Culture Night – Our Local Craft Makers

Culture Night started in 2006 as a rather small-scale event concentrated only in Dublin. This annual occurrence has become an important and all-encompassing public event across the island of Ireland. It celebrates culture, creativity and the arts. Special and exceptional activities are scheduled at participating locations and everything is available free of charge.

I would like to tell you about my experience of it here in Cork this year – September 20. There was a plethora of activity throughout the county and city, however, I spent time at the Cork County Hall where there was a fantastic craft fair organised by Cork Craft and Design. From 2:00 pm, craft makers from around the county were busy setting-up their stands. Table cloths of all colours and patterns embellished the stands. By 4:00 pm all makers were operational, ready and waiting. There was an astonishing amount of crafters selling their creations from ceramics, and wood to jewellery makers, from lace and knitwear to greeting cards as well as artists putting their creativity into giving new life to organic objects found in nature.

As I meandered around the foyer of the County Hall, I was drawn towards the array of crafted objects, neatly arranged, and so appealing to the eye. I paused at each one, contemplating the items that were imagined, created, and produced by resourceful and artistic individuals. I chatted with some of them; sensitive to the personal stories about what inspired them and continues to motivate them to embrace such an aspiring livelihood. It must be highlighted that creative activity is not easy and many craft makers are regularly challenged in their daily enterprise.

I would encourage anyone reading this post, no matter where you are in the world, to support local industries. These small businesses are often the heartbeat of our towns and villages and without them life in such places would dissolve. Next time you are invited to a wedding, or a birthday party, or perhaps you would like to treat yourself, think of all those craft makers and artists in your local area creating unique work that merit your support. Let’s help sustain our local communities.

If you have not yet participated in Culture Night, come along to experience it for yourself, it’s a great way to celebrate and promote culture through creativity. Check out: https://culturenight.ie/. Bring on 2020…

Les Estivales

What I appreciate about France is the mosaic of associations; the French tend to be creative when it comes to the ‘collective’. From summer estvales to Christmas markets, France has a lot to offer… Here I would like to tell you about one place in particular – Le Guilvinec – in south Finistère, Brittany.

Les Estivales – summer festivities take place every year. They are a creative expression of the local people and place. Every Friday evening, during the month of August, different associations organise their own event around food and music. One particular Friday night I helped out the Twinning committee. People queue to choose and pay for their ‘menu’; in receipt of a ticket they then head to another queue for the ‘grub’.

Large wooden benches and tables are lined up in the car park near the pier. As locals and visitors alike settle themselves they begin their tasty meal, usually seafood chowder, mussels and French fries, followed by the incontournable – not-to-be-missed – Far Breton, a traditional Breton flan habitually made with prunes. Conversations between old friends and new acquaintances start in earnest; some of whom exchange mobile numbers et voilà, new friendships blossom.

There is a great crowd. I listen to the buzzing sound generated by the multitude of conversations floating through the atmosphere. The music commences; a mix of Breton traditional and contemporary. It really gets the crowd going. Young and not-so-young gather on the ‘dance floor’ – the car park tarmac but it does the job! Fingers are linked, arms are raised and feet begin to move to the beat, a Breton beat. The novices are guided by the experienced. While I enjoy dancing I just want to watch and soak it up. It’s enchanting; I’m mesmerised.

June had been extremely hot; July and August were cooler, with a misty day here and there, thrown in for good measure! As the evening draws to a close, the crowd disperses. Tables and benches are folded and stacked and put away until the next time. My host and I arrive home after midnight. Both body and mind are ready for a good night’s sleep. We bid one another ‘goodnight’; and I awaken the following morning to the sound of the Church bells chiming, it’s 8 o’clock!

Le Guilvinec has a lot to offer in terms of quaint seafood restaurants, a delightful beach and coastal promenade, and a maritime visitor centre called ‘Haliotika’. This visitor centre is worth the trip; plenty of things to see and do – go check out the website: https://www.haliotika.com/

Episode 3: Le Café Parisian – The Ultimate Café Culture

Every time I return to Paris I get great amusement from sipping coffee at a café terrace watching the world go by. It brings me right back to those first years when I was a jeune fille au pair. There is a natural elegance about the French; perhaps particularly the Parisians. That French Flair! How they appear to ‘throw’ an outfit together that looks chic, yet, effortless – c’est instinctif

Getting back to the Parisian café… my first experience of sipping tea, à la bergamote, – rather than coffee back then – at a Parisian café is the garçon de café – waiter – with his bonnes manièresnot! My gosh, anyone who has visited Paris is well aware of these ‘can-be’ ill-mannered garçons de café. But, to be honest, that is part of the Parisian scene. I quickly grew to understand it and be amused by it. I was, no doubt, so immersed in Parisian way of life that very soon it didn’t bother me. Even now, during my multiple return trips to Paris, I continue to be amused, it’s what makes these cafés so Parisian. Having said that, I would like to highlight that there are friendly waiters; a little respect between both parties – customer and waiter – goes a long way. So next time you sit at a Parisian café, or any café at that matter, please give a smile to the waiter! By the way, your coffee will usually be accompanied by a glass of water which I tend to appreciate, merci.  

