When you are a closet foodie (maybe not too closeted), you are in foodie heaven when you score a food tour in the Beara Peninsula in Ireland before the start of the TBEX Conference. TBEX is the Travel Blogger Exchange conference held 2 – 3 times a year in various places around the world. This year alone they had conferences in Jerusalem, Israel and Huntsville, AL, USA. It brings together travel bloggers, freelance writers, photographers and journalist whose focus is travel – just about anywhere in the world. It is two days of, networking, workshops and seminars and FAM trips within the region.
This fall the gathering of 600+ travel bloggers, influencers and freelance writers was in Killarney, Ireland. While this was my mom’s third TBEX, it was my first (if you’re not counting my short stint in Barcelona a few years ago ). Frankly, I just can’t say enough about the experience. As part of the conference, the host country sets up pre- or post- one day excursions and extended FAM tours for conference attendees.
This year, I was able to score a day in Killarney National Park with a lesson in Irish Dancing (little did they know I have years of experience already) and making Irish Coffee and then a second excursion on a food tour of the Beara Peninsula. One of three peninsulas (Beara, Kerry & Dingle) in the southwest region of Ireland, the Beara Peninsula is part of the Wild Atlantic Way. It is a place of ancient megalithic monuments; stone circles, holy wells, sacred peaks and serves as a backdrop to the unique riches of Mythic Ireland. Beautiful vistas and breathtaking scenery is not the only things you will find here, starting about 25 years ago, Ireland has seen a revolution in it’s cuisine, one that has food lovers all over the world doing their own little jigs. Slow Food, a movement that has been embraced by the island’s region of West Cork, has thrived with the passion and produce of small family-owned farms and businesses. We were thrilled to take a look into the fascinating world of these food artisans.
Our slow food tour was organized by one of the conference sponsors, Hidden Ireland Tours. Around since 1986, it is a tour company that sets up short or long-stay customized excursions for small and large groups. During our stay they had also organized tours of the Dingle Peninsula and were busy with a custom pilgrimage tour of Northern Ireland that I may look at the next time I am in Ireland. I cannot say enough about the itinerary that they put together for us on our Beara Peninsula tour.
Our day began at the INEC conference centre where we were whisked away in a comfortable Kerry Coach bus. We picked up our food guide, Andrew Heath from Mannings Emporium, in Kenmare, a quaint town full of shops and restaurants. Our stop was brief as we had a lot of territory to cover in one day. The Beara Peninsula stretches into the Atlantic from Kenmare and Glengarriff in the east to Castletownbere and westward to Dursey Island (alas, we did not go that far).
The Emerald Isle is home to many a stunning view but driving through the mountains roads can be daunting for any driver, let alone one who is not used to driving on the left side of the road… That is why I am so relieved to say that Hidden Ireland Tours was able to take us up, down, and through the rugged mountains, valleys, and coastlines of this area so lush with culture and relics of the past. With so much to offer in terms of archaeological and spiritual importance, the Bear Peninsula is a must-see. The Slow Food movement finds itself an added bonus to this already richly coloured area of Ireland.
The journey feels like it’s only just begun as we make our way through Healy Pass, a gap between the mountains with a narrowly paved road. Do a 180 degree spin at the pass and you’ll find yourself looking from the lakes of Killarney National Park in County Kerry to the rugged boulder sprinkled hillsides of County Cork. Though the heights may be a little alarming when riding a wide bus through the <em>very </em>narrow 2 way roads winding through the mountains, the views are simply so spectacular that you’ll forget any worries you might have.
Our special food trip here was led by a renowned foodie in whose company, we will wander through some of the wildest and most spectacular scenery one is ever likely to encounter in between calls to some of the leading figures in the small-scale productions of these highest quality specialty foods. A day of laughs and intrigue, richest inspiration and delicious tastings. From 8:30 to 5:00pm, we made our way through the culinary map of the Beara Peninsula.
Our journey begins as we head to the Beara Coast Hotel in Castletown-Bearhaven, where we are presented with a wonderful cooking demonstration for award winning chowder. Chef Mark Johnston shares with us his “Best-In-32-Counties” recipe… YumYum… Monkfish, smoked hake, haddock and salmon are all in the mix; that’s right, Irish chowder only has fish and no shellfish or molluscs. I learned that it was fairly simple to make but the key was the fresh fish (right from local fisherman) and to not to boil the fish or you will overcook it. Once it starts to fall apart in the broth, you’re in trouble.
Next, we made our way to the recently opened gin distillery: Beara Ocean Gin, another product using ingredients from the land and sea local to the area. It’s the first of it’s kind to use salt water in its recipe, to replicate the saltiness of the Atlantic sea water which is only a couple kilometres from the distillery itself. It infuses many local aromatics including the ever so prominent Fuchsia, a brightly fuchsia coloured flower that you can spot along the side of the road in bushes for the majority of the summer months.
We were privileged to have been the taste testers for their very first ‘official’ batch. We have the picture to prove it! This is a brand new distillery but once again the attention to local produce and resources and a detail to artisan craftsmanship is so prevalent in this region.
My favourite part of this slow food tour by far was a visit to a cheese producer. If you know me well enough, you know I’m a big fan of cheese, so I was particularly excited for our next stop, the home of Milleens Cheese – arguably the pioneers of the Slow Food movement themselves. What an experience, driving up a steep mountain so we could meet, speak and sample cheese with the humble creators of an award winning cheese. Our host told us the history of how he and his wife began making cheese to solve a simple problem: they had too much milk. After tweaking the recipe, they brought their cheese to the London International Cheese Show and were stunned to be awarded Supreme Champion. What makes it so special, you might ask? Well, first, this cheese is made with raw milk. The cheese that many of us are used to does not use raw milk but rather pasteurized milk that has been boiled to kill any bacteria before it is consumed. Though this may seem crucial, however, boiling the milk actually gets rid of a lot of beneficial bacteria, ones that add a unique flavour to the cheese.
This cheese is only available local and to a few European Union countries because of the local micro flora consumed by the cows in the area. When asked why he will not increase production, he stated that you cannot get this particular flavour unless the cows were feeding on this particular grass which also contains residue from the ocean spray. His son, Quinlan, now makes all the cheeses and we were able to taste a wide variety of the cheeses which Milleens produces ( aged to different degrees and even a smoked). Following this, a feast of a slew of local cheeses, meats and wines to fill us all up. Our guide did not disappoint with the selection that he shared with us local produce, pickles, beef, chorizos, soda bread and of course cheeses. This whole spread was put together by Andrew from Mannings Emporium in Ballylickey, Bantry, West Cork.
Our last stop was a visit with some local mussel farmers, Saint Patrick Organic Irish Mussels. Though many of us were already full to the brim, we made room for the mussel soup and boiled mussels they prepared for us. Grown nearby, the mussels are grown on ropes strung from barrels in the bays. Fresh and simply delicious. What a way to finish up our tour.
We then bid farewell to the Beara Peninsula, beautiful in it’s scenic views and fascinating food culture. We were so lucky to be toured around by such a wonderful guide and hosted by lovely producers of Beara’s food, even in their sometimes tight quarters. From our friendly driver from Kerry Coaches to the Hidden Ireland staff, the trip was interesting, well organized and this is a trip that we won’t soon forget! Wait for us, Beara Peninsula, we’ll be back!
We were guests of Failte Ireland , Hidden Ireland Tours, Kerry Coaches, Beara Cost Hotel, Beara Ocean Gin and Kush. We are grateful for TBEX and the organizers of each pre-conference tours. No other compensation was awarded. All opinions are our own and truthful.
Stay tuned for more Ireland adventures!