An introduction to the Sheep’s Head

Sheep's Head Food Company

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…

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It started with half a dozen gannets wheeling over the centre of the bay but rather than circle for a few minutes before making their dive to the water they flew back up to the appropriate height and came straight back down again a quick white flash and splash. Black shapes heaved in the water around their dive-bombing. It was a school of about thirty porpoises and it was obvious that the gannets and the porpoises had come across a feast of mackerel and sprats. The number of gannets grew to a dozen and the porpoises rolled and turned in the sea heads surging up out of the water and then back down with a flick of the tail churning the water.  Some of them breached their whole body rising up out over the surface and slipping below the waves. The feasting lasted about ten minutes before the gannets separated and moved further up the bay followed by the porpoises showing themselves just by the arc of their dorsal fin cresting the waves.  They left behind with the remains a collection of cormorants that bobbed like so many black sticks in the water.

In a good year the days will dissolve into a blur of light, sea and air. Slow mornings waking up and testing the weather. Opening the curtains to see how the tide has shifted from the previous day and to check the scud and slip of clouds across the bay. Downstairs to open curtains and make tea ready for breakfast, either on the plastic green table and chairs outside the yellow door or on the table inside watching the rain and wind scuff at the concrete on the pier. The unpredictable cut of the weather makes making plans a nonsense and most days breakfast ends with our deciding to see how the weather plays out before we make a decision on what to do and of course that is no decision at all. There will be a chance to jump off the pier, to go crabbing or to root around the seaweed, book of wild seafood in hand to catch what lurks there. And if the weather and tide is right a chance to ride out to the point off Owen’s Island to see if there are mackerel about for lunch. At this point it clear there is no time for us to be going anywhere for lunch and so this meal is going to be had at the Cottage. There will be a small mental tick to make sure there is enough bread and perhaps some sausages to make do. If mackerel are caught then that is all to the better. Turning to the early afternoon then if it is dry a fire should be made on the beach.  There is always a vague hope that a child will bend to the task, but children turn so quickly into unyielding teenagers it is a hope that goes unanswered so there is a chase for driftwood to make up kindling and 10 minutes or so patiently spent with screwed up pages of yesterday’s Guardian and matches to get the fire alight. Once alight it needs to be carefully constructed to be capable of cooking food. We have a good grill now but this is not always enough and if the wind is on the beach there is a need to construct a wall of bricks around the fire so that sufficient heat is directed at the grill to cook the food.

Five days later we could see more than fifty gannets circling the sea just off Owen’s Island. I had not seen so many in the bay before. As one went down two or three others would follow and there would be a silent thump as each hit. Sometimes the movement of the fish under the surface caused them to swerve at the last moment careering off at an angle before breaking the surface. Moving closer we could see that after they went under there was another small eruption of glittering foam as they came up again shaking their feathers. After a moment on the surface they would pick up their wings and go back to their natural element the air pattering the water to get sufficient lift. Some of the mackerel we caught were the largest we have had out of the water at the Cottage. They had also been gorging themselves and their bodies were still and bloated with the sprats they had eaten. Some were vomited out as we removed the hooks. As we gutted them on the black rocks at the garden they seemed to deflate slightly as the knife moved up their belly and out with the guts would spill sprats that had been swallwed whole their skin maked with small abrasions made by the makerels teeth. We threw these sprats to the gulls along with the guts and there was of course an irony in the small fish being eaten twice in the same day.

The Compleat Imbiber No. 16

The dishwasher is knackered so I have just completed my second round of washing up for the evening and the fourth of the last two days. Kids everywhere are burying their heads in revision and have no time to help.

By way of compensation another copy of The Compleat Imbiber arrived in this mornings post. One of the joys and great dangers of Amazon is having an impossibly large second bookshop at the end of your fingers and so I discovered there were a number of editions that could be had in good condition for £0.01p or thereabouts plus postage & packing. Let us see what arrives tomorrow.

This was the last edition published soon after Cyril Ray died. There is a great story on oysters some of which is worth sharing.

