Good Thing’s Crab

There was a restaurant in West Cork called The Good Things Café. It did the simple things well and kept the difficult things simple. We ate there two or three times a year for the 12 years or so it operated out of the old butterfly house on the road out from Durrus towards Ahakista.

But there was always a dilemma to be had in going there. Whether to have the crab tart as a starter or main course. It always felt as if going one way meant having to give up on something else – a bowl of fish soup or cooling gazpacho to start with or hake with rice, duck legs with noodles, squid stew as a main. Over the years I realised that if one of the kids could be persuaded to have the fish soup there was a good chance it would it would need to be finished off by me although that could not be guaranteed and there were still decisions to be made over the rest of the meal.

The crab tart was a glorious thing – crisp pastry holding together a set golden custard flecked with white crab. I think saffron might have been involved.

It was so good we had a whole to share as part of the meal for my 50thbirthday on the Cottage’s lawn.

Back at home I have made the occasional attempt to find a recipe that would allow me to replicate the meals that we had there. I thought I had found one last year but the tart tin was too thick and I lacked confidence in how long it should be in the oven. As a consequence the custard had not set and it flowed across the plate a crabby gooey mess. Tasted pretty good though.

Then leafing through Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book on fish cooking catching up on what he had to say about mackerel I came across his recipe for crab tart and thought I should give it a go.

As a bonus it was a grey wet Saturday morning so I bought a live crab from Wards all the better to give me an hour to waste picking out every small last morsel of white meat from the nooks and crannies of the papery shelled interior listening to good music as I went. I managed to snap the nut crackers whilst doing so.

An onion was chopped and cooked in olive oil until golden with some garlic and red chilli. Eggs were mixed with cream and hard cheese and it all went into a tin lined with layers of filo pastry.

Transpired I still lacked confidence with my timings. It looked very pretty but the pastry hadn’t cooked through and the custard needed another five minutes to set properly. Still it tasted pretty good.

Oh and we had a couple of artichokes picked from the garden. Surprisingly good!


It is possible to calculate the age of a mackerel by the careful examination of a small bone called the otolith or earstone. They float within a canal in the inner ear somewhere behind the brain and even in a big fish of 45 cm they will be no more than 6 – 7 mm long; they continue to grow throughout the life of the fish. As the mackerel goes through its seasonal cycle of feast and famine small rings or ridges occur in the bone a bit like the rings that appear in the cut stump of tree; each ridge another year. Examine the otolith under a microscope and count the number of ridges and you have the age of the fish.

There will be a bone somewhere inside us all that continues to grow and for each year we spend a week or so in the Cottage it develops another ridge to reflect the time that is bent out of shape as we feast on the special air in West Cork.




“We have bought a cottage in Ireland,” Dad had announced.

There had been vague talk within the family that it might be a good idea for us to acquire some kind of holiday home. We either had children or they were on the way and our lives were in a state of flux. But we all had a different idea as to where might be best. My view was that a small place in Spain would be just about right; ideally it would be within walking distance of a good market, stalls piled high with fresh fruit and veg and white counters of glistening fish and butchers that sold the more obscure parts of the animal along with the rest. A warm beach would have been good as well.

We didn’t pay too much attention when Mum and Dad said they were going away to West Cork, Ireland for a long weekend. They had been there the year before and it seemed they had found something about the country that they liked. For the rest of us our only experience of Ireland had been a Guinness fuelled weekend in Dublin and the adverts that appeared in the Sunday papers from the Irish Tourist Board – pictures of green fields, wild coastlines and pubs full of music. We also knew that with those green fields came an awful amount of rain.

We paid more attention when they came home and Dad made his announcement.

They had seen a small advert for a cottage for sale in the back of one of the Sunday papers. The sale price included all of the contents; not just the furniture but the bed linen as well, the pictures on the wall, the cutlery in the kitchen drawers, all of the books and some tangled mackerel lines in the back of the garage.

This was 1998, pre-internet, and the news was given to us over the phone.

“It is right by the sea,” Dad said. “ And there is a small rocky beach at the bottom of the garden and then behind the cottage there is a pier and up the road there is a pub and then down the road the other way up round the back there is a small shop run by a lady called Marie Burke and they sell milk, cornflakes and bacon and ice-lollies.”

