18th November 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen
18th November 2016
Interview: Killian Fox
Photographs: Emile Dinneen
Fingal, who forges the knives and cures the meats, is a great fireball of energy who talks a hundred words a minute and rarely pauses for breath. His sister Clovis, who grows the vegetables and runs a catering company, is the more calm and reflective of the two. Both are warmly welcoming when we turn up at Gubbeen on a cloudy morning in May. We gather at Clovis’s house, which she and her partner Andrew, an English music producer, are in the process of renovating. Then, as she starts preparing lunch in the converted barn next door, Fingal whisks us off on a tour of the farm, taking in the knife workshop, the cheese factory and his impressive new smokehouse along the way.
Back at Clovis’s, lunch is coming together. She lays out a spread of cheeses and cured meats while her brother cuts up some homemade bread with one of his own knives. The main event is pork belly, which Clovis is serving with mixed leaves from her garden and a freshly-dug mooli radish, big as a thigh-bone. After simmering the pork in dashi and roasting it in the oven for an hour, the recipe – from a Japanese chef friend in Cork City – calls for a spot of blowtorching. It doesn’t take much persuasion for Fingal to take charge of this and before long pig-skin is crackling and blistering under the flame. At Gubbeen, even slow-cooking involves focus, intensity and raw fire.
On the low wall that separates Clovis’s house from her biodynamic garden below, where two towering echium plants sway in the breeze, Fingal and Clovis are talking about the local food community and the origins of Gubbeen.
Fingal: West Cork is punctured with the most incredible influences. In the 1970s, land was cheap so people from all over the place were down here having a great time, smoking pot, living the dream. But then they realised that they were away from what they knew, from supermarkets and high streets, so they started making all the foods that they missed. A big part of the dream was to be hands-on and make everything themselves…
Clovis: Though they didn’t really have any choice in the matter.
Fingal: So this led to all the creativity around here – all the fish smokers, the bakers, the gardeners, the cheese-makers. It was a fantastic mishmash of producers.
Fingal: Actually we’re the fifth generation on the farm on dad’s side.
Clovis: And we’re rapidly producing the sixth.
Fingal: Have you seen Hotel Transylvania? Where the werewolf and all the kids arrive in a dust cloud and trash the place and go away again? That’s my family.
Clovis: Mum came to live here in the mid 70s.
Fingal: They were in their 20s. Her godfather lived on Heir Island. She came over to stay, went to the pub, met dad, and the rest is history.
Fingal: Originally England, but when she was very young her father moved to Spain. And she went to school in France. When she met dad, what you had was this creative, worldly woman and the West Cork farmer who made shit happen when she came up with a good idea. “I’m going to make cheese.” “Okay, I’ll build you a dairy.”
Clovis: She made one on the side of the Aga and brought that down to the deli in town. They said, Bring another one next week. And another. Then someone from Neal’s Yard Dairy in London tried her cheese and said, “I’ll buy as much as you can make.” That’s when it took off… She used to cut the curds with a sword.
Fingal: Her grandfather’s rusty dressage sword. And there were no hair nets, so it was all hair, swords, rust, bare feet. There’re some very funny photos from the early days of us hanging around drinking from the tank.
Mum made cheese on the side of the Aga and used to cut the curds with her grandfather’s rusty dressage sword. It was all hair, swords, rust and bare feet…
Fingal: We grew up with really simple food: meat and two veg, fish. But mum spent a lot of time in India and was always able to make an amazing curry. She’d spent a lot of time in France and Spain as well, so we never really had the same thing twice.
Clovis: There was a lot of experimenting going on, that’s for sure.
Fingal: There was a lot of barter going on in our lives too. Somebody would come to the farm and gives us honey or bread or whatever and we’d give them some cheese. At the end of farmers’ markets, whatever was left over and couldn’t be brought home, you’d swap. And not wanting anything to go to waste, we were forced into being inventive.
Clovis: We’ve always eaten lots of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients – that’s just how it was.
Fingal: But look, we’re no fecking saints. Don’t get us wrong. There’s some times you just eat half a fecking Romantica [ice-cream cake] and a loaf of sliced pan. We’re not purists, we really are not, but I think the thing is, when you have enough energy, you do put that effort in.
While Clovis gets the lunch underway, Fingal takes us on a tour of Gubbeen. We climb through a grove of trees to the farmhouse he grew up in and where his parents still live. Across the yard, in an old barn, is his knife workshop.
