Friday, July 24, 2015

Sine metu

So, if you're a whiskey drinker, you might recognize this phrase from your bottle of Jameson. (If you're me, you learned it during a tour of the Old Jameson Distillery in Dublin a few weeks ago, and have adopted it as your mantra of the trip.) "Sine Metu," you see, is Gaelic for "Without Fear"... and to be on the roads in the Emerald Isle -- and, let's be honest here, on the Black Isle as well -- this must be your motto.

Even as a passenger on a bus or in a car I probably gasped during near collisions at least 3 or 4 times daily as vehicles careened at top speed around blind curves on one-lane, shoulderless roads during my first two weeks kicking around Ireland. And yet, for my third week around Ireland, I was on a bicycle. (Shhh, don't tell Ollie!) Luckily, I had a fabulous guide and great company on my first ever group/supported bike tour, so I wasn't riding with my heart in my mouth the whole time. It was actually really nice to have someone else map out the routes and book places to stay and schlep my bags. In fact, I found myself offering thanks rather than pleas to the heavens as 16 of us chatted and cycled through the beautiful Connemara hills and later along the Inishmore waterfront, stopping frequently to snap photos and scarf twix bars. (Shh, don't tell my students!) I hardly minded most of the time that my gears didn't work properly, so good was the company and the scenery. (Many thanks to my friend, Ronn, for suggesting Cycling Safaris!)

Admittedly, ours was a slower, more scenic route, which meant less vehicles than on the bigger roads, but there were still periodic cars, occasional tour buses, and (the bane of my biking existence since my ride down the Pacific Coast Highway five years ago) camper vans. I was only almost hit once, thankfully, and have since continued my travels safely on through Scotland. But my new motto has stuck with me beyond the biking.

I've been thinking about it a lot this trip. So many of the kind folks I've encountered along the way, especially the women, have marveled at "the courage it must take to travel alone." I don't find traveling alone scary most of the time. In fact, except for the awkwardness of dinner dining solo, it's quite exciting and liberating, and I said as much. What's much, much harder is sharing your life adventure with another person. Opening your heart up to someone else, allowing yourself to love and possibly lose them. Maybe things fall apart. Maybe you find each other again, maybe you don't. Maybe everything's changed, but maybe it hasn't. There's only one way to find out....

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

For the birds

Ultan Walsh took one look at my floral print rolling suitcase when picking me up at the bus stop in Belgooley last Saturday and shook his head. "This country is not made for bags like that, you know. Did you not have a backpack? Oh, you have one of those, too." Thus began the good natured teasing that would characterize the next few days.

(You'd think I'd be a better packer after the original, self-supported bikeable feast, but no.)

During my first afternoon at Gort Na Nain farm, I hand weeded asparagus beds with a local carpenter doing a weekly work share, spent the next rainy morning with a digging fork ripping up grass and prickly weeds in one of the tomato high tunnels, then chatted away the afternoon with a Romanian cook visiting from nearby Cork City as we meticulously cleared everything but the Tuscan kale and onions in another of the eight high tunnels. No pesticides or even black plastic here, which means the real deal organic farm constantly has lots to weed. Fortunately, weeding is one of my specialties.

Though he swears he doesn't have time for inexperienced help in the form of traditional WWOOFers -- I managed to talk my way into being working on the farm through connections with mutual friends -- Ultan and his partner Lucy have loads to teach. And not just about farming. During my non-weeding time, as we shared beers and meals in the gorgeous vegetarian guesthouse, I got a primer on creative cooking, the subtleties of potato varieties, local sports and politics, music, history, the troubled economy....

Most especially, I learned about birds, on the farm itself and during a stunning hike to Barry's Head before dinner on my final night there. Who knew that city pigeons actually descended from cliff-dwelling doves? Both Ultan and Lucy are avid birders. So much so that their farm's name translates to something like "Field of the Birds." (Please pardon any mistranslation there: the only thing worse than my packing skills may be my mastery of Gaelic.)

Like Eoin, Ultan hadn't planned to be a farmer. He, too, had been in a PhD program, in his case finishing a doctorate in microbiology and then deciding after a few years of being pigeonholed into grant writing that it wasn't his bag. He'd met Lucy, lured her from England to Cork, and somewhere along the line they came upon the big field that now houses a beautiful B&B and burgeoning organic farm that the two built and manage mostly on their own, complete with bird-friendly hedgerows and trees that act as both habitat and windbreaks amid the blustery landscape.

I hope to make it back to this amazing place some day...partly to see if my take on (vegetarian) chestnut sausages turns out half as good as Lucy's. Because I'm kind of obsessed with them now, and discovered her recipe is now available in one of Denis Cotter's cookbooks.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Eco-farming in Cork

I continue to be inspired by small farmers, including ones I worked with during my travels through County Cork. (Yes, I am technically on vacation, but that's hardly going to keep me from seeking out cool food producers in Ireland.) When he collected me from the bus stop in the small town of Carrigaline last Thursday, I had no idea yet what an amazingly kind person and thoughtful farmer Eoin was -- all I knew then was that he farmed about an acre of organic vegetables and had some great pics on Instagram.

Over the course of a couple of days, I worked alongside this young farmer to harvest and deliver produce for his box scheme operation -- kind of a variation on a CSA, where clients get a list of what will be available for the week and opt for whichever items strike their fancy, which that week ranged from freshly dug potatoes and carrots to all kinds of greens and alliums. Plus a few special requests from long-time customers or family friends for beets and the season's very first cherry tomatoes. (Well, the pint of sungolds I managed not to eat while digging up the nearby garlic, that is.) Next season, they may be treated to some new varieties, including an Ark of Taste lettuce that I am growing myself back home. I'm sure the heads growing here will be larger and more lush, as everything seems to be in these parts. Is it the soil? The rainfall? The gentle souls of the land stewards? My garlic and carrots pale in comparison....

As we worked and cooked up meals together -- including beet burgers, inspired by one of his customers who'd made them three times with Eoin's beets the previous week (recipe to come later) -- Eoin shared a bit of his story. Here was yet another example of someone who never expected to become a farmer, but is damn good at it. Part way through a PhD program in ecology, Eoin had become disillusioned with the research process. While finishing up a Master's degree and publishing a paper on the discovery of a rare water beetle, he stumbled upon a certification program in permaculture. He and his then girlfriend happened upon Moloney's Cottage not long afterwards, and now, less than 3 years later, he raises laying hens and vegetables enough on the 1-acre leased plot to support himself and a couple dozen customers. Like many farmers, he supplements his income, in this case with teaching at the nearby college in Kinsale. If his formal classes are as thoughtful and practical as his conversations were with me, those are some lucky students. Though I'd think local restaurants would be just as lucky if Eoin devoted himself fully to farming so he could supply a few of them. I'll be interested to see where things go...perhaps when I return for a visit in coming years.