Dad knew the ice-lollies were important, if only to provide something to keep the grandchildren amused.

“Is there anywhere else to buy food?” I asked.

“Well there is a bigger shop in the nearest village, Durrus, which is 10 minutes away and then there are shops in Bantry which is another 20 minutes away.”

Whilst all this sounded very good it was a long way from my thoughts of a Spanish market and a warm beach.

It was another few weeks before we saw Mum and Dad and they were able to show us the photos they had taken over the course of their weekend in Ahakista and it all started to become clear.

The Cottage was really just that. A small squat cottage by the side of the pier in Ahakista. It was painted a bright white with a dark slate roof. There was a yellow stable door in the middle facing out over the lawn and two lean-tos either side. The lean-to by the road housed the kitchen and there was another split door that opened out to a metal gate and the road. The other-lean squeezed in a small bunk room and a bathroom. There was one large room downstairs, which was divided by the stairs, on one side of which there was a small living room and on the other side of which there was a heavy oak dining table. There were two bedrooms upstairs on either side of the landing. There was just enough room to swing a cat but you would have to stand at the right angle.

They showed us a photo of Mum stood on the lawn looking back over the Cottage and the clear blue sky that was overhead. It had obviously been one of those days when sun has come out and the weather stands still in all its glory.

There was another photo of Mum sat with Mr and Mrs Gould, the then owners, by a green metal table drinking tea in front of the yellow door and there were photos of the sea that ran from the bottom of the lawn. The tide had been in when they visited the water almost up to the low wall at the bottom the garden.

The Gould’s children had grown up and to their disappointment they found that they were not visiting the place as often as they had done before. They had a vague concern that Ahakista was getting busier. The pier had been extended the previous year and there was a worry that this would give rise to an increase in activity round the back of the Cottage. They were also wary of some of the locals and had decided not to advertise the place for sale locally, which is why the advert had appeared in Mum and Dad’s Sunday paper.

Dad explained the benefit of being able to buy it all lock, stock and barrel. There was no need for us to be carting beds and furniture over. It all came with the price.

But it was clearly the weather that had sold it. The blue sky and the water sitting so close together as if it might never rain.

And so the family bought the Cottage by the Pier. There wasn’t much say in it and we went along trusting in Mum and Dad’s judgement on the weather.

It took us a year to get there.

The children know it now but for me there still is a tightening in the stomach as we drive out from Durrus along the coast road to Ahakista. It is there not just on the day of arrival but each journey back from Durrus along the sea road to get to the Cottage.

We first did the drive from Dublin across Ireland to get there in Easter 1999. We had taken the early morning ferry from Holyhead to Dun Laogharie.

Before that we had other plans that took in friends in Italy and Spain and there was wariness about going there. Those photos of the green in the sun set it all up and with so much invested it was difficult to see how it could live up to those expectations.

The journey from Dublin to Ahakista took the best part of eight hours that first trip across. We went in two cars with Mum and Dad in one and the us with the two children, Kristen and Galen, in the other although we stopped a couple of times to swap around passengers and children.

The journey out of Dublin itself took two hours following our noses and each other and trying to find the road to the west. There was a bit of motorway out of the City which stopped at Nass and then we were on Ireland’s main roads, no by-passes and no dual carriageways – two lanes and the occasional widening – an ambitious line towards the side of the road to indicate that perhaps you could pull in so as to let the speed happy Irishman stuck behind you in his souped up Ford escort get past, avoiding the tractors.

Near Kildare a lorry had got stuck under a bridge and we spent an hour sat still before being sent on a detour through green lanes and the country. It was then onto Portlaoise, Abbeyleix, Urlingford, Horse and Jockey, Cashel and Cahir, Mitchelstown and Fermoy and then the road down from the central plain to Cork. We had to slow down going through each town or string of house along the road.

Over the following few years we would become familiar with some of these towns and their car parks as they became stopping off places for a coffee, change of nappy, a sandwich or just somewhere to stretch the legs. The Japanese Gardens outside Kildare and the car park for Cahir Castle. Sometimes we would stop having taken a side road through green fields. The roads were quiet and once we had a picnic next to one of the thin castles or watchtowers next to a farm.