There are countless cafés to choose from. You’ll never be short of options no matter what your mood. Obviously, there are many trendy and renowned cafés dotted around the city but you needn’t stray too far as there are great local ones too. If you’re staying in Paris for a substantial length of time then get to know your local café – there will be a few to choose from; the advantage being, over time, you will build-up a rapport with the patrons and staff alike. You’ll soon be a Parisian…

On a warm sunny day, with a great book in hand, I settle myself comfortably into a seat. The odd time I’m distracted by the on-street activity. I get a great entertainment from the ‘conveyor belt’ of people going by; inventing life stories… The café begins to fill. Tourists having a glass of wine; groups of locals having an aperitif; some going solo, like myself, having an espresso and the best of the latest summer read to hand. The experience is one of fascination. I feel immersed in this Parisian scene, I feel at home. These places are packed with local vibes and culture; there is a pleasant community-feel to them where worldly philosophical debates materialise. The café is, in a sense, an extension of who we are. À suivre… Please feel free to share your experiences of the Parisian café scene.

Sherkin Island: The Ancestral Home of the O’Driscoll Clan

Sherkin Island – Inis Ascain in Irish – just a ten minute ferry journey from the charming coastal village of Baltimore. Sherkin Island is where my father and his siblings grew up. Although my grandparents came from the mainland they moved to the island in to rear their family. Unfortunately I don’t get to visit Sherkin as often as I would like to but when I do it’s a day-long cultural and historical trip.

When my husband and I were living in Courtmacsherry, a quaint seaside village just ten minutes from Clonakilty, West Cork, we set off early one Saturday morning to Sherkin Island. The drive there is delightful; feeling the warmth of the morning sun through the windscreen is heavenly. Less than an hour later we arrive in Baltimore. With ample parking in the village we have no problem parking the car. As we stroll over to the pier the excitement is mounting, I shall be my spouse’s personal tour guide for the day; it’s his first time visiting the island, the ancestral home of the O’Driscoll clan. Backpack full of goodies in case we, or should I say I get hungry! And especially water, I’m never without a bottle of water in my bag!

The ferry is quickly filled, engine roaring, the course is steered across Roaring Water Bay… Ten minutes of seaspray on my face, I can feel the taste of the salt. There’s a sense of being ‘homeward bound’, a return to the source so to speak.

We arrive at the slipway, we disembark, the ruins of the Franciscan Friary , the ‘Abbey’ as it is known locally, is on the left as we commence our journey around the island. The Friary was established in 1460 by Fineen O’Driscoll, chieftain of the area at the time. There is a lot of history surrounding the O’Driscoll Clan and Dunalong Castle – Dún na Long – which is located on the east side of the island, overlooking the entrance to Baltimore Harbour. If you’d like more information I’d encourage you to visit https://sherkinisland.ie/.  

The Franciscan Friary, know as ‘The Abbey’

For those of you who prefer to travel by ‘taxi’ there’s usually a local with a tractor and trailer, which on a wet day is very welcoming indeed, direct transport to the Jolly Roger traditional Irish pub and restaurant, forget about the scenic route! We are indeed very fortunate with the weather; the sun gleams upon us. The day is off to a great start.

The island is home to many artists, from painters and photographers to writers and craft makers working with a myriad of materials such as silk and wood. Their work can be purchased at the Island Crafts Shop that is situated on Baltimore pier. Sherkin Island offers an interesting and unique experience through its BA in Visual Art programme (BAVA) http://bavasherkin.com/. It is a four-year honours degree course proposing a dynamic and creative education in an exceptional location; an opportunity – and what an opportunity – that combines studio practice workshops on the island with a range of online distance education technologies. The principal aim of the programme is to provide students with an advanced knowledge of the nature, role and potential of contemporary art. This BA programme is jointly developed with TU Dublin; for more information please click on the link hereafter: http://www.dit.ie/studyatdit/undergraduate/programmescourses/allcourses/visualartsherkinislanddt589.html

We happen upon Silver Strand on the north-west side of the island, splendid views of Cape Clear Island – Oileán Chléire in Irish – and the Atlantic Ocean; a perfect place for a swim followed by a picnic. This is a spectacular ‘playground’ for the islanders; it was the playground of my father’s and his siblings and what a playground! I close my eyes; I can hear their shrieks of laughter.

