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Jacinta French and Paul McCormick of Woodkearne Nurseries

Jacinta French and Paul McCormick of Woodkearne Nurseries

I realise that by the time you read this Halloween will be over and you’ll be mentally preparing yourself for Christmas, but indulge my reflections on the gradual erosion of another piece of our food culture. Now I don’t feel old enough yet to say “in my youth”, but you know what I mean, when trick or treating we’d expect a haul for our bonfire feast that was roughly divided like this – a tenth money for sweets; a tenth Penguin Bars or Wagon Wheels; a tenth assorted other bars and sweets, and about three quarters and apples and nuts. Before heading out into the darkness with our friends we’d have enjoyed a family evening of humourous apple games and, never owning a nutcracker, tried a multitude of unsatisfactory nut opening techniques. These days, cash is expected and handfuls of minitreats are offered as a sweetener to encourage a song or rhyme before departure (Note: success in this cultural request is usually instantly regretted). But have you seen the look you get if you proffer an apple nowadays? Blank disbelief. I’m a bit saddened at this loss and it’s not just nostalgia. In my experience, Cadbury’s Minitreats taste exactly the same every day of the year, but apples certainly don’t – there is absolutely nothing like biting into a sharp, tangy Irish apple to remind me that though the natural world is fading to winter, it has taken care to store away its sweetness and strength.

 

This week I visited Paul McCormick and Jacinta French at Woodkerne Nurseries near Skibbereen who are trying to rekindle our interest in growing apples and nuts. The couple rear organic cattle and grow fruit and nut trees on the organic farm they share with Paul’s brother’s family and his parents. The cattle they rear are Angus and Angus Kerry cross, but they will soon be introducing Droimeann, which are a rare Irish breed. When I ask Paul about his interest in the project to restore this breed, his answer sums up a lot of what the couple are about – “We have a small farm and are never going to have a big herd, if we are going to make a difference, then we need do something different.” Paul and Jacinta both have a long standing interest in the environment, particularly trees. Jacinta worked as a volunteer in the Rainforest Movement in Canada before moving back to Ireland and has been involved with the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation in West Cork. Paul worked as a mechanic before moving to Ireland but has always been planting trees – “From the early days of the environmental movement in the 1980s, planting trees was the thing to do to save the planet. But at the same time, farmers were clearing them because they didn’t produce food. I thought maybe they do. We’re very interested in this idea of the forest garden. Fruit and nuts contain proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and sugars – in fact, most of the necessary components of a balanced diet. Together with meat and fish, fruit and nuts form the basis of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet to which our bodies have evolved. A lot of people think that we may be less well adapted to the grain/flour based diet than we assume – it’s a diet that stems from a 10,000 year experiment with grain agriculture.”

Paul and Jacinta take me out to walk their farm which they describe as a long term, small scale research project in which they are trialling dozens of varieties of fruit and nut trees. Near their home, they have set an orchard, which in years to come will provide apples, pears and plums at arms reach, as well as being a valuable wind break. We cross a ditch that has had its boundaries widened to accommodate the interspersed planting of hazels, cobnuts, apple trees and large fruiting hawthorn. Paul reckons that the loss of grass on the margins is made up for in improved grass quality owing to the shelter provided. In the next field a large corner has been planted with Heartnuts or Japanese Walnut. Of the four species of walnut suited to the Irish climate, these seem to be the most commercially attractive, and have been proven to thrive on Fota Island in Cork. We stroll down a laneway on which the ditches have also been put to use and stop at an area of hazel coppicing. “Hazel used to be a valuable crop. It was coppiced for sticks. Every time the stems were cut back to a few inches they would burst up in a multitude of shoots the next year. These were cut for use in building and furniture making. Alison Ospina in Skibbereen buys some from us to make her green wood chairs but no-one else uses them now. In other countries they have maintained their woodland traditions, like coppicing, but in Ireland that was lost after the Tudor plantations when the forests were cleared. Between 1600 and 1700, forest cover went from 25% down to 1%. That’s why we picked the name Woodkerne for our project – at that time it referred to people of the older culture who hid out as rebels in the woods.”