Now there is a by-pass around Dublin and it is either motorway or dual carriageway all the way to Cork. As the dual carriageway was extended it by-passed the towns we had stopped at and now they are just names on signs as we hurtle past.  On a good day now it is possible to do the journey in a quick four hours.

But the drive from Cork is still almost 2 hours following the signs for Bantry through the easy rolling countryside and little different from when we first did it. Over the years the towns we drive through have become familiar, but we have rarely stopped such is the desire to get there; first Bandon, then Enniskeen, then Dunmannaway and finally Drimoleague.

A few miles out of Drimoleague on a clear day if you look to the left you can see through the hedges and trees the distant grey mountains of the Sheep’s Head.

Mostly it is easy driving although suddenly the road will sharpen and narrow and there is always the slow unyielding clump of a tractor to take you unaware as you come out of a corner.

At last you come to the turn off for Durrus and the Sheep’s Head. Rinn Mhuintir Bhaire. It might be the sign for the end of the world. The road rises up and past Knockboolteenagh and then down into the green valley of the Durrus River. There is another quick glimpse of the mountains of the Sheep’s Head and that is the last sight of them before you pass Durrus and reach the water.

Through Durrus and if the tide is high, the black stench of mud, normally stalked by a couple of herons, is covered with water which can rise so high as to almost drown the bridge past the Anglican Church the last building in Durrus and then the water on the left of the road pushing and pulling away from the land and the first proper sight of Knocknamaddree sitting in the middle of the Mizen moving out of the narrowing of the bay out of Durrus past the grain store and then through the trees the bay widens slightly to take in on the left the blue of Blair’s Cove.

We normally make the journey down in late July or August when each side of the road, each hedgerow, is coloured and marked by a blaze of red or pink from fuchsia in its full summer bloom and the orange montbretia flowers pushing through to dominate through all the thick green leaves. The fuchsia has been chosen as the symbol for West Cork, but for the lack of an attractive shape montbretia would do just as well, the flowers spill out of every ditch and hedgerow, a surprise that there could be so much colour against all that green.

The road chases back to the land as the swallows cut up, over and through the hedges on either side and then up to and past Rossmore Point, its rambling farmhouse and ruined castle stuck in a plot of land away from the sea the road rises and then falls to cling back to the coast and the view is the full sweep of the bay opened up. Knocknamaddree squat over the Mizen on the left and on the right the mountains of the Sheep’s Head, Rosskerrig, Seefin and in the distance a misty glimpse of Ballyroon Mountain the last stop before the Atlantic and between the two peaks of the bay the straight line that separates sky from water dominating the distance.

f it is late afternoon in summer the sun will be falling behind Rosskerrig and the water is silver fast as the flash of a belly of mackerel. At each beach there is a rush of smooth stones to the water, cars parked and people are swimming or fishing looking for the boiling of water as sprats are chased to the shallows.

Then the bay opens up and fills with the water sliding down from the Atlantic as if it the world is not going to stop tipping and the waves will soon be lapping over the seawall. On the left the mountains of the Mizen hovering over the back of Doneen Coos mostly shrouded in the mist of distance and the yawning gap of the mouth of the bay.

Now the sea is touching the sky not touching dissolving into a smooth milky blue the eye forever drawn and never quite seeing. The sea still and the bare glimmer of wind rippling the surface, looking out again, perfectly mirrored so water and air seem one. The horizon then disappears and there is space you could move through if only you could just carry on. The sea sits very still and the sky is perfect summer blue dwarfing the clouds through its enormity.

Now the tide is going out. Slipping its suck and leak from the shore. Soon the bay will feel emptied, drawn out and plug gone.

From the Cottage it is not possible to see the head of the bay but boating out of Kitchen Cove to the point off Owen Island it again opens up and the two peninsulas – the Sheep’s Head and the Mizen race off to that milky point.






Galen was 2 ½ years old that first visit to the Cottage and Kristen was just over 4.

Most of the week was spent in and around the Cottage getting our first feel for the place. It bore no relation to the holiday home I had had in my minds eye in Spain. Although there were days when the sun came out for a while it was only to punctuate the rain. The walls of the Cottage are almost two foot thick and downstairs the windows that look out of the lawn are low with alcoves big enough for small children to sit in. They spent a lot of time sat there watching the rain come down over the lawn and the grey clouds that obscured the water and the bay. We started to learn how to watch out for the weather and cheered when the cloud lifted so we could see the other side of the bay. We cheered even more if there was a chink of blue sky and we could see the tops of the hills and the white beacons on the top of Mount Gabriel.

