Why nowhere compares to west Cork
Returning to Ireland after 25 years in France inspired a life-changing cookbook
For Christmas, Kilbronogue will be grand. Perfect to welcome friends and family with goose and spiced beef and the wine and various duck-based products I’m bringing back from France. I can’t wait. Photograph: Michael Mac Sweeney
As the belongings from my 25 years in Paris were being squashed into the removal van and the doors shut sharply on them, just in case they made a last-minute break for it, deep down I knew that the move south to my little house in Cazouls lès Béziers was merely a stopover, an advance post on my way back to Ireland.
Now, after a few months spent here full time, I wish I had left France entirely then, in July 2014, with my big Irish cookbook, Home: Recipes from Ireland, to write and my daughter under my wing. But hindsight is the most unforgiving wisdom. How could I have known then how much making my book would change things?
Those chilly 2014 fêtes de Noël spent in my ramshackle Languedoc ex-bakery with my four children but sans central heating may have been great fun (and character-forming in an off-season-camping-trip-on-the-Beara-Penisula way), but this year I shall be cosily celebrating Christmas and New Year in beautiful west Cork.
Friends have lent me their rambling holiday farmhouse overlooking Rosbrin harbour, high on the hill halfway between Schull and Ballydehob. Storm Desmond silenced the crows for a day or two, and bent the scrawny surrounding trees a little more, but the house, like all the old houses around, is defiantly solid. It might be windy up here, but inside it is warm.
The kitchen is now overflowing with my kitchen props and kit brought from France, and there’s a little snug in which I write and read, where the heating works so well I could rear piglets in it, so I’m told.
For Christmas, Kilbronogue will be grand. Perfect to welcome friends and family with goose and spiced beef and the wine and various duck-based products I’m bringing back from France. I can’t wait.
But even since the Paris attacks, people look at me incredulously and say: “Ballydehob? Seriously? Don’t you miss France?”
Perhaps, like Pete McCarthy of McCarthy’s Bar fame, I am “a sentimental fool, my judgment fuddled by nostalgia, Guinness and the romance of the diaspora”. But, for now, living here is comforting and familiar, like I’ve gone in a time machine back to a better version of my childhood.
And sometimes in Ballydehob it feels as if time has stood still altogether. It’s no pretty-pretty Kinsale or Adare, but the wild scenery around is breathtaking and the main street has stayed pretty much intact, along with so much of Irish traditional country life.
Here, the added bonus is that tradition comes with wifi, a new art gallery, great lemon drizzle cake and coffee in Budd’s cafe, and the best indie folk music and craft G&Ts in Joe O’Leary’s Levis’ bar.
On the main street, with Ina Daly’s pub and Levis’ next door to each other, the traditional and the groovy sit politely side by side. Ina’s pub has remained in her family, unchanged, for generations. With no coffee, no food and no TV or wifi to interrupt conversation, its private snug is the central intelligence office of village affairs. (I was at the 1pm opening of the Christmas food and craft fair in the village hall, and by 2pm in Ina’s pub, she knew exactly what I had bought.)
This is where to order the best “Protestant eggs” from the farm up the road or, on Fridays, if you’re lucky, share some fresh plaice or mackerel left at Ina’s as interest on a whiskey loan to fishermen waiting for payday.
I go back to Paris and the south of France regularly, and will keep going back for their beauty and art de vivre forever, I’m sure. But there is a bold sort of energy and extreme kindness in Ireland that I have never found in France, and they are what’s keeping me firmly here in west Cork.
I might miss the sunny walk for my 7am baguette in Cazouls, but you know, Fields seeded brown bread toasts so well after three days. I ran out of oil just before a photoshoot and the company delivered from Skibbereen the same morning, asking only for “a cup of tea for the driver” as payment until I could get a cheque to them.
There is no crime in this village, doors are left unlocked and you are invited to rummage around in the garage storeroom for your Christmas parcel deliveries if you missed the postman. Honesty fruit-and-veg boxes dotted all over the boreens are like mini-department stores, there are so many competent GIYers.
On Thursdays, there is illicit milk to be had, in unlabelled bottles, with the cream on top making a luscious foam when you shake it. Perhaps people here take it all for granted – I do not.
As the festivities line up, and despite the respect that le chic Parisien will always instil in me, I’m happy to say that no one, but no one, understands the disastrous combination that is frizzy Irish hair and a soft Irish day quite like an Irish hairdresser.