In search of the Emerald Isle’s best food, Matt Lee and Ted Lee head to County Cork, where artisanal cheesemakers, authentic pubs, and briny oysters await.
© Ditte Isager A seafood platter at Fishy Fishy Cafe
| Credit: A seafood platter at Fishy Fishy Cafe

Pearse Street in Clonakilty is a handsome high street of pastel-hued Georgians with bronze door knockers, upscale design shops, baby clothiers, and bookshops. On a balmy July night, the storefronts were shuttered but the street was crowded with cologned lads in tracksuits piling out of cars and into back-alley nightclubs. We were searching for the right pub, a quiet place where we could indulge in the whiskey taste-off we’d been itching to stage since we’d landed at Shannon Airport: a contest between Ireland’s two most popular bar brands, Paddy and Powers.

A sandwich board advertising a trad music session guided us through an arched shortcut to the next street over. We trod past a fortress of spent ale kegs toward a white cottage, and pushed open the lacquered red door. On the other side, we found ourselves in what seemed like someone’s parlor, with a standing-room-only crowd who were silent, rapt, and staring at…us?

No, they were scrutinizing the musicians—fiddler Maighréad Casey and guitarist Tom O’Leary—seated so near the entrance we could almost feel the downdraft of Maighréad’s bow as she sawed away. She sang an ancient song of seafaring strangers and fishermen’s widows, in the flickering light of candles stuck in old Jameson bottles. An Teach Beag’s bartender worked the crowd with nary a whisper, reading lips, pulling drinks, pricing with his fingers, making change. In an instant we had our whiskeys, but the taste-off seemed suddenly pointless. Smoky, peaty, peppery—who cared?What mattered was that it was the perfect drink for the perfect night in the perfect Irish town.

Go to Ireland, and quick—before the pubs disappear, friends from New York to Chicago to Toronto told us. The ban on smoking indoors and the crackdown on drunk driving is killing the classic watering holes; the old codgers who’d sputtered down to the taproom in rattletrap Austins, dropping 200 quid a week on pints and fags, are homebound now. And while the publicans are losing clientele, their taxes are going through the roof. The decade-long economic boom that inspired Ireland’s nickname, the Celtic Tiger, has made the very land on which their establishments stand worth much more than they’d ever earn as barkeeps.

We went to Ireland to experience the soul of the pub scene before its embers were extinguished, and we chose West Cork for its culinary fire. In the past 10 years, the region has become the epicenter of the Slow Food movement in Ireland—perhaps not surprising, since this sea-swept, southern part of the country comprises a series of peninsulas that stretch like fingers into the Atlantic, the ideal spawning ground for shrimp, oysters, scallops, crabs, and langoustines. Day boats from the small port towns of Union Hall and Castletownbere reel in sole, pike, haddock, monkfish, John Dory, plaice, and skate. And the cold sea represents only one aspect of West Cork’s food bounty. Fields of wild vetch and heather nourish vast herds of cows and sheep (County Cork is prime cheese country), and free-ranging pigs and poultry munch happily in the thickets.

We were eager to see how the recent years of prosperity might have changed Cork’s dining scene. The area’s long been a destination for international food adventurers, in large part due to the work of Myrtle Allen, who in 1964 opened Ballymaloe House restaurant with her husband, Ivan, proving that Irish farmhouse cooking could garner worldwide critical acclaim. Since then, Allen and her family have expanded their enterprise with a cooking school, restaurants in Cork City, television shows, and many, many books. But Myrtle Allen remains an activist for artisanal producers, having recently written the essential Local Producers of Good Food in Cork, a no-frills compendium of the best food stops in the county.

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.

Ari, a local lad who’d been one of Somers’s very first customers when she opened in 2003, and who counted many fishermen as close friends, had a different read of the country’s fish situation. According to him, their quotas were the fault of recreational anglers, who want to find the rivers near their vacation homes stocked with fish when they drop in from London and Dublin on weekends.

“The anglers’ lobby have pull,” he said. “Lawyers, judges—all these people are anglers, and it’s just greed. Total greed.” We nodded appreciatively, and kept silent about our appointment to go angling in the Blackwater River in a couple of days.