“There’s enough blue sky now to make a pair of sailor’s trousers.”

Galen still had the rounded figure he had has a baby. When it stopped raining we put him in waterproof trousers and a pair of blue boots and he and Kristen spent time down by the rock pools. They were supposed to be looking for shrimps but Galen spent most of his time picking up the biggest stones he could carry and seeing how much of a splash he could make throwing them into the pools.

The road into Ahakista runs along the side of the Cottage separated from the garden by a thick hedge of fuschia. It was a busy time of year for the farmers and they trundled past with their heavy machinery and tractors. Every time we heard the rumble of one approaching Galen put down whatever stone he was holding and pointed as it went past shouting to let us know, “Tractor!!”

He found it impossible to spend time down by the sea without it filling his blue boots with water and they would periodically have to be emptied out so he could get back down there again. A dozen or so prawns were eventually netted from the rock pools and we cooked them quickly in boiling water along with some periwinkles that we had to ease out of their shells with toothpicks.

Apart from those prawns and periwinkles there was a frustration that although we were almost surrounded by the sea there was very little seafood to be had. There were no shops selling fish and we had not yet caught on to what the local fishermen were bringing in. The only opportunity for seafood came one evening when there was a knock on the kitchen door and a tall man with a slow soft voice looked in.

“Good evening,” he said shaking our hands. “My name is Michael and I have some fish in the back of my car if you would like to have a look.” He spoke slowly as if he was taking us into his confidence.

It was early evening and dark. This was before they put a street light up on the other side of the road and we had to take a torch out with us so we could peer into his boot. The only fish that he had was a large bucket of gnarled mussels. We bought a bag and ate them the following day cooked with garlic and white wine.

The following day I spent time trying to untangle the knot of mackerel lines that had been left in a drawer towards the back of the garage. After an hour or so unpicking the knots I was left with an orange line, some hooks and a small lead weight. I tied them altogether and took them to the end of the pier determined to catch some fish. There was no great expectation that I would actually catch anything but with the sea all there and the equipment to hand it seemed worthwhile having a go. Without any great idea as to what I was doing I hurled the weighted line as far as I could across the water. As I did so it was quickly apparent that my knotting skills had not been up to the task and before the lead weight had hit the surface I could see that it and the hooks had come loose from the line. I pulled in the slack line but could find no more weights or hooks in the back of the garage. That was the end of my fishing that week.

For the first few years we went there was a line of four or five trees that ran along the seaward side of the garden providing something of a windbreak against the worst of the weather. Over those years the trees gradually died off and were cut down to be used for firewood. But during that first visit they stood strong still and we built a swing from a branch that came out from the last of the trees. Ropes were thrown over a long horizontal branch that pointed out to the sea and somehow a wooden seat was made and fixed to the ropes. Because Dad and I were not good at these things we ended up with the seat at a slight angle which made little difference to its use as a perch to look at out over the water.


Eventually that tree also died off but we kept it standing so the kids could continue to make use of the swing. But nothing lasts for long with the weather. It was Easter Sunday and we were about to go for a long lunch at The Good Things Café. Galen was waiting for people to get ready and he walked down the garden so he could sit in the swing. The branch was rotten by then and as he took his feet off the ground it snapped and just missed his head. He was more shocked than hurt.


But for those first few years of our visits to the Cottage the view across the lawn and over the bay was coloured by that remaining tree and the branch sticking out with its out of kilter swing.



Six ways with mackerel

The mackerel were more plentiful this year than last year although there were a couple of times during our second week in Ahakista when I had to rely on the kindness of men coming in on the pier with their buckets rather than my own skill with a hook and line off Owen island.

Our first day there was a Friday. 

We had arrived six hours late having been held up for two hours on the motorway five minutes drive from home. The hold up was caused by a man on a bridge threatening to throw himself off. It was an interesting experience being stationary on the motorway for that length of time. We could see what was happening and it was clear there was no danger that the traffic would suddenly start moving. Both carriageways were closed and as we waited people got out of their cars to sit in the sun on the empty carriageway across from us enjoying the silence. Conversations were started up and it was easy to imagine slight strange off kilter relationships being formed as we watched the man on the bridge two hundred yards in front of us. 

