We gave Tommy Arundel a bottle of whiskey for rescuing us when our engine cut out in the middle of Dunmannus Bay, and that evening he gave us a bagful of prawns. Fortunately he allowed us to pay for the lobster. The lobster was a monster, at least eighteen inches long not counting the claws, he gave it to Kristen to hold whilst he went back to his boat to pick us up.
Tommy fishes from the pier at Ahakista. Ahakista is on the south side of The Sheep’s Head Peninsula which is one of the thin fingers of land that stretch out into the Atlantic from the South West of Ireland. It sits between The Mizen and The Beara Peninsulas and on the smaller, less detailed, maps it may not be named. On the better maps the tip will be marked as The Sheep’s Head together with the towns of Bantry and Durrus which sit at the heads of Bantry and Dunmannus Bays.
It is a smudge of a village, a gathering together of houses, two pubs, a church and a small school strung along the roads around Kitchen Cove, you could drive through and hardly notice it was there. The pier is tucked into the eastern corner of the Cove and for the last 12 years we have spent a couple of weeks each summer in the Cottage that sits adjacent to the Pier.
The Pier itself is not much more than an hundred yards long. There is a slipway that runs down to the water on the near right hand side as you look down it. On the left is the Cottage, a gate onto the patch of ground that protects the Cottage from the sea and then a wall about five foot high that runs along to the end.
There are five lampposts that run along the seaward side of the pier, these are occupied by seagulls operating to a particular hierarchy. The brown feathered young gulls with the insistent yelp for food are at the bottom of the pile, they will always make way for the larger grey winged herring gulls who in turn will move on for the great black backed gulls who, once they have settled their wings, hawk back their head to crow out their place at the top of the pile, king pins of the pier.
The two weeks in the Cottage will start with a walk up the Pier, to see how high the tide is, take in the boats that are there and to say hello to Tommy and ask how the summer has been and to put in the first order for lobster.
Our conversation will normally follow a familiar pattern.
“Hello Tommy. How are you doing?”
He will look up from his work in the boat. “Not bad Ralph, and you?”
“Fine thanks. All the better for being here. What has the weather been like this summer?”
“Abysmal! The sun may shine for a day and you think it’s getting better but then the rain comes down again for a week. Did you arrive last night from Dublin?’
“We got here in the afternoon. It’s a four hour drive now. Not like it was 10 years ago. Are you fishing for lobster?’
“That I am. We should be out Wednesday or Thursday so I should have them later in the week.”
“Could we have three for Friday?”
“That should be fine. We’ll be back at the pier around 4.00 or I’ll drop them off at the door.”
“I’ll see you then” and I walk back to the Cottage.
Despite the holidaymakers and tourists it is a working pier, nets and pots piled up in stacks against its wall, old fish boxes filled with old fish ready to be used as bait, odd pieces of blue rope left abandoned, starfish, the smell of the sea and the rotting fish. Grey mullet cruising the waters scavenging for the scraps thrown over the side by the fishermen and missed by the gulls.
We started buying our lobsters from Tommy during the second summer that we spent at the Cottage. It was the year that it rained every day although I know there were days when the sun came out. On one of those rare days I tried to row a small boat out to catch mackerel. The rowlock broke before I could get out far enough and we had to paddle back with one oar. There was a frustration in knowing the fish were out there to be caught and not having the means to catch them.
On the day of the fishing competition that year Curly O’Brien took me to the shed next to the Butter House and passed over a bag of seven mackerel. I ate them over the next few days although by the end they were past their best and felt like wet cardboard in the mouth. The last few I used to bait the prawn pot. The weather was too rough to row it out in a boat and there was the broken rowlock to contend with so I hurled the pot into the sea from the rocks at low tide and then had to lasso the buoy back in a few days later to collect the dozen small prawns that had been enticed into the black pot.
I had watched Tommy’s boat come into the pier a couple of times. There had been muttered hello’s but I still felt an outsider. He hauled plastic crates of lobster and crab off his boat and into the back of his red van. There was a confidence in what he was doing and it was his work. Why should I interfere with his business? But where else was there an opportunity to buy lobster straight from the sea. So one evening as I walked up to the pub for a pint and I saw him on the pier I doubled back and asked if could buy some of the lobster off him. He was happy with that and we agreed on a couple for the weekend.
He said he would be on the pier Friday afternoon otherwise he could drop them off. It was wet that Friday and with small children to keep entertained we went out for the day. When we got back to the Cottage in the late afternoon his boat was in and he and his van had left the pier. But attached to the handle of the front door of the Cottage was a plastic shopping bag with three lobsters curled up inside.
