“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done,” said David Puttnam.
We were talking about his having taken up residence in West Cork some 22 years ago. Then he glanced down the table towards his wife and smiled, “well, it’s the second best thing, the best was marrying Patsy…”
Either way, it was quite a statement from a man whose career has included film production credits for, among others, the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire, and it said a lot about how locals and blow-ins alike regard this particularly captivating corner of the world.
I met David and Patsy in Skibbereen as part of a weekend visit to West Cork for a preview of West Cork Food, a new food tourism initiative of which the Puttnams are patrons. The aim is to provide visitors with an opportunity to meet and visit with artisan producers, and to watch them at work. It’s a proposition that’s bound to appeal to anyone with an interest in artisanal food and the production thereof, particularly given the stellar array of producers who live in, and operate from, this area.
A land of peninsulas and pasture, West Cork is where the revival of Irish farmhouse cheesemaking began in the late 70’s, and the region now boasts what is probably the highest concentration of artisan food producers in Ireland. It’s here that you’ll find, among many others, Durrus and Milleens cheese, Skeaghanore Duck, cheese and charcuterie from Gubbeen, butter, yoghurt and more from Glenilen Farm and smoked wild fish from Sally Barnes’ Woodcock Smokery.
It is the aforementioned Sally Barnes who is one of the driving forces behind the West Cork Food initiative, along with Stephen Sage of the West Cork Guide. Prior to my visit, I knew Sally only by reputation as one of the finest smokers of fish anywhere. Over the weekend, we visited her smokery, filleted own our fish, and watched the brining and smoking process. We also listened as Sally talked.
Like many West Corkonians, she’s a blow-in, originally from Scotland, but ended up here more than 30 years ago when she married a fisherman. Her fish smoking skills are self-taught – wanting to preserve the fish that her husband had caught and lacking a freezer, she started experimenting, first with a tea-chest and pan, and later with a kiln acquired in settlement of a debt. She later studied food production systems and oceanography through the Open University.
As is the case with many of the producers in the area, she’s both knowledgeable and passionate about her subject and you can’t help but become enthused yourself. Enabling visitors to have access to people like Sally is what West Cork Food is all about. Be warned, though – if you do visit West Cork, you might not want to leave. Staying, in fact, might be the best thing you’ve ever done.
Potatoes And Lentils With Smoked White Fish
“Nothing goes with fish better than potatoes,” so commented Prue Leith while scrutinising a submission for the fish course of The Great British Menu. I don’t recall the dish in question, but the comment sprang to mind as I thought about what to do with my two beautiful fillets of beech-smoked whiting from Sally Barnes.
Truth be told, Sally’s beech-smoked whiting is such a fine piece of fish that, really, very little, if anything needs to be added in order to enjoy it. Her own suggestions were to either poach it in milk with potatoes and onions or simply acidulate it for about an hour before eating, perhaps along with some spring onions. I took the latter idea, allowed strips of the fish to marinate in lemon juice, while I made a kind of thick, earthy potato and lentil stew to be eaten alongside. It’s hearty, satisfying fare.
- approx. 200g good quality smoked white fish (I used Sally Barnes’ smoked whiting)
- juice of one lemon
- 2-3 spring onions, finely sliced
- vegetable oil for frying
- 1 medium-sized onion, approx. 150g, sliced into fine half rings
- 300g tomatoes, skinned and finely chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
- 0.5 tsp fennel seeds, lightly crushed
- 0.5 tsp paprika
- 400g potato, peeled and cut into approx. 1cm cubes
- 200g puy lentils, rinsed
- 1 bay leaf
- 1.5 tsp salt
- approx. 750ml water or vegetable stock
- 200g kale, thick stalks removed and leaves finely chopped (or use swiss chard or spinach)
- freshly ground black pepper
- freshly chopped flat leaf parsley (optional)
You’ll also need:
- A large, heavy-based saucepan
- Slice the smoked fish into very fine, narrow strips, spread onto a plate or board, scatter with the spring onions, squeeze generously with lemon juice and set aside.
- Place a large saucepan over a medium heat. When hot, add vegetable oil to coat the pan. Add the sliced onions and stir and fry for about 5 minutes or until starting to soften.
- Add the tomatoes and garlic, fry for another 5-8 minutes or until the tomatoes have softened.
- Add the crushed fennel seeds and the paprika, stir briefly, then add the cubed potatoes, puy lentils, bay leaf, salt and water or stock. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer for about 10 minutes.
- Add the chopped kale and simmer for about 30 minutes more or until the lentils and vegetables are tender. Add black pepper to taste and additional salt if it needs it.
- Remove from the heat and stir in about half of the smoked fish and spring onions. To serve, ladle into bowls and scatter with the remaining smoked fish and some chopped parsley if using.
- You could perhaps replace the smoked fish with some smoked bacon or leave both out and enjoy as a satisfying vegetarian main course on its own.
- Serves 4-6 for lunch or dinner