An introduction to the Sheep’s Head

By way of a short introduction to the Sheep’s Head and Ahakista this is the text of a letter written about 30 years ago to an English family who were on their  way there for a summer holiday. Our cottage in Ahakista is The Cottage on the Pier which tells you all that you need to know about where it is located.

Dear Mr Thomas
The easiest route there from the South-East or South of Ireland is via Cork, and Westbound, on the Bandon, and then Bantry road. Some 4 miles short of Bantry, turn off for Durrus. Pass down through the village forking right at the bottom for Kilcrohane, along the coast road. A mile after Ahakista, take the only turn off down towards a fir-tree girt farm. Pass through the farm and continue towards the Atlantic. On arrival at the sea-wall bear a right up a gravel track and into the house forecourt preferably taking the last turn in low gear.
The Barry’s dogs will have heard you passing their farm, and Miss Carmel Barry will be right behind you with the keys of the house, and to show you the lie of the land.
If you wish to shop… nearer home and on the way there, and for local use are Cronin’s in Durrus. It is also the last petrol station before the house, and a few minutes in the company of Mr Gibb Ross in the bar adjoining the Post Office at the bottom of the village will be of assistance to your education in the locality. Please be nice to ‘Shot’ the Spaniel there. 
In Ahakista, there are stores at Arundel’s and the Guinness pub, for local groceries when coming from the Durrus/Bantry. Fresh bread is delivered to the latter establishment thrice weekly.
To get to Kilcrohane it is necessary to take a double turn back onto the main road, and if you take your container, fresh cream may be obtained from the Co-operative creamery before 10.30 am at about 25p per pint. The Post Office/Stores, and petrol pump, are run by Mr John O’Mahony, who also doubles as landlord of the Dunmahon Hotel. The stores have a very wide supply of sundries and groceries, and much may be learnt from the Patron. The Sheep’s Head is O’Mahony country.
Bantry is the main shopping town, and the English papers, if you really want to see them, arrive in the shops in Wolfe Tone Square after lunch. The best delicatessen and groceries is Barr’s, opposite the Anchor Hotel. Whilst one shops, the other will be most welcomed by Mr and Mrs O’Donnell, and between them they can put you right on everything between the glass of Guinness in your hand and New Zealand which is almost directly beyond the bottom of the glass. Be kind to ‘Sam’ the Irish setter and see that he still carries an identity disc, but don’t be offended when you’ve read it. Bantry is not Deauville of Normandy from the gastronomic point of view, but the Anchor, and other places have good food.
Back at Carrigeen, you may wander and bathe with gay abandon. You should see Seals and Porpoises in front of the house and in the main bay. They are quite harmless. Your own mealtimes may be brought to your attention by the natives in winged form.
At the fir-tree girt farm lives Jerry Coughlin, who by your own arrangement will take you out in his fishing boat, or across to Carberry Is. The outboard motor broke down at Carberry Island last summer with a tenant on board. The tenant and Jerry set about repairing the engine and were soon an their way back across the bay. That tenant has since been negotiating a major aero engine contract in California with as much success.
Next door to Jerry’s house lives Mrs Bowen from whom milk, eggs, potatoes, and home made bread may be purchased by ordering.
Some of the bathing places are rocky, and some old form of footwear is recommended. A pair of good field glasses are essential to fully appreciate the local fauna such as Gannets diving for Sprats in the late evening.
Should anything serious go wrong, please telephone Captain Smith-Wright at Kilcrohane 17. The telephone has no night serviced from 10 pm. To 8 am. Doctor Abrahams is available if needed at Kilcrohane 15.
Yours sincerely
Donough McGillycuddy

The natives bringing attention to mealtimes are the gannets that gather in the air over the bay as the mackerel come in. They hang slowly in the air before plummeting a splash of white light into the water. Go out in a boat and try and park it with a line and lunch could be a mackerel straight out of the sea – best cooked over a wood fire on the beach.

Here are some random pictures to give a further flavour of the place.

Saturday afternoon cooking

Todays post was going to be headed “£50 doesn’t go far at the Farmer’s Market” but I cocked up my dates and got there to find it had been on last week. Frustrating as for Father’s Day I was looking forward to an free range chicken cooked with harissa and I was going to get some Lancashire & Cheshire cheese for tonight. I will have to wait until the second Saturday of next month. No matter I went to Edge’s and bought chicken breasts for lunch and bacon for tomorrow’s breakfast. Then onto Ward’s for fillets of plaice and a dressed crab and then to the grocers where amongst other things I bought a box of cherry tomatoes. They will make the soup for tonight.