He was talked off after an hour but there was another long wait before we started moving the first sound being the roar of the motorbikes that had been able to make their way to the front of the queue.

As a result of the delay we missed the ferry we were due to catch from Holyhead to 8.00 in the evening. There was another at 3.00 in the morning and we got that instead. During the wait in Holyhead we had a Mike Leigh like meal in a curry house called Taste of India and bedded down in the car for a couple of hours the first in the queue to get on.

We should have arrived in Ahakista at 4.00 in the morning which would have given me time to get to Bantry Market and a pint at Ma Murphys. With the delay we did not get there until 10.30 and I had to forgo my pint. But the sun was shining and in the afternoon I caught 8 good-sized mackerel from the kayak. We ate them that evening. The fillets were fried quickly in a pan and eaten on toast.

On Saturday I walked up the pier to talk to Tommy after a year away. His boat had just come in and he was loading a crate of small crab into the back of his van. As we talked he asked if I would like some. They were velvet crab and I said I would take a few and try them for lunch. I cooked them for a few minutes in a pan of boiling sea water and we pulled them apart with our fingers. There wasn’t much meat inside of them but what we could find was good and sweet.

The following day, Sunday, I caught another 8 mackerel from almost the same spot. I had gone out in the early morning so we had them for lunch on the barbeque. I cooked them whole the skin black and crisp from the heat protecting the white meat. There is no better way to cook fresh mackerel than over an open flame.

Two days later I caught another bucketful and we had these raw as part of a mackerel tartare.

I had made mackerel tartare the previous year and was determined to do it again. this time I would make sure I skinned all of the fillets. It took me a few fillets to work out how best to do it. I held them down with my fingers at the thin tail end and then used a long sharp knife to nick down to the skin. It was then a matter of keeping the knife as flat to the chopping board as I could running it along so that the skin was left behind. The skin went to the birds. The skinned fillets were chopped with a handful each of gherkins and capers. I then stirred in some chopped cucumber which had been skinned and seeded and cured briefly in a mixture of salt and pepper. It was seasoned with olive oil, lemon juice, salt and pepper and bit of chopped dill.

We ate it for the lunch with pieces of thin toast.

Two days later I used another bucketful of mackerel to make an approximation of kedgeree. I had to dust down and give a wipe to the smoker which was on a back shelf in the garage. It worked as well as I remembered and once it was going the fillets of mackerel took only a few minutes to cook.

They were smoked with their skin on but I peeled the skin off before stirring the fillets gently into a large pan of curried onions and cooked rice. Any juices that were left over from the mackerel were poured over the finished dish.

We ate it sat by a fire on the beach watching out for shooting stars.

I cured the next haul of mackerel. The recipe was taken from a book of Lisbon cooking I was given earlier this year. I made up a mixture of salt and sugar which was flavoured with some fronds of fennel. Half of this was scattered on a metal tray. Skinned fillets of mackerel went on to and were then covered with the rest of the salt and sugar mixture.

This was left to macerate for 30 minutes or so. I then washed off the salt and pepper and we ate the fillets chopped into a tomato salad.

These were the last of the mackerel we caught. For the rest of the last week we were reliant on the kindness of men on the pier. 

It was a matter of waiting for a boat to come in and then walking up the pier to look and ask what they had caught. If there were too many in their bucket there was was always a chance of an offer to take some off them – particularly if I was able to get in the conversation the lack of luck we had had when out fishing.

I got four good mackerel this way one morning and this time gave them a longer cure. The recipe came from a faded photocopied page from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s book of fish cooking which I brought to the Cottage some 15 years ago when I first started to think about putting a collection of mackerel recipes together. 

The salt and sugar mixture was much the same as I used last time but more ground black pepper was added together with a good handful of chopped dill. I cured the mackerel in an old sweet box that may have added another layer of sweetness to the cure. It went into the fridge for a day.

We ate the mackerel outside in the sun with the bounty from a trip to Bantry market. the longer cure had tightened the fillets of fish up and they had taken on a greater layer of sweetness. The only complaint was my failure to debone all of the fillets.