The ‘Playground’ of my father’s and his siblings

After a morning of walking, taking in the theatrical views, we head back to the east coast for a well-deserved bite to eat and a drink at the Jolly Roger. We have a couple of hours to spend peacefully before returning to the mainland. We have worked up an appetite! We sit facing the village and harbour of Baltimore; splendid views… come see for yourself.

We observe the arrival of the ferry and so we make our way towards the pier. It is early evening and we bid farewell to my ancestral home. What a day; we’ll return soon…

Map of Sherkin Island

Roman Holiday

Rome, what a refreshing city; the Colosseum, the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain… there is so much to see and experience… If these ancient structures could talk, I think they would have a lot of secrets.

Finding myself at the Colosseum I couldn’t help but think about Gladiator (2000) and they thought the Celts were barbaric! But I suppose it was all in a day’s work; it was the context in which life evolved. The sheer volume of this edifice; I am in awe, I hear the cries, the shouts, the roaring crowd that fills the amphitheatre… I try to imagine what life was like but it’s rather difficult. Emerging from my dream-like state, the hustle-and-bustle of modernity bring me back to my reality… a plethora of tourists speaking multitude of languages.

If Walls Could Talk!

Next the Pantheon; a former Roman temple and is now a church. What architectural prowess, marble floor with geometric patterns, what majestic craftsmanship. The nine metre diameter hole, called the Oculus is fascinating. The floor is slightly convex so when it rains the water flows away. I respect the fact that even ruins are so important to the local people, they carry significance in their own right.

I like Rome. It’s a compact city. It has kept its architectural heritage; there are no unwanted ugliness creeping its way into Roman architecture. I breathe a sigh of relief at the lack of standardisation, in other words, globalisation is on their terms…

I appreciate the exuberance of the Italians. The notion of far niente is compelling; the sweet idleness, delightfully slow-paced way of life. It reminds me of parts of France where life has a rhythm of its own. I feel lifted by the musicality of their language, but also, I think that the musicality comes from their personality and body language. They drive around the streets like mad yet they appear to soak-up life’s pleasures. The streets are so narrow that almost every car has its ‘signature dent’; they remind me of little laneways in an alpine village.

Rome often reminds me of the film The Scarlet and the Black (1983). It’s based on the true story of an Irish priest, Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who saved thousands of Jews and Allied soldiers during World War II.

Back to the present…food is simply delicious here. One thing I remarked was the importance of fresh vegetables. Italy is a great place to eat for a vegetarian. There is great taste in their vegetable dishes, a real delight. Of course, not forgetting pizzas and pasta! My choice is the indispensible Margherita, always authentic. My husband finds the pasta Carbonara irresistible; made with pancetta or pork jowl – guanciale – the name is derived from guancia, the Italian word for cheek – a sweet and moist piece of pork.

I want to return to Rome and explore other parts of Italy; Venice, Florence – indulge my senses in art history – Naples, Sicily… My parents and brother’s family toured Italy last year; gosh looking at the myriad of photos they took was enough to persuade me to take another trip there. My sister has already toured many parts of Italy some years ago but she is ready for another trip! Perhaps we’ll explore together…

The Regatta: A Cultural and Social Encounter

While I prefer exploring places off-season for their authenticity, summer can have its benefits as it reveals the connection locals establish with visitors. Coastal towns in summer are vibrant. There is always some kind of festival going on; the connection with the sea is significant to developing and enhancing these places and key to attracting tourists.

Regatta… a word that evokes the coast, the sea, sailing boats… In Castletownbere, West Cork, the ‘Regatta’ takes place annually, on the first Monday of August – a Bank Holiday in Ireland. Let me take you on a trip down memory lane… It’s not sure when this event first emerged but many retired locals tell me that it is reminiscent of their childhood. I found newspaper articles referring to the ‘Regatta’ dating back to 1912.

A few people to whom I spoke recall a time when there were gig races only prior to the event becoming part of the wider Festival of the Sea. A lot of fishermen used to be involved; my dad recalls there being a specific fishermen’s gig.  

Back to today’s event… there are both senior and junior, ladies and men’s gig races taking place over the course of the day. At intervals there are pillow fights, swimming races, greasy pole among other fun events. The festival not only attracts tourists but also a large number of the Castletownbere diaspora. The Regatta reveals a sense of ‘togetherness’. Fundamentally, this festival is about these people and for these people − permanent residents and visiting members of the Castletownbere diaspora − as a celebration of their maritime culture. People’s attachment to their heritage is revealed through their regular return visits to their native place.

