After a year that had me travelling half a dozen times, I find myself starting 2017 in a snow-covered Brussels. They say you should start the year as you intend to continue it, and if that means more travel, then that’s just fine with me. I come from a family who has itchy feet. Traveling is in our blood. I’m still surprised that I’m living in West Cork (in the same house!) after nearly 25 years. I love being ‘settled’ and belonging to a closeknit community, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to travel. In fact, nothing quite excites me as much as knowing that I’ll soon be off to discover some place new, or to return to a place after decades (as I did in the Basque country this summer after a forty year absence.)
They say that travel broadens the mind, but for me the main attraction is that it broadens the palette. Food is my compass. Last year’s high points were oysters Rockefeller in New York, tapas in Barcelona, my Aunt’s squid in ink in the Basque country, a local wine in Andalusia, and the culinary feast that is anything one eats in Brussels. When I travel, I not only sample the local cuisine, I visit the local markets and shops, as avidly as I go to museums. I search out local products like a sniffer dog. The ‘produits du terroir’, as they call them in French are my passion. These are the foods made from the ‘earth’ of that region. Some are never exported, or are made in such small batches that they are only sold in one shop. These include cheeses, condiments, charcuterie, wine, conserves – even molasses! When I calculate my baggage allowance, I always leave room for all the food I’ll bring home.
I’ve always had a love of food, but I think my interest was focused when I first came to West Cork. Those were the lean years. Ireland in 1990 was a culinary wasteland. Olive oil was only sold in tiny little bottles at the chemist (for ear aches!). The coffee range consisted of two types of instant: mild, and milder. Not a bean in sight. Pasta was non-existent, as were tinned plum tomatoes, garlic and any vegetable more exotic than spuds, carrots and swedes. When we used to come to West Cork on holiday, we would load up the car with pasta, olive oil and coffee. I remember when the first avocado was sighted in a greengrocer’s in Clonakilty. It was so exciting that a friend rang all the other blow-ins to tell them to buy them so that we could convince the shop to keep them in stock.
Those were the days when all sorts of things – from mozza to cumin, watermelon to black chocolate – were hard to find, unless you wanted to drive up to the city. Even in Cork the choice was limited.
The arrival of discount food retail changed the foodie landscape in Ireland forever. Not only could we now get a wide range of cheap, good quality food thanks to the likes of Lidl and Aldi, all that competition motivated local shops to up their game. We now have one of the most spectacular supermarkets in Ireland, specialising in local produce and high-end international gourmet foods. Better yet local food producers have really upped their game. West Cork cheeses have become a real ‘produit du terroir’, with a number reaching worldclass levels, such as Macroom Mozzarela, which recently won Gold in the World Cheese Awards! Now, when I travel to Brussels, I come bearing cheese, beer, and smoked fish, along with the usual salmon and black pudding. It makes me very proud to share our yummy foods with my friends.
For too many years Ireland was seen as a good place for whiskey and beer, but rather dismal when it came to food. Yet we have all the makings to become one of Europe’s top quality food producers. The clean water and air, the small family farms, and the return to artisanal techniques are a great start for a thriving, sustainable food industry. In fact, I believe that the State should do more to help small producers to establish their brands, both in the domestic and export markets…I could go on and on, but today is Sunday and the market beckons just outside my door. Time to sniff out goodies to bring home!