Their claws were tied with rubber bands but they still snapped with their tails and arched backwards, claws outstretched as I lifted them out of the bag and put them in the box at the bottom of the fridge. I draped wet seaweed over them in the hope in would make them feel closer to home.
There was not much by way of guidance as to how to cook a lobster in the Cottage. The only book we had to hand was Myrtle Allen’s The Ballymaloe Cookbook – she did not approve of the sharp knife through the cross at the back top of its head and suggested dropping the lobster into a pan of lukewarm water “like a rock pool in summer” and reassuringly added that he should “fall asleep as the water warmed slowly’.
We tried it on the Saturday night on the three lobsters Tommy had dropped off on the Friday. Although they may have fallen asleep there was obviously a stage when the heat of the water woke them up and there was a furious splashing before they calmed down and started to change from their queer mottled blue to the traditional bright red.
Ever since then we have brought the water to the boil and plunged them in head first. You can leave the room with the warming method and remove yourself from the process but the plunge into boiling water is I am sure quicker and more immediate.
It is normally a process undertaken surrounded by a gaggle of excited children eager to have a go. There is a need to balance up their expectations with the requirement to give at least some dignity to the lump of ancient shellfish that is about to be put to death. A lobster may have a brain the size of a pin head and be one of the least sophisticated bundles of muscle scuttling along the sea floor like some pre-historic nightmare of a cockroach but they have been doing it a long time and should be given some respect.
The monster we took from Tommy this year was close to four inches thick. It must have spent at least twenty years hiding amongst the nook, crannies and cracks in the black rocks at the head of the bay. Kristen confessed that she had been tempted to put him back in the sea. I had some small sympathy with that as I lifted him from his tray to plunge him into the pot of boiling water. He seethed and his legs clicked and clacked before he went in. Once in the pan he continued to thump at the water although he was dead, the heat forcing contractions through the air in its shell. There was a tight sobering knot in my stomach as I killed it.
What I got right the first time was the use of water from the sea and the preparation of the lobster once cooked.
Water from the sea means a walk to the end of the garden, over the pebbly beach to the rock pools carrying a large steel pan. This can be difficult when the rock pools are covered at high tide and the water is full of pieces of seaweed. But it is an important part of the process and they would not taste the same cooked in water other than that in which they had spent their lives.
That first year I prepared them by lifting them out of the water with a pair of tongs. One by one they were laid out on a large wooden board and I split them with a heavy sharp knife and a pair of scissors. As they were hot I held them in place with pair of kitchen gloves. I then cracked the claws with a sharp blow of the knife. Whilst splitting them I gently melted a large pat of butter into which I had added a couple of crushed cloves of garlic and a very heavy grind of black pepper.
Once the lobsters were split I placed them into a large bowl and slathered over the melted butter. We ate them with our fingers using metal picks to weedle out every last morsel of sweet white flesh. Their heads and claws were sucked at and slurped until our fingers and faces were slick with their juices. We had to lift our tumblers of wine with fists as otherwise they would have slipped through our fingers.
Every year since that first time we have had lobsters at least a couple of times whilst staying at the Cottage and most times the cooking of them has followed exactly the same pattern. There have been variations. One year I cooked them in a tomato fishy sauce, a kind of calderata, and on other occasions I have finished them off in a frying pan and flamed them with whatever spirits were to hand. Although the variations may have had merits keeping it simple by boiling them and slathering with butter, garlic and pepper has always worked best.
Lobster does not always have a good reputation. It is too associated with fine dining, expense and extravagance. There are so many recipes for the cooking of them that call for elaborate preparation and carefully made sauces. Its reputation is such people will sniffily say that the humble crab tastes so much better notwithstanding the work required to get anything decent to eat out of a crab. The truth is that crabs taste different, they have a stronger flavour and they are often better value.
But that does not mean we have to be dismissive of lobster. We are lucky to have such fresh lobster available for those short weeks that we spend at the Cottage at a price that does not feel exorbitant.
Last summer I spent an afternoon on Tommy’s boat, Freedom, watching him work. He picked me up after lunch and it took us 45 minutes from Kitchen Cove to get up past Donneen Pier and the great piece of orange cliff that had fallen into the sea. He has had the boat for 7 years, 4 years in the water. She was some twenty years old before be bought her in Scotland and she was taken down to West Cork. She spent a year on railway sleepers by the Pier whilst he repainted her blue, rebuilt the cabin and fitted a new engine.
