We drove due south from Shannon Airport on gradually narrowing roads, tracing the ridgelines of small mountains, with the sea in the distance. Dewy greenswards rippled to the edges of rugged cliffs that plunged to a whitecapped, dark Atlantic; the light was kinetic, alternating beams of sun with moody, dense fog. When we dropped out of the hills and toward the coast, the road twisted and turned, crisply following the contours of the bay. Out on the water, white gulls perched amid carpets of seaweed. At one bend in the road we found Manning’s Emporium, a stand stocked with West Cork cheeses, from which we bought a parade of samples: Ardrahan, Carrigaline, Coolea, Durrus, Gubbeen. Allen’s guidebook revealed that we were just down the hill from Rory Conner, an artisan cutler, and we decided to look in.
Conner’s studio, a cement outbuilding crammed with rusty blade forms, drill presses, and grinders’ wheels carpeted with metal dust, was straight out of the 19th century. The knives themselves were works of art, with handles of sustainable cocobolo and Irish bog oak, their steel blades wavy with the patterns of Damascus steel. Conner counts among his customers local celebs like Jeremy Irons as well as far-off food mavens: Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini owns a custom salmon slicer, and the mail-order-food impresario Ari Weinzweig carries Conner’s cheese knives at Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But Conner was most proud of the reputation his blades have earned locally—West Cork fishermen regularly take his knives out to sea with them.
Discovering a tightly knit community of artisanal food producers, forged by old ways and strong relationships, was energizing. As we rolled into Bantry, a dreamily picturesque port that hugs both banks of a tidal inlet, we were beginning to think the whole Celtic Tiger–pub doomsday scenario was so much bollocks. And then, past a row of cheery quayside shopfronts, we saw the Maritime Hotel, a minimalist glass structure nearly 200 yards long that seemed to dwarf the other buildings in the city center. And beyond that the hotel extended another few hundred feet, still under construction. Across the street from the spanking-new entrance, along the seawall, was a pile of crab traps and a few beached rowboats parked along with the Audis and Saabs of the hotel’s guests. But the more we surveyed the scene, the more it seemed that the traps and boats had been discarded. The Saabs were ascendant.
“We’ve seen more construction here in the last ten years than in the previous hundred,” Alan Callender told us later that day when we ventured out to Glengarriff Lodge, the enormous thatched-roof stone house he’s been restoring for the past six years. (It was once the hunting estate of the earls of Bantry.) His connection to the area dates back to the 60’s, when his grandfather, cresting an early wave of Irish and English immigrants to the area (“blow-ins, we call them”), bought Glengarriff Lodge as a vacation house. It sits on an island in the middle of a salmon-rich river, surrounded by gardens with monumental hydrangea mounds and 50 acres of forest. Growing up there, Callender witnessed the next wave of settlers, mostly Dutch and German immigrants in the 70’s and 80’s, but these days, vacationland seems to have become a little stressed out. “People here are a lot busier than they used to be,” he said. “They’ve got a lot more debts.” And when we asked about the crab traps and beached boats on the Bantry quay, his assessment was very grim. Irish fishermen’s quotas were being cut year after year, and aquaculture was having only limited success. “All the fishermen have become builders,” Callender said.
Well, perhaps not all. We detected no sign of this dire circumstance in the West Cork fish soup we dipped into on the terrace of Good Things Café in Durrus, seven miles away, the following day. A fragrant fish stock spiked with saffron, chock-full of scallops from Ahakista and haddock, and served with a dollop of garlicky rouille, it was the liquid equivalent of the sun-drenched, sea-breezy day. We were lunching with a set of our blow-in friends, Philip and Caroline, their three adorable girls, and their friend Ari, who was helping them renovate the house they’d bought six months prior when they’d moved from upstate New York. Philip’s a Dubliner by birth, as well as a talented tradesman and artist, and Caroline’s a supermom from Georgia (they’d spent the weekend catching up with their pal Michael Stipe, whose band R.E.M. had just wrapped a five-night engagement at Dublin’s Olympia Theatre; see My Favorite Place for more). Good Things is Philip and Caroline’s neighborhood restaurant, and it’s quite a gem. Chef Carmel Somers is a disciple of Jane Grigson, and her food is similarly straightforward and deeply flavorful, with a touch of whimsy, like a pizza of Swiss chard, nutmeg, and the local Durrus cheese. The restaurant’s doors were swung wide open, with mattress-ticking curtains, slate tables (some of whose bases are old iron sewing-machine trestles), and modern Philippe Starck chairs. In the open kitchen, Somers, wearing a bandanna, was tying up and seasoning pork roasts for dinner.