We came upon a place where the oysters grew, packed together close as grapes. My companion put the basket on the ground, and took out two bottles, two glasses, two plates and two forks. I produced nothing but a chisel. I broke the oysters off, one by one, chosing the big ones of tidy shape. The outsides of their shells were still wet from the sea. We prised them open, carefully, to save the liquor from spilling. Then we place them, eighteen upon each plate. My friend produced lemon and red pepper and I begun to eat.

‘Wait,” he said. He opened the bottles, one of champagne and one of stout, and filled the glasses. Thus I came to the pleasure of eating oysters with black velvet, sitting on a beach, with the blue ocean stretched before me.

It is easy to imagine all kinds of delight into a past experience, but I believe that my love of good food was awakened on that summer day: the love of good food, laced with good conversation.


Two thoughts on that.

I last ate oysters and stout over a long lunch in Davy Byrnes pub whilst in Dublin for an equally long weekend. The next day, a Monday, we went to a better pub, if not one of the best I have been to. There were the two of us and we had the place  to ourselves. There were two old men behind the bar and it took them both to pour my pint and get it right. There were leather seats in a great room and walls covered in faded mirrors. Although it was quiet the place was tight with the sound of a Saturday night and the noise and the drinking that went on in its four walls.

My love of good food could have started over a lunch whilst on a camping holiday in France. The other kids had burgers or chicken and chips but I wanted a plate of clams. They came in a special plate that had a series of hollows to hold each opened shell and they were slathered in butter and garlic. There were no chips but there was bread to mop up the juices.

Pig in shit

Having a night in London and spotting that Dexys were playing a run of ten nights in The Duke of York’s Theatre was too good an opportunity to miss. So I bought my ticket last week and slipped out my hotel late in the afternoon to pick it up.

Having picked up my ticket I was told that the show would start at 8.00 rather than 7.00 which gave me a couple of hours to kill and get something to eat in and around Soho.

Last time I had been London I had tried to squeeze Kristen and myself into Barrafina for just one plate of tapas but we had been dismissed and told that the wait for a seat was at least 45 minutes.

I had better luck this time by myself and was able to sit myself down on one of the spare seats up at the bar. I then found myself being moved a few times so as to accommodate new couples coming in. This didn’t matter at all.

I started with a glass of Manzanilla and a plate of clams cooked in olive oil and garlic and a small basket of bread to mop up the juices. I was given a knife and fork but there didn’t seem much point and I slurped at the small nuggets of meat in each shell. Furtling the shells around the plate with my fingers to make sure nothing was missed.

Having whetted the appetite I started on a plate of prawns with garlic. They came so quick from the grill they were too hot to hold and in my eagerness to get into the first one a splash of juice squirted across the bar. The garlic was cooked to a crisp and just on the right side of not being burnt. All that was wrong was that I could have done with more than four of them.

Next up was a glass of red wine and grilled quail with more garlic. I started on this with the knife and fork but soon resorted to my fingers. Dipping the pieces of flesh into the yellow garlic mayonnaise and then chewing away at the small bones. I felt slightly scruffy all the way down from Liverpool compared to the rest of the people sat up at the bar. I am not sure too many of them were planning on making their way to Dexys once they had finished eating.

After the oil and garlic I felt like something clean and fresh so I had a plate of salad. Fennel and radish finely sliced and mixed with a light dressing and pomegranate seeds. It did the job perfectly.

Having wiped away the last of the grease from my beard I paid the bill and walked out into the early evening and made my way to the theatre.

Any complaints – well it was expensive and I could have done with a good plate of chips to fill me up a bit.

I tried to take my food stained paper menu away with me but they insisted on giving me a clean one.

There was time for a quick pint before I took my seat in the theatre. Dexys played for almost two and a half hours and at one point I found myself getting overwrought as they started on I Love You (Listen To This), one of the many highlights on Don’t Stand Me Down. The whole violin, trombone, redemption combination all getting too much for me on top of the good food and wine. Thank God they didn’t do Reminisce, Pt. 2 as I would have been left a blubbering mess.

Afterwards I walked back through the streets of London and then along The Embankment back to the hotel.