As we headed up the bay we left behind a churn of white water. We were followed by two great black backed gulls, they hung in the wind some twenty yards or so back from the stern. Porpoises had been following them the previous week. In Kitchen Cove the boat felt outsized within the circle of water we normally pottered around in a dingy or a canoe. But once out in the bay she was dwarfed by the enormity of the water and the scenery that rose up on either side. I could still feel her power – we were running alongside Kilcrohane after five minutes, a trip that would normally take us half an hour in our boat. Joe, Tommy’s mate fell asleep in the corner of the cabin. Tommy laid out the pliers for nicking the tails of the female lobsters before they are put back and another small sheet of cut metal to measure the length to make sure they were not too small.
We talked about his work. He had started fishing at 15 with his father when they had lived on the other side of Kitchen Cove. This was before the Pier had been extended in 1997 and the boats could not be moored up alongside it. The fishermen would have to row out in the morning with their pots to get to the boats. This was also before they had an electric winch to pull in the pots. They had to be hauled out of the water by hand. A lobster pot is heavy and this must have been back breaking work in bad weather pulling the dead weight of the pots out of the water.
He had spent time away from West Cork, living in London and New York but he had eventually come back He had then worked a few years on Spanish boats out of Castletownbeare spending ten days at a time out at sea.
It was better now. He had his own boat and he was his own boss. His day would start at 7.00 leaving the pier but he only fished within the confines of Dunmannus Bay. He could be home for lunch and then back out for a few hours in the afternoon.
We only ever watched him go out in the summer away from the winter gales and the grey sheets of rain that come in from the Atlantic. Although there were days he could choose not to go out there were also days when he had to. It is dangerous work. Only this year a boat had gone down from Glandore and five men had been lost.
Eventually the boat slowed down, Joe woke up and he and Tommy put on their thick yellow waterproofs. Joe took up a boat hook as Tommy maneuvered the boat alongside a buoy just off the cliffs. Joe caught and then heaved the buoy into the boat with the boat hook and the thick wet line was run through the wheel of the winch behind the cabin, looped around the metal drum, and with a twist of the black lever it started to haul in the blue line out of the water and it fell in a untidy pile on the deck.
The first few pots were nothing but by catch, sea urchins, which were thrown back into the sea and starfish, which were dumped in a bucket, dirty orange and brown, crawling and suckering at whatever they touch. These are the great enemy of the lobstermen – they have rasping teeth, which chew at the pots and eventually break them. Crabs were kept if of sufficient size and heavy enough but spider crabs were put back as there was no market for them.
Gobs of seaweed and great fronds of kelp adhered to the pots – they were encrusted and bent out of shape held together with chicken wire and twine from where they have been torn by the sea urchins and starfish.
Some of the pots were filled with three or four black dog fish, wrapped around themselves their sandpaper skin would tear at the flesh if they caught you. The big ones were almost 4 feet long with great angry mouths and tiny rows of teeth; there was something dark and malevolent about them. Ireland may not have snakes but these grey creatures writhing and turning over the hand as Tommy pulled them out of the pots would make a good substitute.
When they arrived the lobsters were surprisingly bright and active as they came out of the sea, trying to escape with great arches of their back and their claws splayed out snapping at the wind. Tommy and Joe wore thick blue rubber gloves but these would not offer much protection if a claw was to clamp its way round one of their fingers. Tommy put a crab’s claw between a lobster’s pincers and they crushed it in two. There was a real indignation that they should have been removed so harshly from the safe confines of the sea and rocks where they have no enemy to the boat, all their power gone and useless in Tommy’s fist.
Their colours were particularly vivid, on top not so much blue but a strange off black, mottled and alive in the sudden light and underneath pale with a look of burnt skin. They are such primitive creatures and it is hard to shake away the image of them as some kind of giant insect with their rows of small legs scurrying against the unyielding surface of the air and the bottom of the boat. To calm them down and stop them from fighting they were each covered with a damp cloth. Most of these appeared to be old pieces of Tommy’s clothing – torn jeans and jumpers.
There were about 25 pots on each run. As Tommy emptied the pot he passed it to Joe who tipped out the last the small crabs, which were still hanging on. He then stuffed a couple a ripe herring into the netted pocket in the top. Tommy stopped the winch every so often to mend one of the pots, which the crabs had torn trying to get out. He knotted them back together with green twine. The pots were then stacked neatly to the rear of the boat. Once they were all in and the last marker buoy with its tangle of rope has been hauled from the surface Tommy turned the boat round and told Joe where to lay them again dropping them back into the sea as the blue rope that holds them together unfurled.
