Few know that deliciously fragrant melons can be grown in Ireland. But I know where to find her.
In West Cork I wake up early, put one of my French visitors in the car and drive to the weekly market in Bandon, Co Cork. There we meet Stephen Sinnott, who grows vegetables using regenerative farming methods on his land in Ballinhassig.
Locally the project is known as Food For Humans (foodforhumans.ie) and supplies top quality restaurants in the area and local shops. Stephen also performs in various markets. Me and my buddy stay and chat with him and he shares some melon with us to taste on the spot. It’s perfect, thin-skinned, juicy and sweet. “Very good,” says my little friend, who is a picky eater. We also get a strawberry that’s sweeter than any I can remember. It bursts on our tongues and there is delight on its tiny face.
We are touring Cork as a group of three adults and two children aged 11 and 13. We can almost all squeeze into my car. And we are all French.
We talked about this holiday for a long time. When my godson arrived from Paris, I took him to my beloved Ananda (anandarestaurant.ie) in Dublin for a quick lunch. He’s one of my greatest loves and I hadn’t seen him in three years. I cried tears of joy all morning. With a sore smile on our face, we chatted about our vacation while enjoying the most delicious food. I knew I had to start the journey the way I wanted to continue, with a total food rush.
I moved to Ireland in 1998 and over the years have developed an intense love and pride for my adoptive country. A financial crime manager by day, I’m also a food writer, passionate cook and fan of Ireland’s brilliant food scene. When my friends confirmed they were coming over for a family event to give us a chance to spend time together, it was important to me to show them something great outside of Dublin.
After our lunch my godson and I set out to go to Kerry for a few days where we would be joined by his mum, dad and younger brother before heading to West Cork. We had three nights to spend together and settled into a great Airbnb vacation home near Bandon. It was an eight minute drive to the local beach where all sorts of people are having fun – windsurfers, dog walkers, toddlers fooling around at low tide and now a soaked but happy French family.
We spent our first evening together in classic French manner, happily eating and chatting for hours at the kitchen table. We planned and planned around this table awash with fragrant cheese and the first of the local tomatoes, red and ripe, that just needed a sprinkling of Irish sea salt to shine. For the cheeses I chose Carriagnamuc, St Brigid and Durrus, all three from Cork. I had bought local bread and butter and a bottle of raw milk, as well as a bottle of not-so-local sparkling pét-nat.
All in all, a happy festival was celebrated and the tomatoes were particularly popular. My godson tried to tease me by saying they weren’t as good as the ones at home. But his father, who knows and loves good food, confirmed that these tomatoes are really beautiful.
“I know,” I said proudly.
When I first moved to Ireland, I brought suitcases full of cheeses from France. Today it’s the other way around – I bring the cheese to France. I was so proud to showcase Irish farmhouse cheeses and we all agreed they would hold up when compared to a French cheeseboard. The butter and milk also made a strong impression, and my friends appreciated the rich grassy greens and creaminess of our dairy.
The choice of the Bandon region was not accidental. I have been visiting this area for the past few years as my friend Paul lives there. Born and raised in Bandon, Paul was brilliant at helping me discover lesser-known local charms.
Bandon is also home to one of the best grocery stores in the country. I’m talking about Urru (urru.ie), owned and run by the fascinating Ruth Healy, who embodies everything that is great about Irish food.
Ruth is a knowledgeable, approachable, passionate foodie and is so much fun. She doesn’t seek the limelight but in my eyes she is a real food guru or maybe that should be a food guru…yeah yeah I know I’ll get my mantle. Having Urru as my local shop for a few days was such a treat and ensured I could share the best that West Cork produces with my friends.
In fact, it was she who connected me to Stephen the bowler hat man. Pro tip: Check out the discount section, it’s full of high-quality, non-perishable foods with their sell-by dates. There you will find fantastic bargains; I always do!
After our morning adventures at the market, we all hop in the car and drive to a local swimming spot. After a nap in the sun together, we arrive in Clonakilty for a remarkably late but delicious lunch at Scannell’s (scannells.ie), a chance find where the seafood is plentiful and delicious and the welcome is friendly and relaxed.