It is a time and a place for all locals to meet and transmit the local heritage to future generations. As many people do not meet with one another outside of this festival due to professional and personal commitments in addition to geographical circumstances it is through the act of socialising during this festival that heritage and identity of the fishing community in Castletownbere is maintained. The festival is important to fishing culture as an agent that strengthens the ties between an increasingly dispersed ‘community’. It is interesting to observe these events take place. As crowds watch the ‘unfolding’ of different events some gasp in awe at the tenacity of certain competitors. The sheer resolve of the contestants offer a ‘theatrical performance’ to the spectators.

People invest emotionally in these events. Events like these reveal a collective sense of attachment to the pier as a place for social gatherings. When the last gig race is patiently awaited you can sense the excitement mounting. The atmosphere is electric, almost emotional, especially when Castletownbere teams are involved in the final effort to cross the line. So why not come visit us and experience for yourself the Regatta, a day-long celebration of maritime culture which is part and parcel of the wider Festival of the Sea.

An Encounter with Brittany

There are many things that remind me of France – of course la Tour Eiffel, le Champs de Mars, le Champs Elysees – for me it is without doubt the food. It’s always a culinary experience to eat in France. I suppose my first ‘taste’ of France was around the breakfast table of our host family in Morbihan, Brittany. Baskets overflowing with croissants, pain au chocolat – literally translates as ‘chocolate bread’ – and the incontournable – indispensible – baguette! Bien entendu – of course – no French table is without its beurre salé – salted butter – un délice – a delight – my mouth is watering!

In today’s post I’m going to be more specific; I want to tell you about the myriad of specialities that you can experience in Brittany. I suppose you have all heard of the infamous crêpe –pancake – but much thinner (I’m actually making crêpes for lunch mmm!). In Brittany one makes the distinction between crêpes, used for sweet fillings, and galettes, used for savoury ones. Crêpes, just like our pancakes are made with plain, white flour. However, galettes are made with blé noir (or sarrasin), buckwheat in English. Galettes are like dentelle – lace – they are so thin and slightly crispy.

Galettes and crêpes are a meal in themselves. The ritual is to have a ‘taste’ by having a galette au beurre – butter – this is the ‘opening scene’ to what is to come. It is important to get the earthy taste of the sarrasin; this awakens the taste buds. Afterwards, there is usually the choice of combinations, à composer soi-même, with cheese, ham, mushrooms, egg, saumon fumé – smoked salmon and so forth. A popular choice is la complète, consisting of ham, cheese, usually gruyère or emmental, and an œuf miroir – egg sunny-side up cooked on the galette and not separately. For dessert, it’s over to the crêpes! Again, some have the ritual of having a plain one or with a little sugar; sets the taste buds in motion. Then you can be more adventurous by tasting caramel au beurre salé – salted butter caramel. And the Bretons know how to make their caramel au beurre salé! Of course, there are the usual suspects with chocolate, sometimes with Chantilly (sweetened whipped cream) or orange segments. Our family favourite is a crêpe flambé au Grand Marnier. This orange-flavoured liqueur was created in 1880 by Louis-Alexandre Marnier-Lapostolle. Its best-known product is Grand Marnier Cordon Rouge; a delicate blend of fine cognacs and distilled essence of tropical oranges. Slow ageing in French oak casks gives it incomparable roundness and finesse. Accompanied with a bolée of cider, brut or sweet, the list of galettes and crêpes combinations is endless, well almost! I tend to remain a traditionalist!

The blé noir or sarrasin dates back to the twelfth century when the Crusades brought the plant to Europe. It is quickly acknowledged that this type of wheat, which isn’t wheat but a seed, is not easily cultivated. It wasn’t until it was planted in Brittany, where the soil is favourable and the climate id humid and mild, that the crop yielded results.  Voilà, un peu d’histoire – a little bit of history!

The Bretons usually make their biscuits and pastries with salted butter. One such pastry is thekouign amann – gâteau au beurre – butter cake – which is made from a rather unusual bread dough recipe and large quantities of butter and sugar. History tells us that the kouign amann was made for the first time in 1860 by the baker Yves-René Scordia. That particular year there was a shortage of flour but an abundance of butter and while his bread dough was a complete failure, he baked it all the same to satisfy his customers. This crispy cake with such a delicious taste of butter and caramel turned out to be a huge success. I must admit that it is rather heavy and very buttery but on a damp afternoon with a strong coffee it’s scrumptious; a great way of immersing myself into Breton daily life.

Food reflects our identity; it shapes who we are and is an important part of our everyday lives. When you consider the story of the kouign amann with its taste of salted butter, or the blé noir that is inherently linked to a damp and mild climate so typical of Brittany, you can begin to understand the distinctiveness of this authentic region and its people. I think that’s why I feel so at home there; the people have similar character traits and its climate is very much like that of Ireland’s. Both places are worth the visit.