Everyone we encountered in West Cork seemed to be engaged in a discourse about food, peppered with Irish wit and enthusiasm, but driven by a surprisingly good sense of taste and a fierce respect for the people who produce it. Aside from the previously frozen fare found at most pubs, the food at restaurants often pays homage to artisanal food producers. So at Gleeson’s Restaurant, in Clonakilty, where Robert Gleeson’s cooking is refreshingly simple and seductive, you’ll see on the menu that the smoked haddock comes from Sally Barnes, the duck in the terrine from Helena Hickey. Whereas back home in New York such farm name–checking feels pretentious and belabored, here it seems like no more than a modest tribute to these individuals’ talent and hard work. It’s the tasty results—the best smoked fish and the most vibrant terrine we’ve ever had—that seal the deal.

Clonakilty is the kind of town writers like us adore. We tend to exalt humble victuals—oxtails, marrow bones, pig trotters—and this town is famous for what may be the lowliest of all: black pudding, the sausage made of cow’s blood boiled with oatmeal and spices. How Clonakilty came to be synonymous with the stuff is a simple story: in the 1880’s a local butcher named Philip Harrington developed a following for his blood sausage. A hundred years later, another butcher, Edward Twomey, bought the shop, branded the Harrington recipe Clonakilty Black Pudding, and distributed the delicacy throughout the United Kingdom. If you’re devouring a black-pudding pizza at Harrods in London (and you should), you’re eating County Cork’s finest export.

The fact that the black pudding Gleeson serves with fall-apart-tender braised pork belly comes from Avril and Willie Allshire’s free-range farm six miles outside town in Rosscarbery—and not from Twomey’s shop just around the corner—is noteworthy. And the proof, well…it was in this pudding, which was insanely good: spiced with rosemary and clove, beefy and rich, every bite seeming to raise the red blood cell count—goose bumps, too. It was like tasting pain Poilâne fresh from the Rue du Cherche-Midi oven, or beignets and chicory at the Café du Monde, or crab Louis at the bar at Swan Oyster Depot: that sensation of “nowhere better.”

We’d seen nothing like the wide motorways that gird Cork City since we’d left the industrial air-cargo zone around Shannon Airport. Here, near the city, the Celtic Tiger was roaring. Hard by the highway, branded luxury-condo towers rose, advertising themselves with enormous billboards. One of them pictured a cute rabbit with the words hi, neighbor. A bunny?On this ring road?

Once we were inside the heart of Cork City, a bustling commercial district that hugs the Lee River (no relation), we hastened to the English Market, a 1780’s brick pile wedged tightly into the old town. Its interior, devastated by a fire in the 1980’s, has been restored, and it’s now jammed with fishmongers, butchers, cheese purveyors, and traiteurs. The crowning jewel of the place is the Farmgate Café, which occupies the second-floor mezzanine of a lofty three-story hall with clerestory windows and a vaulted ceiling. Every market should have a restaurant as winning, with farmers and marketers sharing communal tables, drinking half-bottles of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, and tucking into hearty regional dishes from a short menu. We ate lamb livers with wide, beautifully pink slabs of bacon, and a creamy, buttery soup with tripe and drisheen—a black pudding that was smoother and more gelatinous than Gleeson’s, with a gamier, more barnyardy flavor. Truly, we were becoming scholars of the black arts.

After lunch, we walked north, crossing the Lee River to the Cork Butter Museum, which we figured was a must. We found some medieval-looking churns and old butter-block wrappers with sublime graphics, but the pièce de résistance was an ancient corporate team-building video for the Irish Dairy Board. It’s worth the price of admission to see the irony-free playback of TV ads dreamed up by a London agency. In one, a woman plays a harp in a cave to an audience of cheese wheels while the voice-over intones: “The cheese that comes from Ireland matures to the sound of harps.”

We laughed about it all the way back to the river, and continue to do so. The charm of this part of Ireland is that its soul presents itself at every other turn; any attempt to amplify it, frame it, or put it out on display risks caricature—or worse. And that charm, that soul, is something that the Irish in 2008 seem motivated to preserve. Even the state-funded Irish Dairy Board knows that its talented people make great cheese. Its smart pocket guide to the country’s best wheels—which likely cost less to produce than a harpist’s day rate—has its heart in the right place and is distributed free in most Irish markets.