Chowder is an honor to our nation and there is not one, but a good five quiet minutes at the table while we each savor our respective choices…scallops for me since you ask.
We finish with a choice of desserts and the pavlova is a revelation. It’s chewy and light and satisfying and everything I always thought pavlovas were meant to be. It doesn’t take long and we’re fighting over what’s left.
Before leaving Clonakilty we stop at Scally’s SuperValu, another recommendation from Ruth Healy, and a shrine to what a great supermarket can be. I was told I would be impressed and we were all impressed. Scally’s presents hyper local and Irish products in a way and at a level that I have never seen in French supermarkets. You might see something similar in really good delicatessens, but these will always be much smaller and more exclusive. This is great food for everyone.
The day’s culinary adventures are punctuated by a nap together at a nearby beach and a stroll around town. Time flies deliciously fast. Also the good weather. The following days witness a decline in this count. We’re in Ireland and the summer heatwaves haven’t hit us yet, but my friends are outdoor people, all weather. It’s our first holiday together and while they would normally travel to sunnier climates they are well prepared with layers and rain jackets. Also, this is also an opportunity to give a real taste of my home… a traditional picnic in the rain.
Meanwhile our adventures have taken us to Cork City and for our picnic we decide to visit the English Market. We browse, we scream, we marvel, and everyone just loves Mr Bell’s Emporium (mrbells.ie) and the general buzz of the place. We queue for hot dogs (please spice mine up a bit) and eat them outside under the shelter of the trees while the wet world rushes by. It’s tasty and it’s fun and it’s as Irish as it gets.
After that, the persistent rain has put a real damper on any prospect of an afternoon at the beach, so we regroup and head to a petting zoo, where the kids have been supervising the fun with some cheeky but slightly soggy rabbits.
We spend our last afternoon splashing around in the puddles of Cork on another typically Irish day – you know, the ones where you can experience all four seasons in an hour.
But it doesn’t dampen our spirits. We share our final meal at afternoon tea at Sketch in the Imperial Hotel (imperialhotelcork.com ) where I usually stay when I’m in town. The sausage roll is a highlight of the tea experience — the meat is flavorful and juicy, and the pastry is buttery and flaky just right. And the kids love the bird cages where the food is served; they’re “very chic,” I’m told.
So we are all perfectly equipped for the long way home. As I drive back to Dublin, they tell me their experience at Cork Airport is quick and pleasant – music to my ears as it means I sent my friends home with a great snapshot of Ireland and West Cork.
We ate like kings, enjoyed our adventures, and those melons almost made us feel like we were on the Mediterranean.
Sure, what more could you want?
Where to sleep
Our group of five stayed in an Airbnb called Admar Cottage in Kilbrittain. The cottage has three bedrooms, two bathrooms and a working stove and is equipped with everything you could possibly need. Views from all windows are of rolling fields and local livestock, and if you’re lucky, the fog will creep in for you too.
Mary, the hostess, introduces you to her gentle, aging dog, Bruno, who will bark until you give him a good scratch on the head. This is a happy home for our reunion and we felt we could not have chosen a better base. The well-equipped kitchen also allowed us to conveniently prepare meals. From around €180 per night; airbnb.ie/rooms/50007766
Katia’s food blog is up real food.ie
For more things to do in Cork go to purecork.ie or download the new Explore Cork app for iPhone or Android.
West Cork offers excellent swimming conditions. Sheltered coves are dotted along the coast and it’s well worth searching for your next beauty spot. You will want a bath!
Explore the streets of Clonakilty and meet the local wildlife of Clonakilty Bay, depicted on the town walls. Visit clonakilty.ie for more information.
If we had been better organised, we would have booked one of the many whale watching cruises you can find around Cork. These are of course weather dependent.
https://www.independent.ie/life/travel/ireland/i-took-my-french-friends-to-cork-and-we-found-fab-food-and-a-shrine-to-what-a-great-supermarket-can-be-41918779.html I took my French friends to Cork and we found fabulous food and a shrine to what a great supermarket can be