When travelling in Cork, touring the Wild Atlantic Way or hopping between our charming towns and villages, you’ll often find the best food in humble country pubs.
Across the county (the biggest in Ireland) you’ll find innovative, exciting food in the most unexpected places, with chefs that are using the very best of locally sourced ingredients, from fresh-caught fish to hillside lamb and rare-breed cattle, organic veg and fruits. They are often quirky, always friendly and exclusively family run.
And you don’t have to take our word for it when it comes to excellence, just ask the good people at the Michelin Guides, who have crowned Cork as the gastropub capital of Ireland, saying you won’t find better on the Wild Atlantic Way.
The Michelin Eating Out In Pubs Guide, considered the gold standard for gastropubs in Britain and Ireland, lists just 30 pubs on the island of Ireland for 2018. Eight are in the North (clustered around Belfast). Of the twenty-two in the Republic, four are in West Cork (down one from last year).
While West Cork alone has four pubs currently on the Michelin list, Dublin, our capital and by far the most populous county in Ireland, has just two.
In 2018, the Michelin people reckon you’ll find some of the best country pub dining anywhere at the Poacher’s Inn (Bandon), Deasy’s (outside Clonakilty), The Bulman in Kinsale and Mad Fish at Cronin’s of Crosshaven (a old fishing village, a short hop from Kinsale and the start of the Wild Atlantic Way).
There are other stars of the West Cork pub dining scene, Mary Ann's in Castletownshend has been a regular on the Michelin gastropubs guide and there are champions for the likes of Arundel’s By The Pier in Ahakista (UK TV star Graham Norton has his summer house across the road and is a fan), the Timoleague duo of Dillon’s and Monk’s Lane and Clonakilty’s An Súgán.
One exciting new addition has just been announced. In the characterful, quirky village of Ballydehob, young chef (and local legend) Robbie Krawcyzk will soon re-open the long-closed Chestnut Pub as a 16-table dining space, cooking locally sourced produce over wood and charcoal grills, serving a no-choice menu.
Robbie and his small team have spent the past few months renovating the old village pub themselves, working long hours in the winter-dark and documenting the layers of funky ‘70s wallpaper and beauty-board on their social media feeds.
When you talk to the chefs working in often small kitchens, in old pubs perched on harbour walls or in small, out of the way villages you will hear the same theories as to why West Cork is a place apart when it comes to food.
They will tell you about the incredible quality of the produce from local farms and small fishing harbours, the adventurous small-holding, rare-breed and artisan producers and the influence of strangers who regularly wash up on the shores of West Cork from all over the world.
With world class cheeses, cured meats and fish and produce fresh from the fields and waters, West Cork is a foodie paradise. And the locals reckon the best place to enjoy this food is in the cosy, informal setting of a country pub.
In fine dining country pubs like Deasy’s, The Bulman and the Poachers Inn, the menus tend to be seafood orientated, with influences from as far afield as Bangkok, Sydney or Capetown. The Mad Fish in Crosshaven is famous for its oysters, razor clams and scallops, served “nude” or with tangy dressings.
“The Atlantic coast off West Cork has some of the cleanest waters in the world and the best fish you’ll find anywhere,” says chef/patron Barry McLaughlin of The Poacher’s Inn in Bandon.
“And we get ours dropped off every morning by a guy in a van driving over from Union Hall”.
West Cork chefs will always tell you about their “fish guy”, their “veg guy” or even their “chilli guy”. These small-scale producers are often one of the region’s many blow-ins (from Holland, France, Germany or further afield), small-holders living off-the-grid up the side of a mountain and growing exotic fruits and veg in rows of polytunnels.
West Cork also has its strange “micro-climates”, fostered by the Gulf Stream and sheltered by rugged mountains. You’ll find bamboo groves and sub-tropical plants, often wind-blown escapees from grand gardens such as those on Garnish Island, growing wild in the hedgerows.
