Read: Irish Foodie | The Lee: Eating from source to sea
First published in the Irish Foodie Spring 2021 magazine.
If you were to trace the path of the River Lee from its Shedy Mountain source on the Cork-Kerry border along the beautiful Lee Valley to Cork city, it would tell the story of great Cork food. The river travels from mountains to moors, through rural and urban areas, gathering momentum en route; the riverside hoteliers, restaurateurs and producers get their momentum from the superb local raw materials, each bringing their own creativity to the mix.
Not far from where the Lee rises and runs into the panoramic Gougane Barra Lake, the family-run Gougane Barra Hotel starts the day off right with a breakfast that focuses on food from the area. “We’ve always had local food on the menu,” explains Katy Lucey. “My husband Neil’s family owns the hotel which was built in 1936 by his grandparents. His grandad used to do front of house, like Neil. His grandmother was the Bean a Tí in the kitchen and the hotel always had a good name for food.” Katy and Neil took over 16 years ago. “We just continued the tradition that was there already. We are surrounded by amazing products in West Cork, it’s very easy to buy from here.” The rashers and sausages come from Michael Twomey’s Butchers further down the river in Macroom and the slice pans for breakfast toast are from Lynch’s Family Bakery, also in Macroom. “As a family business ourselves,” says Katy, “we always try to buy from family businesses as well.”
Further along from Gougane Barra, just before you reach the magical submerged woodlands of The Gearagh, is the River Toon, a Lee tributary that gives the village of Toons Bridge its name. Toons Bridge Dairy is another family business, making fresh cheese from local buffalo, sheep and cows’ milk, including mozzarella, straw smoked scamorza, cheddar and halloumi. Run by Toby Simmonds and his wife Jenny Rose Clarke, the couple have a shop on site which sells the cheese alongside Mediterranean products – olives, oils and vinegars – imported by their Real Olive Company. Combine both in a lunchtime pizza from the wood-fired oven behind the shop, made using 00 flour from Naples, herbs from the garden and cheese from the dairy next door. When the sun shines and Covid allows, take a seat in their pretty garden beside the Toon, to enjoy the combination of Mediterranean inspiration and local produce that is the hallmark of Toons Bridge Dairy.
The Lee continues towards Cork, alongside the R618 for the most part, splitting in two before it reaches the city. This is a throwback to the days that the Lee occupied the city via the network of canals evident on John Rocque’s Map of Cork from 1759. These were later filled in to create the broad streetscape of Patrick Street, the South Mall and Grand Parade but a few remain. The South Channel, which is marked on that map, still flows past L’Altitude 51 on Union Quay. It’s well worth turning away from the river to stop at this lovely corner spot which is run by Beverley Matthews. Beverley took inspiration from the Parisian cave-à-manger style of restaurant – essentially a wine shop with a special licence that allows customers to drink wine on site alongside some simple food – when re-opening L’Altitude after a fire on St Patrick’s Day 2019 closed the place down. “I always wanted to develop the shop side of it more,” says Beverley, “an increased offering of wines stocked in the shop means more wines to drink in.” L’Altitude’s carefully chosen portfolio of organic, biodynamic and natural wines is complemented with a menu that focus on local ingredients. According to Beverley, “it’s about small plates, bistro-style cooking, rustic and tasty. We’re not chefs, wine was always the key focus, I want to take really good ingredients and do the bare amount with them to let them shine.” After working with NeighbourFood – a system of click and collect local food markets – last summer, she got to see and taste the best. “Now our bread comes from Bread & Roses, West Cork Coffee supply coffee, Purple Squirrel Farm for veg and Horizon Farm in Kinsale for salad and mixed leaves. It’s all about sourcing.”
From a lakeside traditional Irish breakfast at Gougane Barra Hotel, via a wood-fired pizza-fest by the river in Toons Bridge Dairy and onwards to a quayside cave-à-manger that offers wine and small plates, the story of the Lee is a story of great Cork produce – and of the people who let it shine.
Gougane Barra Hotel, Gougane Barra, Ballingeary, Macroom, West Cork
Katy at Gougane Barra Hotel has published an e-cookbook in aid of ISPCC Childline:
Toons bridge Dairy Shop and Café, Toons Bridge, Macroom, Co Cork
L’Atitude 51 Natural Wine Bar and Wine Shop, 1 Union Quay, Cork