We repaired to the Weir Bar, at Jurys Cork Hotel—very New Ireland, it’s a chain of businessmen’s hotels with the blandness of urban boutique lodgings. But it had a few delights as well, like a library of books by Irish authors in the lobby, and an airy bar overlooking the river. The bar was abuzz with people of all ages—birthdays, family reunions, business meetings, grandmothers, grandkids—and it occurred to us that this was what has taken the place of the classic old pub. Paddy’s granddad wouldn’t recognize the Herman Miller furniture, but the craic (fellowship and good fun) and the booze would feel familiar.

In fact, we encountered scant evidence of the pub’s demise in our travels. Certainly, our friends had witnessed some agonizing closings, but it seemed to us that the landscape of pub culture was changing, with each establishment distilling its particular character. You had your quiet An Teach Beag, with traditional music and the feel of Old Ireland, and you had your new-age pubs like the Weir Bar, with plate glass and sleek iron fireplaces. The day before, we’d ducked into a roadside pub that had looked appealing from the outside, but inside it was dark and musty, with an indifferent barkeep pulling flat pints with the telephone clapped to her ear, and a lone patron mashing the button of a video poker game. Maybe there are pubs whose passing nobody would lament?

To us, the future of food and drink in Ireland seems promising, and the young, do-ragged chefs at Café Paradiso turning out perfect fried samphire with raita and a zesty tomatillo-and-cucumber green gazpacho herald the next generation. The following morning, when we dropped in on Exciting Breads, a class taught by Rachel Allen (granddaughter-in-law of Myrtle, Ireland’s Giada De Laurentiis) in a loftlike demonstration kitchen at Ballymaloe Cookery School, 20 miles outside Cork City, we felt we’d glimpsed the future too. Allen was a superb teacher, eloquent and confident, attentive to variations, and mindful of the rapport between an old recipe and its modern interpretation. She made a staple food as rustic and homespun as bread seem contemporary. Later that night, when we took dinner at the Ballymaloe House itself, we found the place to be in need of a strong draft of Rachel. Compared with the nimble lightness of Good Things Café or Gleeson’s, Ballymaloe seemed mumsy and old-fashioned. And we felt the service’s hurried air would have been employed to better effect in the kitchen, as every dish that arrived on our table, save the cheese plate, was woefully overcooked.

Ballyvolane House, by contrast, showed us a suave and winning way to bridge grand-manor Ireland and the new. Justin Green, the fourth generation of Greens to live at this enormous Italianate country property, runs the place with his wife, Jenny, in a comfortably homey style—a friendly cat stretched out on the bench of the grand piano, spaniels and children scampering about—but with a deluxe and vaguely bohemian air. A homemade elderflower cordial and vintage Bakelite radios awaited upstairs in the rooms, and as we sipped coffee in the garden in the morning, Jeremy Green, Justin’s father, tended to a flock of birds in a dovecote on the far side of a manicured gaming lawn. You could imagine hosting the dream reunion of your best college pals here.

Another of Ballyvolane’s great draws is its proximity to excellent salmon-fishing rivers, and its access to coveted permits. We had arranged for a half-day salmon-fishing expedition, and Justin set us up with a guide—ghillie, as they say here—Norman Gillett. A wisp of a man, Gillett wore an eyeglass tether, felt plus fours, and a Robin Hood hat with a feather in its crown; we sensed he could gut a 20-pound salmon in seconds. We drove about 15 minutes from the hotel to the Blackwater River, pulled on our waders, jumped a fence with our gear and picnic lunch, and tramped across a pasture to the river’s edge, carefully avoiding a herd of cows.

Gillett, a retired geophysicist, was a wonderful teacher. He showed us how to cast the lure far into the fast-moving channel near the opposite bank, and to reel in the fly at just the right speed: quick enough to keep it from catching on the rocks of the riverbed, but slow enough to attract the interest of the fish. We were the worst students—wanting desperately to catch a big slab of sashimi, but consistently snagging our lures in the riverbed. And we probably weren’t thinking enough like a fish to actually catch one. Hiking through a meadow and wading into a river, the jet-black cows watching us from the riverbank above, was thrilling enough that we were content to leave the job of procuring fish to Ari’s pals. Besides, we told Gillett, we had to hustle on, to Moran’s in Galway, to eat oysters. Missing Galway oysters on a trip like this would be like drinking iced tea in Barolo.