Fingal: I was always into those things: butchering, cheffing, all that kind of stuff. I’d inherited my uncle’s knife collection and I’d been throwing them at trees, fucking them up – I was too young to be given a good collection. Then I was trying to fix the knives and I got more and more into it. I found all these websites and ways to get all the bits and pieces. Up the road is Rory Conner, who is one of Ireland’s original great knife makers. I went and hung out with him for a while. Then two other knife makers in Ireland retired and I was suddenly able to get my hands on their equipment. That was about eight years ago.
Some days, you come in here and there’s sparks flying and you’re grinding and machines are going and heavy metal is playing, rarrrrr
Fingal: Anything from five to 15 hours. Some days, you come in here and there’s fucking sparks flying and you’re grinding and machines are going and heavy metal is playing, rarrrrr. And other days it’s totally zen, you’ve just got the sandpaper, shh shh shh for hours. Or the buffers, making the handles.
Fingal: This is my man cave, my escape from the world, my bolt hole. The slightly sucky thing is that people want knives and there’s a 2-3 year waiting list. But I just make the knives I want to make, rather than making to order, so the creativity thing is still fun.
Fingal: It’s a bit of a waste, but it can still be a bit of fun having a nice knife. I think the difference between a good and bad knife is how long it’ll keep its edge, how easy it is to sharpen. The durability, flexibility. Carbon steel knives will always be easier to sharpen. Stainless steel is not as easy.
Fingal: You can buy the best steel in the world and heat-treat it badly and have a crappy knife. Or you can buy a very simple steel, nail the heat-treating and have an incredible knife. Heat-treating is as important as the actual material. It’s like getting good milk and making bad cheese.
We cross the yard, pausing to admire a giant (and reportedly very grumpy) American bronze turkey called George Bush. Fingal opens a door and we peer into a small room with pitch-black walls and solid drips of tar hanging from the ceiling. This was the earliest iteration of the Gubbeen smokehouse.
Fingal: When I was finishing school, I helped dad build this smoker. We’ve always had pigs on the farm, so I thought I’d put in a bit of bacon, some sausage and salamis. You know when you’re a teenager, you’ll smoke anything you get your hands on [laughs]. We were smoking eggs at one point. Then Seamus Sheridan [of Sheridan’s cheesemongers] said, “Ah, give me some of the bacon, I’ll sell it in the shop.” It was exactly the same thing that happened to mum’s cheese 15 years earlier.
You know when you’re a teenager, you’ll smoke anything you get your hands on. We were smoking eggs at one point
Fingal: Exactly, just winging it. No business plans. My wife is a statistician and spends her time crunching numbers – but that’s not for us. We’re in denial, we just do things because we love doing them. We flog it for a price that sounds about right, just to keep us going.
The tour continues. We have a quick look around the family kitchen. Then we take a tour of the cheese factory, where Fingal’s mother Giana is serenely painting the cheese with bacterial culture. After a chat, Fingal takes us over to his new smokehouse: a giant shed filled with hi-tech machinery and state-of-the art drying rooms. Then we round back to Clovis’s house, where the pork belly is coming out of the pot.
Clovis: Throughout my life I’ve heard that a lot: people saying it’s very strange that you live and work together.
Clovis: I think it’s that we have our own space, we’re not stepping on people’s toes. While we help each other, no one really interferes.
Fingal: We’re all quite different, thank god. We jump in and out of each other’s lives. Clovis is the much more calculated, thinking kind of person, I’m the typical head-down-charge-in kind of person who regrets half of it afterwards but fuck it, it’ll be grand.
If you want an everyday knife sharpener, get one of those Kitchen Devils roller ones. It’s not a great sharpener but it’s a practical one.
Fingal on his favourite kitchen objects
Clovis: It was never pushed on us at all. I went travelling straight away after school.
Fingal: We were never told that we had to take over.
Clovis: But you had it more on your mind, because you had to go to agricultural college.
Fingal: There was a little hint of the eldest son thing going on.
Clovis: To inherit land you have to have a Green Cert [an agricultural qualification]. That was as far as it went in terms of pressure.
Fingal: I loved being part of the farm but as a kid you want to go off and have fun. I’d probably put myself down as one of those lazy bratty kids that was a bit of a parents’ nightmare. My work ethic kicked in later on. I got to see the world and live a bit and get it out of my system. Now I’m turning into dad, I won’t leave the fucking parish [laughs].
Clovis: Yeah, I loved it. The shed was the place to be, feeding the cows, the chickens, making hay bales, all that kind of stuff. Whenever it was time to go back to boarding school, there was a bus that left from West Cork with all the cheese orphans from Durrus, Milleens, Cashel Blue. We all got on the bus with our stinky tuck boxes and drove off to school, crying.