Once a line of pots was out again Joe took the wheel to motor to where the next line was waiting to be hauled in. Tommy sat himself back to the cabin of the boat next to the boxes of lobster. He took them out in turn from under the damp cloth, gently cradling the lobsters between his thighs in their yellow sea trousers a plastic bag of elastic bands at his side. The blue rubber gloves were off and Tommy did this barehanded. One band clamped the first claw shut as the other claw arched back and rubbed against his hand without being to quite able turn back to get a purchase. He did not take his eyes off them and told me that part of the learning of this as a boy was getting distracted and having lobster grab hold of a finger.
Once the lobsters claws had been banded they calmed down and did not try to fight so hard and they were laid together at the bottom of one of the fisherman’s tray at the bottom of the boat under another damp cloth.
The crabs seethed in their black tray. As they were thrown in they aggressively bite out at the nearest crab and they then scuttled and kicked to get out of the tray. The odd lucky one was able to get out but was normally caught by its back legs by Joe and thrown back in. The luckier ones were able to make it to one of the sluice holes and fell back into the sea.
Over the course of almost two hours a total of five lines of pots were pulled out of the sea. Not all of them were re-laid and the last few were stacked in a neat pile at the back of the boat. They caught about 35 lobsters. Some would go to local restaurants and others on to Spain and France. We had four of them for supper that evening.
Not all of the lobsters that come out of the pots are destined for the table. If they are too small or egg bearing females they go back into the sea. Their tails are nicked with a pair of pliers and it is clear that some of them have been caught a few times before.
Throughout the year Tommy is out in Dunmannus Bay six days a week. During the winter they drag for scallops until March, then it is lobster through the summer and from the last few weeks in August it is prawns or shrimps from pots that are laid across Kitchen Cove. On the day I went out with him the sea and the weather was fairly benign and dry. We were close to the cliffs and so avoided the full heave of the swell that comes in off the Atlantic in the middle of the bay.
The first lobsters we had were a turning point in our relationship with the place. Notwithstanding the rain, the restless sea and grey skies there was good food to be had. The following year we had a boat that could be rowed out to catch fish and I started to put together a rough book on How to Kill a Mackerel.
We found ourselves eating the cheeses and started to make the connection between the rain sweeping in off the Atlantic, the fresh green grass feeding the cows and the rich full taste of the cheese. Durrus made in the hills and Gubbeen from its Georgian farmhouse in the lazy rolling countryside back from the coast road on the other side of Schull. Gubbeen had the added attraction that the by-product from the cheese making, whey, was fed to their pigs who in turn were made into sausages.
A few years later The Good Things Café was opened up by Carmel Somers in the old butterfly house on the Ahakista road out of Durrus. Named after the Jane Grigson book it does what it says on the tin, cooking up local ingredients into good things to eat. Its signature dishes are a pizza made with Durrus cheese and greens and a West Cork Fish Soup. Over the summer Tommy’s lobster occasionally feature as a special and half way through August Ahakista Shrimp appear on the blackboard menu.
Since it opened we have eaten there at least twice every summer going one day for lunch with children and then leaving the children at home for a more civilized evening meal.
The engine on the boat had stopped as we motored back from Carberry Island. We had gone there to look out for seals and there had been a dozen of them, sliding off the rocks into the water, watching us as they bobbed with curious suspicious gaze. We left them after ten minutes to head back for home and lunch.
Halfway back we were in the middle of the bay and some two miles from the Pier when the engine suddenly stopped. There was plenty of petrol and no matter what buttons I pressed and how hard I pulled there was no sign of it starting. There were oars on the boat and we got those out to start rowing but we could only make slow progress and it would have been evening before we got home.
I had seen Tommy’s boat on the way back to the Pier and this time I had had the foresight to bring a phone with me so I was able to rouse Kristen from a deckchair to go talk to Tommy. She asked him if he could go out again to give us a tow back and he used the opportunity to pass over the monster lobster.
Whilst we waited for Tommy to arrive we threw two lines over the side and immediately pulled in seven small mackerel. They taste better small and we did nothing to them that evening apart from gutting them down by the rock pools and throwing them onto a barbeque to cook.
As for the bag of shrimp Tommy gave in return for the whiskey I cooked those in a pan of boiling water. Draining them as they turned pink. We ate some that evening and I potted the rest. Twenty-five minutes to peel them, then melting some butter and flavouring it with crushed coriander, pepper and garlic, a pinch of paprika and a dash of Pernod. I poured the melted butter over the shrimp and the pot was put in the fridge to set overnight and we ate them the following day smeared onto toast.
We never quite got to the bottom as to why the engine stopped in the middle of the Bay. It started first time the following day and the problem was put down to some dirty petrol.