In Watermelon Sugar

About 100 years ago when I was 18 or 19 I read some books by Richard Brautigan. He was an American writer, an alcoholic, who shot himself in 1984 aged 49. You could tell from the writing that he was almost out of his time and he had an unhappy life. Despite the apparent simplicity of his books, the almost haiku precision of what he wrote,  it all became too complicated and he finished it. I have most of his books at home on the shelves although I am still trying to find the old copy I had of Trout Fishing in America. His writing helped shape a mythical image of America I carried around with me at the time. I have hardly looked at them since.

I was reminded of one of his books at the weekend when I saw a pile of pale green watermelons in a box outside of the International Store on Oxton Road. £3.50 each they were too good to resist. They were vast and one was almost too heavy to carry in the white plastic bag they put it in. The kids wanted to play with it in the kitchen, carrying it around and threatening drop it in a great pink mess of watermelon flesh and seeds on the stone floor.

We ate it that evening after a barbecue sliced into great chunks. The seeds were still small and we ate them seeds and all the juices slathering down our chins and in my case sweetening my beard. The taste brought back memories of camping holidays in the south of France and eating them outside the tent and then I was reminded of Richard Brautigan and his gentle elliptical books

“In watermelon sugar the deeds were done and done again as my life is done in watermelon sugar.”

Richard Brautigan 1973

Durrus Cheese

As I said when I started this the Sheep’s Head Food Company was to be the name of the deli I was going to open in Oxton dedicated to the selling of good food drawn from the producers of West Cork. A large part of what it was going to sell was cheese and I thought that here would be a useful point to dwell on some of those cheeses  and what was inspiring about them.

Next month we will be in Ahakista and I will be going to the farmers markets and some of the farms where the cheese is made and on the ferry back to Holyhead I will hopefully have a boot-full of cheese stuffed into cool bags amongst the luggage to pass on from a stall I am going to set up in the garden. So this will be a small taster of what there will be. There will be a few more teasers to come and some hints at the music that will be burbling away in the background.

It was Durrus cheese that first alerted me to the possibilities of good food in West Cork. When the family first talked about holidays in Ireland I could only think of Spain, the endless intense sun, platefuls of tapas and a relationship with food that struck all the chords in me I could hope for. Ireland was fine but that was more for the Guinness and the endless plates of chips. But it was Ireland we went for and I was hesitant at first, unsure of what its attractions would be. A lot of these became apparent on our first visit to the Cottage one Easter, as the sun edged its way out and we found ourselves doing nothing more but sit on the wall leading down to the sea watching the view, clouds moving up Dunmannus Bay and the sea washing over the black rocks and the covering of kelp and seaweed, the weather coming in. There were platefuls of chips but for lunch in the Cottage we would have rolls from Cashman’s in Durrus with freshly cooked ham and cheese. The cheeses were Carrigbyrne and Durrus.

The Carrigbyrne was delicious – a soft cheese with a pale white rind, not dissimilar to brie.

The Durrus was proper cheese in 400gr rounds wrapped in greaseproof paper, with a distinctive yellow label and a picture of a cow. It was the sort of cheese you would be pleased to pick up in a good French market. As it suggested on the label it looked as if it had come from the farm. Under its puckered pale orange rind still marked with the metal racks on which it had been sitting whilst it matured there was a creamy pale cheese, slightly pockmarked with an acidic bite in its taste. There was an intense pleasure to be had periodically taking a thick quarter of the cheese, cutting away its rind and eating it as the lunch slowly dissolved into the afternoon and someone had to make their way up to the pub for a couple more pints to see us through.

The surprise in it all was that the cheese was made only a few miles away.  Durrus village was down the road and suddenly there was this great connection between the food that I was eating and the landscape it had come from. Over the years since then we have skirted past the farmhouse where Jeffa Gill makes the cheese. It is up in the hills, up on the road past the  church almost to the top where spine of the peninsula starts to take shape and body on its long reach out into the Atlantic.

The milk for the cheese comes from two Friesian herds and the taste and texture is continually varied by the seasons, the amount of rain that has fallen and the quality of the green grass. It is as you realise that proper cheese relies so much on that connection, the rain and the grass that feeds the cows that the name of the book about amongst other things food in West cork Eating the Scenery starts to make sense.

These are pictures of the hills just up from the farmhouse in the townland of Coomkeen where the  on the ridge of peninsula. The view takes in the bulk of both Bantry and Dunmannus Bays. Somewhere along the way we also met a couple of cows. Pictures of the cheese will follow in August after it has been bought fresh from the market.

 If you need more information on the cheese go to

Compost, worms and what to do with a hard mango

Now that it has warmed up there is something sobering about the Saturday trip to the green compost bin at the end of the garden. A weeks worth of potato peel, carrot tops, banana skins, apple cores, used teabags and old coffee grounds will have built up in the pot in the kitchen and is starting to smell. The compost bin has been in the garden for at least 5 years but it is only over the last couple of summers that it seems to have got going. For the first few years whatever we put in there did not seem to go down until the bottom was emptied in spring and spread over the veg plot. But now it has been taken over by great clots of worms that seethe all year round.

Open the lid and there is a good whiff of rotting fruit and whatever flies have  gathered will buzz into the air. Peer in and last weeks pot full of kitchen waste will already have started to be dragged down into the thick brown gloop that I suppose is basically worm shit. The surface looks fairly innocuous but dig down a bit and every item of old veg is seized by clumps of worms of all sizes. The eye is first caught by the pink ones two or three inches long but then you notice others no thicker than a piece of snipped cotton all turning and  trying to get away from the light. And that is the sobering part. Bury my old body in the ground for a few months and it to will become a vast clump of worms like those in the compost bin, turned to worm shit and then back into the soil.

Some things take longer to break down than others. The odd bottle top that gets in there will be around for ever, labelling on an avocado skin, elastic bands, egg shells and the stones from the mangoes we had last summer.

I bought another box of honey mangoes this morning from the grocers, so that will be 4 more stones in the bin, and last night I picked up one those sad, hard green giants they sell in the supermrket. It had been reduced in price, twice, so they wanted to sell it, but there was still hardly any give as I gently pressed at the skin with my fingers. I got it anyway as I guessed there would still be sweetness there.

Back at home I slowly fried off two thick chicken breasts in a touch of olive oil, seasoned with salt, pepper and a good pinch of paprika.

I peeled the mango and then sliced off the yellow flesh from around the stone. This was then diced and put in a bowl into which I added half a finely sliced red onion, two crushed cloves of garlic, a very finely diced red chilli, olive oil, salt and pepper and the juice of one lime. Mixed all together and left to let the flavours meld for a while.

When the chicken was done I eat it with the mango salsa and a pile of basmati and wild rice.

All cooked whilst listening out for the good bits on the new Guided By Voices album.

How simple does a tomato sauce have to be

Put a packet of good spaghetti into a large pan of water which should be at a rolling boil.

Heat olive oil in a frying pan and add 4 thinly sliced cloves of garlic. Careful it does not burn. Take a good pound of very tasty cherry tomatoes from the grocers and cut them in half and put in the pan with the garlic. You don’t really want them to cook more to heat through so lower the heat a bit. A minute or so before the pasta is ready squeeze in the juice of a lemon into the tomatoes and season with salt and pepper. Drain the pasta, tear some basil into the tomato sauce. Pour the pasta into a large white bowl and slide the sauce on to. Eat with parmesan cheese.

We listened to a fantastic song called Country Line by Cass McCombs. We saw him live earlier this year and this was the last song that he played. It was totally unexpected, one of those wide open songs that seem made for the mythical blue roads of America.