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As we walk up the stairs to our Bantry restaurant, the multi-event A Taste of West Cork festival is in full swing, heading for its closing weekend. Many attractive food options around the towns and villages but knowing punters make their way to the Fish Kitchen and a packed house enjoys the best produce from the local shores and seas. The Kitchen crew are busy but not a bother as the delicious meal is served.
“Freshness, simplicity, quality” is what they promise here and that is exactly what we get. Excellent service too, a good choice of wines and craft beer and good company too at the long tables. We enjoy the chat with Esther and Joe from Cappoquin and Jim and Barbara from the town.
Diarmaid, who owns and runs the Fish Kitchen with his wife Ann-Maria, served us a simple Amuse Bouche, a sharing plate of Sheep’s Head periwinkles with garlic. Hard to get them out of the little shells but well worth the effort!
Next up was a trio of Smoked Salmon, Prawns and Oyster. Tasty stuff. Excellent salmon, amazing prawns from the bay outside and a superb Carlingford oyster. Quite a hat trick of flavours.
We were very happy with that and got even happier with the next round: Steamed Bantry Bay mussels with Stonewell Cider. We had been out on the bay earlier and had seen the lines and lines heavy in the water with rope-grown mussels. And here they were now on our plate, meatier and tastier than any I’ve tried in recent times.
Another course was on the way as the Salterio Albarino level in our bottle was falling and this was another handsome combination: Union Hall Smoked Pollack and crabmeat croquettes, served with a simple salad.
Now for the big one: herb crusted Castletownbere Hake with sun-dried tomato and Gubbeen chorizo pesto. Sometimes in Ireland we smother delicate fish with heavy sauces. Not here. The Hake was the star, the others there just to show it off to perfection. And, yes, it was perfect, as were all the courses.
And of course there was dessert. Here we had a choice and the Plum Crumble won hands down at our table; maybe the lavender infused pannacotta found takers at the other tables!
While this was a special dinner (we paid 45 euro a head) for the festival, you will get the freshest of fish, skilfully handled and simply presented at a fair price every day, lunch and dinner, at this town centre venue. And, if you are eating at home, then grab some fresh fish from the family market on the ground floor!
* Diarmaid was our host on our earlier trip around the bay - check it out here. He has been doing it a bit over the past summer and intends to make it a permanent feature next year. A proud native of the area, he is a superb guide to the huge bay, its geography and amazing history. His sturdy rib will take six paying passengers so keep an eye out for that in 2019.
On Tour At Union Hall Smoked Fish A Taste of West Cork event
Roll up folks. The tour starts now!
Four generations of the Nolans (including a couple of tiny tots) welcomed a record number of visitors to the Union Hall Smoked Fish smokery last Thursday, the tour part of the A Taste of West Cork Festival. Sean Nolan was surprised to see over fifty turn up to see the facility but the Nolans, who have been smoking fish for 25 years or so, weren't found wanting and soon a table was laden with samples from the smokery - the mackerel pate was perhaps the favourite - and no shortage of wine either.
Fed and “watered”, the guests, suitably garbed, were led into the building. “We’ll follow the flow of the fish through here,” said Sean. And everywhere the fish went, paperwork followed. “We were at the Intake Chill. That first step is recorded and the “fish can be traced all the way back”.
The polite visitors were a bit slow to move as we progressed to a large room. “Didn't expect this crowd,” said Sean. “It’s a bit like mass, I’ll have to get them to the front”, he joked. Soon we were on to the filleting stage where Sean revealed that the carcasses - these are farmed salmon - were sent back to Donegal. “We pay to get them in and we pay to get them out. Waste is a big problem.
Next step is the brineing, one and half hours for salmon, minutes for mackerel. Then he showed us the pin-boning machine. Not too sure how it works but it sure works we were told.
Now the fish is put on trays and into the smokers. Even the oak chips have to be certified. Salmon takes 15 hours while mackerel require 2.5 to 3 hours. The mackerel are hot smoked while the kippers are cold smoked.