“Like oysters, do you?” Gillett said. “Try Burkes, in Clarinbridge.” It was just south of Galway, he said, and when he’d been in college he’d drunk his weight in Guinness there. A short three hours later, we found Paddy Burkes hugging the busy main road into Galway, a few miles south of the city. The restaurant looked well-preserved—probably unchanged since Gillett’s drinking days. A frozen-foods truck was making a delivery, but we can attest to the quality of the oysters. Ours were very fresh—meaty, with a coppery edge—though we preferred the ones at Moran’s, just down the road. They were slightly wetter, creamy, and minerally—an altogether more suave expression of the bivalve. And the convivial old-time village atmosphere was more appealing. We ate our dozens outside on tables, on a quiet road overlooking a creek at low tide.

Between the two places, we didn’t come close to replicating Gillett’s performance with respect to the Guinness—we had an early-morning flight out of Shannon, after all. But we came close with the oysters.

Matt Lee and Ted Lee are T+L contributing editors.

When to Go

The best time to visit County Cork is in late spring or summer, as the fall and winter months have the heaviest rainfall.

Getting There

Fly into Shannon Airport and rent a car (the Bantry area is about 100 miles from Shannon). Aer Lingus offers direct flights daily from Boston, Chicago, and New York’s JFK Airport.

Where to Stay

Ballyvolane House

Castlelyons, Fermoy; 353-25/36349;; doubles from $156.

Glengarriff Lodge

Ideal for a family reunion. The Lodge, Glengarriff; 353-27/63833;; weekly rates from $2,760.

Maritime Hotel

A clean new hotel overlooking Bantry Bay. The Quay, Bantry; 353-27/54700;; doubles from $163.

Where to Eat

Ard Bia

This cozy, casual room turns out Galway’s best local food, with global flourishes; house-made ice creams are not to be missed. 2 Quay St., Galway; 353-91/539-897;; lunch for two $37.

Fishy Fishy Café

Pier Rd., Kinsale; 353-21/470-0415; lunch for two $120.

Gleeson’s Restaurant

3 Connolly St., Clonakilty; 353-23/21834;; dinner for two $120.

Good Things Café

Ahakista Rd., Durrus; 353-27/61426;; dinner for two $150.

Moran’s Oyster Cottage

The Weir, Kilcolgan, near Galway; 353-91/796-113; dinner for two $90.

O’Connor’s Seafood Restaurant

Simple, compelling preparations of fish and shellfish from local waters are owner Peter O’Brien’s calling card. Book early. The Square, Bantry; 353-27/50221; dinner for two $118.

Where to Go Out

An Teach Beag

Recorder’s Alley, Clonakilty; 353-23/33883; drinks for two $15.

Ma Murphy’s

Writers from the West Cork Literary Festival soak up local atmosphere at this classic pub. 7 New St., Bantry; 353-27/50242; drinks for two $11.

Paddy Burkes Clarinbridge; 353-91/796-226; drinks for two $12.

Weir Bar

Jurys Cork Hotel, Western Rd., Cork City; 353-21/425-2700;; drinks for two $12.50.

Where to Shop

Edward Twomey Clonakilty Black Pudding Co.

16 Pearse St., Clonakilty; 353-23/34835;

Manning’s Emporium

Ballylickey, Bantry; 353-27/50456.

Michelle Mitton Design Gallery

A collection of works by West Cork ceramicists Sara Flynn and Mary Neeson, whose porcelain lanterns are like miniature Mariko Mori sculptures. 28 Pearse St., Clonakilty; 353-23/35412.

Rory Conner Handcrafted Knives

Ballylickey, Bantry; 353-27/50032;; by appointment.

What to Do

Ballymaloe Cookery School

Shanagarry; 353-21/464-6785;

Drombeg Stone Circle

Off the R597 between Rosscarbery and Glandore; 353-28/21766.

Loch Hyne

The hike to the top takes a solid half-hour, but the vistas on the way up are worth it if the visibility is good. Off the R595 near Skibbereen.

By Matt Lee and Ted Lee