I’ll admit, I’m a tiny bit biased when it comes to West Cork food. I can’t help it; it’s where I live, where I call home and, for all the allure of Big City Living, there is simply nothing better than returning to its verdant hills and calmness. I’d sooner get stuck in a traffic jam of crossing cows, or be forced to travel all the way home from work in second gear because it’s silage time again than be forced to sit in traffic jams of cars, or standing up in stuffy train carriages. It helps a lot that our food tastes so darn good; also why the region is the home of one of Ireland’s biggest food festivals! Here now is my guide to indulging your inner gourmet at the region’s biggest town and vibrant foodie hub, Skibbereen.
You should know by now that I adore a good Farmers’ Market! The Skibbereen Market is regarding by many across the region as the best and biggest in West Cork. It helps that it’s on a Saturday, so naturally it draws a bigger crowd than some of the weekday markets, but still, us West Cork folk are very discerning. If it wasn’t any good, it wouldn’t be there! Here are my best picks of the stalls, but of course, all are worth a visit.
Live in West Cork long enough and you’ll develop an obsession for anything produced by the Ferguson family on Gubbeen Farm outisde the tiny coastal village of Schulll. The family’s commitment to doing as much as they can to live from and preserve their family farmlands has seen Gubbeen become the most recognisable farmhouse brand in Ireland today. The quality of the pork, cheese and charcuterie is undeniable, and the innovation employed to ensure consistency of their produce includes their own on-site purpose-built smokehouse and Ireland’s first “Piggy Co-Op” for the benefit of all small pig farmers in the area. A must-stop.
A few years ago, any English ex-pat would have said that you couldn’t get a decent pork pie or scotch egg for love nor money in Ireland. But thanks to Paul Phillips, since 2012 this has now been not only remedied, but bettered! A variety of pork pies and scotch eggs can be found here with all kinds of twists from their original recipe pork pies, to their Smokey Joe scotch egg made with Chorizo. What’s more, Paul also raises his own pigs who roam freely overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Happy pigs, happy lives, happy pies.
There’s a hum from Cool Mountain in Dunmanway of beautiful, sweet garlic. 10 different varieties of garlic are grown there, including rare Black Garlic. They also have their own small smokery where occasionally they smoke batches of garlic for a whole two weeks. It’s not always available, so if they have it, buy it – trust me!
Mella’s Fudge (seasonal)
Mella’s handmade fudge is an absolute delight to eat! Spending most of her childhood finding the perfect fudge recipe together with her mother has resulted in a beautiful handmade fudge in a variety of flavours that are great any time of the year. The good news is that, if you can’t get to Skibbereen, Mella’s fudge is actually sold nationwide under the Dunnes Simply Better range nationwide. This is the same great vanilla fudge that won gold in the Great Taste Awards in 2012!
Handmade chocolates in very small batches with a mix of delightful filling and flavours. Not cheap, but well worth the splurge, especially the salted peanut caramel one….
Where there’s a queue and your nose is in overdrive, the best decision you can make is to join that queue and be patient! Handmade burgers made with 100% local beef on offer here, and then pick your toppings. If you are feeling up to the challenge, I heartedly recommend the Extreme Gubbeen: Ballymaloe relish, onions, 100% beef patty, a slice of Gubbeen cheese and topped with a rasher of Gubbeen bacon AND a pile of slow cooked pulled Gubbeen pork….dribble, dribble….
For many years, Carmel Somers Good Things Café was a destination restaurant and cookery school in the small West Cork village of Durrus helping to put the village on the gourmet map, along with the amazing Durrus Cheesemakers. But having outgrown the café’s original location, in early 2016 Carmel moved her entire operation lock, stock into the corner-house building on Dillon’s Corner in the heart of Skibbereen. A brave and bold move, but one that is paying off for this chef, teacher, author and mother of three. I can’t imagine that there are enough hours in the day, but somehow Carmel fits it all in effortlessly and to great acclaim. Good Things is so much more than a café/restaurant/cookery school. It feels more like a social club for food enthusiasts. Choose a table by the window, or a comfy sofa by the fire place, surrounded by cookery books and a pail of half-used candles, and while away a few hours over a plate of seriously good things.
To say that this unassuming café is a Skibbereen institution would be a great understatement. The Good Food Ireland award winning eatery at its original location on North Street; a street food cart at the weekly farmers’ market and now also the latest addition: the café and courtyard at the striking West Cork Arts Centre, Uillinn means that Kalbo’s is practically Skib’s middle name. Produce is locally sourced, and Siobhan O’Callaghan (chef proprietor) has unfettered access to local organic veg thanks to her husband’s partnership in Thornhill Organic Farm. Famed among many things for making a bowl of soup the kind of thing you fantasise about and their completely beautiful cakes, it’s the kind of place where no matter what you order from the menu you will leave happy and satisfied.