Further down the lane, we reach the old railway line and the trees take over. The old line, now naturally regenerated with ash trees leads to a pocket of natural woodland which Paul and Jacinta have interspersed with Sweet Chestnut trees, mainly French in origin. They have also grown some from seed collected from local trees and hybrids grown in north western USA. The undergrowth is dense and I wonder how one could harvest nuts among the briars, but Paul explains that as the trees spread the undergrowth will disappear. “We have grown cuttings from a huge walnut tree in Ballydehob. There is almost no growth under it, about two inches of grass and that’s all. You can literally sweep up nuts by the bucket load every year.”

A lot of the trees at Woodkearne Nurseries are grown from cuttings grafted on to roots from smaller, hardier specimens like crab apple trees. The method Paul and Jacinta use to compensate for poor soils is to grow trees on their own roots by planting the tree deeper than usual so that the graft is buried thus allowing scion roots to form. This contrasts to the general practice and gardening advice of leaving the graft above the soil. This method can produce trees that are larger than usual but given poor soils and sometimes difficult growing conditions extra tree vigour is not usually a problem. Eager to improve tree breeding, Jacinta and Paul are very keen to hear from anyone that has well cropping nut trees or native fruit tree varieties from which cuttings could be taken. If you are interested in growing fruit and nut trees in your own garden, you can buy bare root trees directly from Paul and Jacinta at Skibbereen and Bantry farmers markets from December to April or arrange to visit them at Woodkearne Nurseries near Skibbereen. Their full catalogue is available online at woodkerne.net

As Paul and I walk back to the car, we return to the environmental imperative for their project. “With oil running out rapidly it seems clear that we’re all going to have to start producing more of our own food. What I’d really love to see is all of our parks being planted with fruit and nut trees. They have that in some countries and people can just go in and take what they want.” Now, if they could just host the bonfires in those parks too wouldn’t they be ideal for Halloween parties!

 

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Let the Sunshine In

The food festival in Skibbereen was great as usual and as usual was blessed with unseasonally fine weather. I took lots of pics at the fair on Sunday but there were many more fine sights to be savoured like the fabulous creations of local students in the schools cookery competition or the spread of cakes at the afternoon tea session at Stories from the Soil, Stories from the Sea. Indeed the breakfast and lunch sessions of that event were at least as sumptuous, and at all three there was a great reaction to the speakers – Elke at Dine & Wine Club Cork has more.

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If you’ve enjoyed any of the posts from this blog, then I can wholeheartedly recommend the Stories from the Soil, Stories from the Sea eating sessions on Friday 19th September in Skibbereen. The event is being organised by ourselves at West Cork LEADER Co-op and is part of the Taste of West Cork Food Festival. We’ll be sitting down to on three occasions during the day to dine on local seasonal food and listen to the personal stories of 2 local producers at each sitting. Diane Curtin will be on hand to guide diners and introduce the speakers. Diane is a journalist and chef and is deeply involved with food in West Cork, particularly through Slow Food. She recently published her own book The  Creators, which combines the life stories of farmers and food producers in West Cork with enjoyable recipes. The breakfast session focuses on fish and we will hear from Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery and Frank Fleming, a fisherman from Crosshaven. Sally is one of Ireland’s most highly acclaimed artisan producers and has been smoking fish in Castletownshend since 1981. She has an unswerving commitment to producing the very highest quality food. Like everyone else involved in seafood though, her business has had to cope with turmoil and uncertainty. Frank Fleming has been fishing with his brother Martin for 24 years. They concentrate largely on catching prawns. Frank has strong views about the future of fishing and is committed to finding positive solutions to many of the industry’s current dilemmas. Lunch will have a bovine theme with talks from Paul Johnson of the Traditional Meat Company and Bill Hogan of West Cork Natural Cheese. Paul rears Dexter cattle on his farm near Dunmanway. Dexters are a rare breed of cattle native to this part of Ireland and as such are uniquely well adapted to live in harmony with our environment. Bill Hogan is one of our foremost cheesemakers, he and Sean Ferry produce Gabriel and Desmond Cheese. Bill is a real champion for the small producer and the importance of food for rural areas. The final session of the day will be afternoon tea, a chance to enjoy some very fine baking and patisserie with Jean Domican from Buns ‘n Stuff in Macroom. Jean will be joined by food historian Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil, who besides writing the fascinating history of Cork’s English Market, also spins a great tale.