Paper at every stage. “It is non-stop. The regulations are awkward,” he admitted. “But once you get on top of them, it is easier to stay there.”
A smoked salmon, neatly sliced by 30,000 euro worth of machinery
Now we moved on to a high risk area, now that the fish is ready to eat. Here they go through the slicing machine (30 grand!) that will “do any thickness you want”. The vacuum packers are here too.
Sean told us different areas of the country have different preferences. Smoked tuna is now the big seller in Dublin.
And he finished with a few tips. “Salmon freezes very well but do not freeze our fresh pate.”
This is the latest in a series of Market Meals. The difference here is that the meal comes from just one stall and that is the relatively new Fresh from West Cork initiative in the English Market, just opposite the renowned Chicken Inn.
And another difference is that I’ve had a bit of fun matching the four courses to beers. Since four beers is hardly enough for a growing boy, I’ve done it twice. Match One is with Cork beers while Match Two is with Porterhouse Beers.
Thanks to the ever patient Michael Creedon of Bradley's Off Licence for his knowledgeable help with selecting the beers but the final pick was mine! Don't want you going into North Main Street and blaming Michael if your local favourite is not on the list.
Back now to Fresh from West Cork. Walter Ryan-Purcell is the face behind this “cooperative” effort from the west and close to forty producers are represented so it wasn't that difficult to get enough for a four course dinner. Indeed there were many options.
It just illustrates that you can do all your food shopping in the English Market. Maybe not all at Fresh from West Cork - they don't do fresh fish, for example - but you’ll be spoilt for choice if you wander around the wider market
Starter: Union Hall Smoked Salmon with Lemon Labneh by McCarthy’s Natural Dairies.
Cork Beer: Green Bullet Ale (Mountain Man).
Porterhouse: Hersbrucker Pilsner.
The smoked salmon, served with a little salad, was quite rich and the creamy Labneh added to the texture. Might have been better served on a Ryvita cracker or similar. Both beers worked well though in different ways. The Ale added more flavour while the Pilsner, not lacking in flavour, provided a nice cutting edge, a contrast against all the creaminess. One up to the Porterhouse team!
Mains: Gubben Traditional Dry Cured Smoked Bacon with vegetables from Peter Ross.
Cork Beer: Blacks Black IPA (Blacks, Kinsale).
Porterhouse: An Brain Blásta Strong Ale.
The Gubbeen bacon, smoked and lightly peppered, was sensational, the star of the night. With its fantastic texture and flavour, it was out on its own. The beers were both good matches; the Black perhaps best taken with bacon on the palate, the PH between bites! An Brain Blásta (even at 7%abv) doesn't mean brain blaster. It is Irish for The Tasty Drop.
Cheese: Loughbeg Farm hard Goat Cheese with Yellow Zucchini Relish also by Loughbeg.
Cork Beer: Friar Weisse (Franciscan Well).
Porterhouse: Red Ale.
The gorgeous crumbly cheese didn't seem to be getting on too well with the spiced up relish. Until the Friar Weisse was introduced. The local wheat beer transformed the potential discord into a very edible treat. A terrific match. Porterhouse don't make a wheat beer and through no fault of its own their Red Ale couldn't quite replicate the feat of the Friar here. Still, it was a nice way to pass the longish interval to dessert. That makes it 1.5 each for the beer teams.
Dessert: Yummy Tummy’s Brownies with Glenilen Clotted Cream.
Cork Beer: Knockmedown Porter (Eight Degrees).
Porterhouse: Oyster Stout.
Let me get this straight. Yummy Tummy’s Brownies are ace. Glenilen Clotted Cream is ace. You're on a winner. Now, add Knockmedown Porter (Eight Degrees) and you have a jackpot combination! Irresistible! That gave the edge to the Cork beer team, 2.5 to 1.5. The Oyster Stout, a gem in its own right, didn't have quite the same impact in the sweet finale to a smashing West Cork dinner.