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.

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