Places for each session are limited so I would advise booking early by calling West Cork LEADER Co-op at 023-34035, tickets cost €15 per person.

The Stories sessions will be followed at 5pm by the launch of a new food map of West Cork by West Cork LEADER Co-op. The map presents the area as a photo montage of food and is bursting with colourful images of cheeses, fish, fruits, cattle and fowl. The map will be used by local retailers promoting food from West Cork and will also be available to local schools as an educational resource. As part of the launch I have been asked to present some of the stories from my Food Culture column. This is a free event, so come along if you’d like to hear more about the people I’ve met in researching this column and the part they play in creating such a thriving food culture in West Cork.

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My journey to work this morning was considerably enriched by Sinead O’Connor’s beautifully direct and unadorned rendition of Dear Old Skibbereen. I had been trying to gather my thoughts on the town’s upcoming A Taste of West Cork festival and the hopelessness of the famine time as captured in the song really struck home how appropriate it is that now each year the people of Skibbereen put their hearts and hands into celebrating their food. The famine will never be forgotten but I feel that from a culinary point of view West Cork can now rightly be claimed “a pleasant place wherein a prince might dwell”, as the reminiscing father in the song recalls.

The Skibbereen festival is one of a number happening around the country at this harvest time, Mallow Food Festival which took place last week being the newest on the calendar. When they maintain a core value of celebrating food, festivals can be a great contributor to building a positive food culture. And goodness knows this is needed – the latest issue to emerge in a UK report out today, has warned that school children are becoming addicted to and over consuming caffeine in energy drinks. School teachers are reporting dramatic effects on their concentration and behaviour. When we have celebrity endorsements for energy drinks from Ireland’s top sport stars, it will be a real battle to get this message across to teenagers. So it’s great to see that there is a strong focus on young people in this year’s programme. I spoke with Claire Gallagher at the Plaza, one of the chefs that will be visiting local schools as part of a series of healthy eating workshops. “Our main theme will be how to get your five-a-day of fruit and vegetables without making it a chore. Smaller children often act like they’re allergic to fruit and vegetables, but if we can make it a bit of fun preparing things like smoothies and banana muffins, then it can seem more like a treat. Hopefully, they will go home and encourage their parents. I see it everyday in our restaurant, parents want to encourage healthy eating but they need a bit of help with the options available. It’s important also that we are making the connection with local chefs. Our children and their friends get to see what we do and understand the job of food preparation.”

The workshops are followed on Wednesday by the final of the Schools Cookery competition. It was a real coup this year for the committee to get celebrity chef Neven Maguire down to judge the event. Neven has generously come on board this year to offer the winning team of chefs and their teacher two days in his restaurant, MacNean House & Restaurant, Blacklion, Co. Cavan. The standards of presentation, creativity and taste achieved in the competition each year are truly astounding and it if you are looking for encouragement about young people and food then get along for a look. The strong focus on involving young people continues over the weekend with story telling sessions in the library and youth café and also a food craft workshop, where kids get to play creatively with food. A novel event at the open air market in the Fairfield on Sunday, will be the Children’s Teddy Bear Party which will be hosted by local artist Sonia Caldwell. The picnic is free with admission to the market and children are encouraged to bring their tea sets and teddy bears. There will be prizes for the best dressed teddies.

Of course there will be plenty at the festival for adults too and it should kick off with a good laugh at the Food Quiz on Wednesday. “We want local people to come along and have a bit of fun at the quiz,” says Claire, “It’s not about being a gourmet expert and there’ll be a strong emphasis on local knowledge. We’re doing more in the festival this year than ever before, and have a lot more people involved.” To get the full picture on the festival you can view the programme at www.atasteofwestcork.com or give us a call and we’ll pop one in the post (023-34035).

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