while and I know I’ll get a buzz working beside Diane Curtin, she’s such a bundle of energy. We’ll be cooking mackerel landed in the morning and serving them with salad leaves picked around the island, then someone else is bringing their strawberries which we’ll make into a strawberry fool”. The whole event sounds fantastic, there’s no where quite like Sherkin to generate a festive atmosphere. You can read below what Diane Curtin has sent me about the festival weekend and in the meantime take the opportunity to visit Kinsale farmers market which is a bright light in the project to reinvent Ireland’s gourmet capital.

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Robert McCutcheon, my father, with my daughter Asha

Robert McCutcheon, my father, with my daughter Asha

Every summer in my youth during our annual holidays in Dunmore East my father’s extended family would make a pilgrimage to Rocketts of the Metal Man in Tramore. Seated on long benches we would feed on bacon ribs, crubeens and the flouriest spuds on earth. An important part of the ritual was that at some point during the meal one of the party would stand up and recite The Lake Isle of Innisfree by Yeats – it was hung on the wall. It’s merit as a drinking game aside the poem itself struck a chord, an affirmation of the simple summer values of living outdoors and unadorned food. The lines that stuck with me were:

Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow

Whilst we occasionally had beans in our garden at home we never had bee hives. I think it was always somewhere in my father’s vision of his retirement that bee-hives and peace would be part of it. As luck would have it the bees came looking for him before he retired. The first year they took up home in his compost bin and I contacted a local beekeeper to take them away but the second year he took to them. By the time he retired 2 years later he had gathered 5 hives and was hooked. After 6 years of beekeeping he has over 30 hives, sells his honey in the Urru shops, Bolands in Kinsale and Hosfords and regularly helps novices by selling starter colonies. He’s secretary of the County Cork Beekeepers Federation which is based around the city and is one of eight local federations that are part of the Federation of Irish Beekeepers. I had just been examining a report issued in May entitled Benefits and Costs of Biodiversity in Ireland that estimated the value to the economy of bees at €220 million a year and wanted to talk to my father about the state of beekeeping on the ground.

At present there are about 2,500 beekeepers in the Republic of Ireland managing over 22,000 colonies of bees, and another 500 or so in the North. With an average of less than 10 hives each, it is very rare that local honey gets beyond the local market, generally being sold in small shops and markets. In contrast to elsewhere in Europe and the US, almost all Irish beekeepers begin as hobbyists. This results in a particular mindset that is less bent on exploiting nature and more about quality than quantity. Social contact with other beekeepers through local federation meetings and honey shows creates a tight community and so helps with the spread of best practice in honey production and disease control.

This year it’s been a slow start to the summer – cold, windy and lacking in any spell of sustained heat. The weather pattern has been particularly frustrating for beekeepers. Despite the spurt of growth in May with here and there profusions of blossom, the temperatures have remained below 18°C. Most flowers don’t produce nectar in any significant quantity without heat, blackthorn and sycamore were particularly disappointing though the dandelions were good. One notable exception to this temperature dependence is a relative newcomer whose impact is very strongly felt – oil seed rape. This is a mixed blessing, as my dad describes it. Oil seed rape comes early in the year and provides nectar in huge quantities with very high sucrose levels – 55% as compared with 15-20% in most wild flowers. This is great to help colonies build up quickly after the winter but can mean that other sources get neglected. Once bees find a good supply of nectar they return, working non-stop until it is exhausted. It also makes them a bit ratty and hard to work with, they are buzzed up like kids on Fanta and working overtime. The honey produced from oil seed rape is prone to crystallisation and lacks the depth of flavour of other honeys. My dad usually mixes it with intensely flavoured ivy honey and encourages the crystallisation so that he gets a smooth creamed honey. Another nectar producing blossom that appears less vulnerable to the cold is fuchsia, which produces good flavoursome honey and is an important source for beekeepers along the coast of West Cork, where it is most abundant. Fuchsia also has the advantage of a long season with multiple flowerings in the year.

The relationship between beekeepers and farmers can be very important. Many commercial crops depend on or are improved by bee pollination. In return beekeepers generally need access to little pockets of unused land for their apiaries. The ideal site is sheltered with a southerly aspect and has a high ditch in the flight line to lift the bees away from humans. Most importantly beekeepers need farmers to recognise the value of biodiversity – in order to thrive, bees require a multiple of wild sources through the year, not just the commercial crop that the farmer is growing. Whitethorn and bramble are particularly valuable but are also severely affected by hedge cutting. And how grassland is managed has a big impact on clover. Clover has a tremendous value to the farmer for fixing nitrogen and wild white clover (not the New Zealand variety) produces delicious light honey, but it is damaged if the grass is cut for silage just as the clover comes in to flower.

The beekeeping associations are very keen to encourage new beekeepers. If you are interested in getting started you will find a community of enthusiastic people willing to share their time and experience. Learning the practice requires time spent observing a beekeeper at work and there is also an annual training course that runs in September/October with outdoor demonstrations in April and May. Check out the websites below for more information if you are interested. Otherwise look out for local honey and keep some clover and even a few dandelions on your lawn to help keep these wonderful little workers buzzing.

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