Take a walk down Vickery’s Lane and be greeted by the unmistakable aroma of an oak-smoked fire. Wafting from the very unassuming exterior of Jeff’s Wood Fire Pizza, this pizzeria loved, treasured even. You get the sense that Jeff knows pretty much every single one of his frequent visitors: families, teens, adults looking for an indulgent night off from the kitchen; even local chefs praising his stone-baked oak-fired pizza. “Whatever it is you’re doing, don’t ever change it” declares one fan. For the sake of the pizza aficionados of this town I hope he heeds their warnings!
“Hey You, Yes You! Are you Fork’n’Hungry” declares the chalkboard outside the tiniest café in town! Sadly, Andy, chef-proprietor of this incy-wincy eatery has declared he has run out of pies. “They sold too well, and yesterday was my birthday so I made the executive decision to not make any pies. I got burgers though…” This in a nutshell is what I love about West Cork. Yes, his business may be called the Fork’n Pie, but he’s not even batting an eyelid about the fact that there are actually no pies to sell today.
I go with Andy’s recommendation of The Pork and Black: 100% West Cork pork patty served with 3 slices of Walshe’s black pudding (made fresh every day from the butcher across the road), chipotle mayo, crispy greens and slices of apple stacked inside a bun. An absolute steal at €5, tasty and filling to boot.
The café is open during the day only, but can be rented out in evening for private dining for groups of friends, social clubs and even stags. You tell Andy what you want him to cook, and he’ll deliver the goods. Find him also every Saturday at the farmers’ market with his mobile unit, complete with pies!
This restaurant in a beautifully restored church is a must-visit. The gorgeous stained glass windows, chandeliers and solid wooden staircase will distract from the food, but welcome it and marvel at it! For extra wow-factor, grab a table in the gallery with a birds-eye view of the exquisite architecture. Bonus is you won’t be disappointed by the food either. A decent, unfussy menu taking inspiration from local sources of fresh food and producers, the portions are super generous and presented with care and attention. Any time of the week is good to eat here, but my favourite is a Sunday. Maybe it has something to do with the surroundings…
Inside this Georgian fronted building is a wonderfully bright restaurant that sits alongside the river Ilen. Riverside is a by-word in Skib for delicious Mediterranean dishes that reflect the warm and vibrant interior. What you will find here is a dedication to sourcing the finest of West Cork produce and putting a sunny spin on the finished dishes, whether you’re come for the breakfast or lunch. French toast with Gubbeen smoked bacon or Dave Louks free range eggs huevos rancheros style; to Willie Walshe’s local lamb turned into yummy kofta’s or Hereford beefsteak cooked to perfection. Check out their studio space for regular events from yoga to theatre.
Nestled away on Bridge Street, blink and you could be forgiven for missing this hidden gem restaurant well-loved amongst the locals, and creating fans of those visiting for the first time. Anecdotally, the best eggs benedict to be gotten anywhere, you’ll want to make sure you can squeeze yourself into one of the tables in the cozy surrounds. Friendly service, delicious food and great value awaits.
The quintessential tea shop on The Square for a great coffee and a freshly baked cake. One of those places where you feel instantly at home: friendly staff, hearty and comforting food. A great outdoor space also means that it is the spot in town to grab a seat and soak up the rays.
In and around Skib are small, picturesque villages. But as well as admiring their vista’s, how about stopping for a bite to eat?
Leap: Connolly’s of Leap
Connolly’s is the iconic music venue that recently reopened after nine years of lamentable absence. Now, they have opened up a café during the day which almost instantaneously gained recognition from Sally & John McKenna as one of the Bridgestone Guides Best in 2016.
Union Hall: Dinty’s
Driving away from Leap along the narrow roadway towards the impossibly beautiful village of Glandore and take a right across the bridge made famous in The War of the Buttons and on into Union Hall. This sleepy fishing village barely looks awake for its laid back approach to life, but in the heart of it all is Dinty’s. Don’t expect any flowery manners here, but do expect the best bowl of chowder in West Cork. Made fresh daily with whatever gets landed into the port just a short hop and a skip away, this is the kind of food that hugs you from the inside. Team it with a pint of the black stuff and two slices of homemade soda bread. Perfection.
Glandore: Glandore Bistro
Back across the bridge from Union Hall and down into the harbour village of Glandore and you’ll find the Glandore Bistro owned and run by a husband and wife team. The food is best described as “modern Irish” again taking inspiration from the bountiful seas serving up excellent quality fresh seafood as well as steaks and lip-smackingly good desserts. Wash it all down with the beautiful view.
Kate Ryan is a food writer, blogger and founder of Flavour.ie a website that is dedicated to promoting West Cork Food through writing, events and tours. Kate writes regularly for The Opinion Magazine and The Southern Star newspaper and has been featured in the Irish Examiner and Irish Times. Her blog is recipe driven showcasing the best of West Cork produce and encouraging everyday cooking with it at home as well as the best places to eat in the region. Kate hosts a very popular social dining “Supper Club” as well as organising a variety of food-related events getting people to enjoy great local food together. In the summer season, Kate also runs the only guided Walking Food Tour of Clonakilty which takes place every Friday June to August and is accredited by Fáilte Ireland for the Wild Atlantic Way. Kate is also a judge with Blas na hEireann and the Irish Quality Food Awards.
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