At Ward’s Simon told me that Ted, the man who ate the oysters, had not been back since I had seen him, and that his old routine had been to go get a pint of Guinness after two oysters. Oysters and Guinness – the man should live to be a hundred.

So what are eating tonight. To start there will be tomato soup. The cherry tomatoes have been cooked down for a couple of hours with onion, garlic, fennel, ground cumin seeds and sage. It has been sieved until smooth. I am going to serve it with the pulp of roasted aubergines mixed with olive oil, crushed garlic and yogurt.

After that we have breaded plaice fillets – the breadcrumbs flavoured with hot smoked paprika together with a chickpea salad and slow cooked rice flavoured with saffron and cardamon seeds. All to be eaten with a tahini, garlic sauce.

Most of the cooking has been done listening to the new Dexys album. This was the first chance I have had to listen to it loud. It is very good and there is a song on it called Free that could soon have me kicking down the doors at work. Looking forward to when the play in Liverpool in September. Followed that with King Curtis live at the Filmore West – one of the best Saturday afternoon cooking albums ever.

Michael’s bread

Michael’s bread this Thursday evening. Good tasty and chewy, it is an 80% spelt loaf which was easy to bake, except towards the end when the loafs turned crusty a bit too fast. I am not sure I noticed. It will be good tomorrow with sliced sausage for lunch. Thank you Michael and friends.

Cook book of the moment is “Testicles  Balls in Cooking and Culture” by Blandine Vie and translated from the French by Giles MacDonogh. I spotted a review earlier this year and bought it a couple of weeks ago for a present. It looked so good I had to get a copy for myself as well. Although there is a concentration on the cooking and eating of the male animal’s tenderest parts it is also a compendium of phrases and expressions pertaining to and on the subject of balls. Probably not one that is going to get a great deal of use in the kitchen, unless I am able to procure some lamb’s from Edges, but worth dipping into. The occasional section, especially the one on castration, will have the average male reader crossing their legs in imagined discomfort.

There is a recipe for Clear soup with cock’s bits and set out below Bull’s balls pate

Boil  half a dozen bull’s balls, cut them in slices after having added salt and pepper and garnished them with nutmeg and bay leaves. Intersperse them then with a finely mixture of lamb’s kidneys, ham, thyme, garlic and oregano, then serve them hot.

This in turn is taken from a book called Sorcerer’s Handbook of Love by Ange Bastiani who adds that this was cooked by the pope’s cook Bartolomeo Scappi who worked the ovens of Pius V.

I have had bull’s balls once. We bought them in a market on Menorca 20 years ago and took them back to our villa, sliced them and fried them in olive oil. I hope I was listening to Jerry Lee Lewis.


Oysters for breakfast – Ward’s Fish, Birkenhead Market

I have written elsewhere about Ward’s Fish but there is a lot about them that is worth repeating. They are part of my weekly Saturday morning run to get good food for the weekend and there will be a lot more written about them in the months to come. But first a short story from when I was down there last weekend. It was food for the family so it had to be fish that hopefully all of them would eat – including the 2 girls – so it was going to have to be fillets of some sort – no bones allowed. As I waited to be served I noticed a tall, elderly man to my right with a badly bruised face. As I waited Simon open up two oysters, put them on a small black tray with a white plastic fork and a paper napkin. He placed this in front of the old man and said, “Here you go Ted”.

Ted took each oyster in turn and using the fork carefully slipped them off the shell into his mouth sucking at the salty iodine juice that was left behind in the shell. He wiped at his mouth with the napkin as Simon told the price had gone up since he was last there and they were now £5.00 each. I didn’t hear Ted’s mumbled reply but as he took out his wallet Simon corrected the price and he was the charged the proper 79 pence an oyster. Ted paid and moved slowly away back into the main body of the Market.

Simon told me that Ted had been coming to the stall for years, a couple of times a week, for his two oysters on the black tray. He had not been for six months and they all thought that was the last they would see of Ted. But he had been back for the first time that morning and explained that he had been away in hospital to have a new heart. Was it the oysters that kept him going?

We had hake that evening. Fillets for the rest of the family and a thick steak for me. I seasoned some plain flour with hot smoked paprika, salt and pepper. I dusted the hake with the seasoned flour and then fried it briskly in olive oil. We ate it with fried potatoes.