Fingal gets a text about a machinery problem at the smokehouse and rushes off to deal with it. While he’s gone, Clovis takes us out to her garden to fetch some leaves and vegetables for lunch, including a giant mooli radish that will go into one of the salads.
Clovis: When I got back from travelling the first time, I asked dad why there wasn’t any veg on the farm any more. There used to be: I remember granddad always had cabbages, onions, peas, rhubarb, strawberries. But when mum started making cheese they were always so busy and no one had time to maintain a veggie garden. Dad said, “Why don’t you give it a go?”, and offered me this tiny little plot. As soon as I started, I couldn’t stop and I needed more and more space. I was totally hooked from the beginning.
Clovis: About 19. It’s really flown by. Some years it’s very orderly, other years total chaos. Also our summers these last few years have been pretty crap. Apparently there was a big change in the jet stream, which means lots of rain over Ireland. My god, it’s been pretty grim. But if you let that stuff get you down, you wouldn’t do it. You have to adapt.
I love a duck egg. It’s true what they say: once you go quack you never go back
Clovis: It’s mostly for my catering work. And for the family: there’s three houses to feed. It’s a small garden – about a half-acre. I try to keep it manageable.
Clovis: I’m up by about 7.30am and doing all my stuff by 8. First I feed all my ferments. I’m slow to get into the garden, it’s a long day otherwise.
Clovis: Yeah. I just love all the meals, one is more important than the next, so I’ll always take time making them. For breakfast I’ll have lots of kefirs and smoothies. Sometimes granola, but mainly hard-boiled egg with sourdough and marmite. I love a duck egg. It’s true what they say: once you go quack you never go back.
Clovis: Yes – although I try to break it up a bit. When I first started, I’d really go at it: digging all day, wrecked in the evenings. Now it’s more spread out. Gardening is very physical. Too much of that, you wouldn’t last.
We return to the kitchen with the giant radish and a bowl full of leaves. Clovis prepares salads while Fingal attacks the pork belly with a blowtorch.
Clovis: I see what’s ready in the garden – it changes all the time, which keeps things interesting. I try to do as much vegetarian food as possible. Loads of salads. You do have to make a lot of effort in the vegetarian world and I kind of enjoy that side of it.
Clovis: I’d say twice a week. We eat a lot of rice: I’m a rice fiend, much to my dad’s despair.
Clovis: Hardly ever.
Clovis: And the potatoes I like are those little waxy spuds. “What the hell’s wrong with you?” Up at the house, generally it’d be…
Clovis: For years, before we all had partners, we’d have dinner together nearly every night, and sometimes lunch as well. The kitchen was the heart of the place, everybody ended up there at some point, and it’d be a big pot of something, a big stew or a boiled chicken. Always really hungry people eating really fast and talking at the same time.
Fingal: A fair bit.
Clovis: When he gets his pizza oven going, he does the most amazing pizzas.
Fingal: Yeah we have a wood-burning oven. But when the babies are young, you lose the energy for that. Getting up at 5 or 6am, you don’t have time to get the oven going, or to make bread. You get knackered, let the sourdough mother die, and end up with this grey pool in a jar at the back of the fridge…
The kitchen was the heart of the place. There’d be a big stew or a boiled chicken and really hungry people eating really fast and talking at the same time
Fingal: We have a lot of cheese at home. We eat a huge amount of parmesan actually.
Clovis: You guys probably eat more fish than we do, Ciara [Fingal’s wife] loves the fish.
Fingal: Yeah. I work with a lot of butchers, so we’ll swap sausages for several ribs of beef and a fillet. So yeah, I suppose I do most of the cooking up above. Ciara is the main – her work is quite successful in comparison, so she really is a huge part of our comfort, you could probably say. The smokehouse, as it grows, has always fed back into itself. Trying to do things the good way doesn’t exactly make it the most successful way. If you’re going to pay farmers well, and encourage things, and all of that, it’s not always going to make you loads of money.
Clovis: It’s a labour of love at the best of times.
Fingal: There’s 25 in total: eight in the smokehouse, seven in the dairy, some in the farmers’ market, people in the garden, two in the farm, then there’s the family. There was a scary statistic: if the farm simply sold all of its milk it would make the same profit as the cheese does. Someone who’d look at statistics would tell us to do it all differently, but we wouldn’t change a damn thing. My god the most amazing characters have come into our lives and become friends because of it. So I suppose we’re addicted to it and it has its highs and its lows. But the highs outweigh the lows.
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