At Deasy’s, a Michelin-rated pub by a tiny pier in Ring, outside of Clonakilty, chef Caitlin Ruth has a signature dish of catch of the day cooked in Banana Leaves. The fish is from local day-boats, the leaves come from her own banana plants, growing in her back garden.
“Before I came here, I really had no idea you could grow banana trees in Ireland. But you can in West Cork,” she says.
Caitlin is a self-taught chef who worked in her native US and Holland before finally settling in West Cork almost two decades ago.
She had no problems in persuading the owners of Deasy’s to let her take over the food side of the operation. But all involved also wanted to keep the friendly, informal pub atmosphere going. It’s a place for pints as well as great food.
And virtually all of Caitlin’s ingredients come from local producers, from the day-boats that sail out of West Cork’s historic fishing villages to the local growers and farmers who now have an international reputation for quality.
“You can get pretty much whatever you need locally, but it often comes in gluts,” says Caitlin.
“Somebody will drop in with a giant sack of chillies or tomatillos and you think; “Right, I’ll come up with two ways to use them on the menu today and I guess I’ll be doing a lot of pickling”.
Just about the only basic, everyday ingredient she “imports” from Cork City is coconut milk. West Cork may have bamboo forests and sub-tropical gardens, but Bantry and Skibb are not famed for their lush coconut groves.
Like many chefs in West Cork, Caitlin says she is almost compelled to work with what they can get locally. But that’s not a problem when what they can get within ten or fifteen miles of their doors is often the best of the best.
“Why would we bring anything in when we have this amazing produce right here?”
Caitlin tells the story of how, after a year or two at Deasy’s, she asked her local butcher about where he sourced his beef from after he had made a delivery to the pub, which looks out over Clonakilty Bay.
“He just pointed to the field across the water there and said; “See those cattle? They’re mine”. And that’s the way it is here”.
“People bang on about organic and locally-sourced like it’s new but that’s just what we’ve been doing for the past 20 years, or more. It’s all here. I’ve got my local butcher, my fish guy, delivers every day from Union Hall. We got our veg people, they’re just up the road.”
Caitlin’s signature dish is her Thai fish soup, a hot, tangy bowl of goodness that tastes like a bowl of traditional West Cork Chowder went to Koh Samui on its gap year.
It’s much loved by her regulars – and has rumoured miracle-working qualities when it comes to babies.
“I can’t take it off the menu, people would freak out. Plus, there’s a local myth that it brings on labour in pregnant women who have gone over their due date. When I see a very heavily pregnant woman, maybe a little cranky, coming in, I know they’re here for the Thai fish soup”.
West Cork’s gastropubs are busy, fun places to be at the height of the season, when visitors mingle with locals, sailors come in off their yachts and you’ll see farmers sitting at the bar with pints and bowls of chowder. But you can eat well in West Cork all year round.
“It’s a very short season, so the visitor trade is important, but we are open throughout the year so we have to really think about our regulars and locals as well,” says chef Barry McLaughlin of the Poacher’s.
“It’s great to be on the Michelin pub guide, it does add to your reputation, but word of mouth is just as important, maybe more so, as is keeping up the quality year in, year out”.
“People here, locals and visitors, they appreciate the informality of it all. If you are on the beach all day, touring around or working, you just want a great meal in a relaxed atmosphere. The pub is perfect. Our signature dish is our seafood tapas and people love to share a couple of plates with a pint or a good glass of wine”.
Barry, who quit a career in recruitment to set up Poacher’s over a decade ago, says that as Cork has built a strong reputation for its quirky, innovative food culture, his own West Cork has really upped its game.
“People know about food now, they expect value and quality. And what’s been huge for Cork is the amount of young people who have gone away, worked in kitchens all over the world and brought back new ideas and approaches,” he says.
“We know we can depend on our suppliers. We won’t get a bad delivery, because we get stuff from them every day and we know where it’s coming from. And here in Cork, there’s just no question at all, we’ve got the very best”.