“COMPLEXITY is my happy place,” says Hugh Mullan, owner and founder of The Seven Heads.
That’s great for him, but the challenge for me is to unravel that complexity and get to the bottom of what The Seven Heads is, what motivates Hugh and what the ultimate goal and vision is.
My first task is to get to know Hugh, and where the fire for food and farming comes from.
Originally from Dungiven in Derry, Hugh, 47, and now living in Glenville, Co. Cork, grew up in a house surrounded by able cooks. His two sisters went to culinary school and became chefs; his mum’s cookery outshone them both, says Hugh, and his father was, and still is, the adventurous culinaire of the family.
“It was quite unusual for men to cook and be good at cooking where I grew up. My dad worked for a company that sent him off all over the world — places like Iran and Brazil.
“He’d come back with all these ideas about food and ways to cook, make a design up of something he’d seen on his travels and get a local fabricator to make it for him.
“Dad’s always been big into nature, foraging and animals. Even now, we still go out walking, picking nuts and heading to places where we know old damson trees are still fruiting. But I definitely was on the food consumption side of the equation growing up in our house!”
Surrounded by so many cooks, all Hugh had to do was sit back and enjoy the food as it arrived: the chief taster of the house, “…and pretty good at it too,” he says.
He didn’t really start to cook until he was in his thirties. For all the immersion of food growing up, he hadn’t taken in what his family were doing at all. But what started as a hobby, and a way to woo his wife, Caroline, quickly span out of control. Elaborate multi-course dinners for huge numbers of friends and family became the norm.
“Cookery went from zero to just crazy stuff,” he admits.
Applying for Masterchef Ireland might have been a natural extension of that need to keep pushing and learning more, but the reality was much more humbling than that.
“My mum was very ill at the time, she had a terminal condition, but she was a food fanatic and had all these food heroes: Myrtle Allen and Neven Maguire, and she loved Masterchef. So I figured if I got onto Masterchef Ireland, it might give her another six months to hold on.
“But I didn’t understand much about the sequence between filming, editing, production and release, so when I left the competition in fourth place, I asked a member of the production crew when it would be going out. It was September, so I was thinking it might be December, but they said likely March or April the following year. I just burst out crying, thinking she’d never see it. One of the production crew gave me a Masterchef apron, she wasn’t supposed to, but she said take this, give it your mum and tell her she has to hang in there. And I did do that, and she did hang on — she really enjoyed watching the programme!”
One of the biggest rewards of doing the show was meeting and making a friend for life. Diana Dodog ultimately went on to win the 2014 title of Irish Masterchef and has gone on to carve out for herself a very successful food truck business in Courtmacsherry as well as releasing a cookbook.
“We were both from Cork, so we were staying at the same hotel in between filming. As soon as I met her, I just recognised her as a female equivalent of me! We both shared a passion for the competition, and we’ve stayed close friends ever since.
“During the recruitment process for the show, I clearly set out the vision for the farm I wanted to create. I described it exactly how it is today, but it’s taken me seven years to get to this point. Diana was pivotal in getting me this far. I had been really struggling to get a small few acres of land near our home, and Diana had heard about a parcel of land being sold in West Cork that matched what I was looking for.”
The land in question is a five-acre plot; a former slate quarry, atop sea cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with views of the Old Head of Kinsale, that Hugh purchased in 2016. It does many things: an organic vegetable and fruit farm, a lavender farm and event space with the horse-box converted food truck just one of the many food offerings.
Each thing, each activity, is, in its own right, a business. I push and push, and eventually I get to the crux of why there are so many strands to what The Seven Heads is and why it doesn’t specialise in just one thing (something his wife often asks, apparently).
“It’s a diversified farm business,” Hugh eventually declares. “Let’s face it, farming is in trouble. For me, as someone not coming from a traditional farming background, I want to show that it is possible to take five acres of marginal land and make it a success.
“There is no farming heritage for me, so I can look at things differently — nothing is impossible as far as I’m concerned.”
The secret of that success lies in the very complexity that most of us would shy away from: who wants to be a jack of all trades and yet master of none?
But for Hugh, the mastery comes from understanding how all those trades fit together and, crucially, benefit each other.
The organic vegetable farm occupies about one acre. It utilises a minimal intervention, permaculture growing system known as ‘no-dig polyculture’. No-dig means just that: instead of digging the soil before, during and after harvest, vegetation is allowed to die back naturally and then is covered with a thick, light-blocking material that helps to rot down that vegetation, naturally clearing the land for subsequent plantings. This achieves two things: it creates hummus, vital in creating new source of soil; and it preserves and increases the nutrient value in the soil.
Polyculture refers to the planting, and encouraging rewilding of, as many different types and varieties of trees, shrubs and other plants as possible.
Hugh explains how one tree provides one acre of bee forage, and he has planted 180 so far with plans for more.
Creating sufficient bee forage means healthier bee colonies that can thrive and survive the lean months, as well as increasing successful, natural pollination of everything growing on the farm so they too in turn can thrive.
Avoiding the use of pesticides and fungicides means the farm is worked to organic principles, but what it delivers is actually even better than that as the growing systems actually increase the soil nutrient quotient, rather than gradually eroding it away.
The Seven Heads is also home to what Hugh believes is the only commercial lavender farm on the Wild Atlantic Way. It too serves more than one purpose.
“The lavender farm creates an experience element to the business, because of the view.”
Rows and rows of lavender, three different varieties in all, sweep down and seem to disappear over the ridge down towards the rocky beach below. It is an Instagrammer’s dream: green fields, vibrant purple lavender festooned with busy bumble bees and butterflies, blue skies, frothy oceans and a beaming white lighthouse in the distance.
“It’s low maintenance, but it is unique, impactful and sustainable. I got the idea after stumbling upon the 25-acre commercial Mayfield Lavender Farm just outside London, they have been really generous in their mentorship. By comparison, our lavender farm is much smaller. We will harvest a small amount of lavender oil for the beauty industry, but we will also establish bee hives on site so in 2020 we should be harvesting our own Lavender Honey too.”
The farm is also available for hire. Whether that’s for a wedding, party, corporate event or wellness retreat, Hugh is building up his portfolio of packages to suit a variety of needs and budgets. There is a stylish Stretch Tent with a capacity to seat up to 150 people, and of course Hugh has the catering covered.
The converted horsebox has been spied around Watergrasshill and Garretstown beach over the summer, regularly selling out in quick order of his 72-hour cold-prove sourdough pizza laden with beautiful local ingredients. But this can also cater for cocktails and nibbles; or go the whole hog and allow Hugh to develop sensory menus full of bold flavours.
But to float back down amongst the lavender for one moment, the one thing that holds all these different offerings together is, simply, food.
“My plan has always been to develop products out of vegetables that I can grow; and I want the vegetables that I grow to be as nutrient rich as possible so the products I make from them are as good for us as possible: maximum nutrition, minimal processing — that’s my aim.”
Looking ahead to 2020, Hugh will be teaming up with friend-in-food Diana Dodog for a series of feasts on the farm. “These will be harvest-focused, showcasing the seasonal output from the farm with one or two quality suppliers, specifically chosen to compliment what is being grown and made here on the farm over a four or five course set menu.”
Meat will feature on these set menus, but as a side dish, not a main dish. The polyculture method of agriculture relies on there being an abundance of wild and cultivated flora and fauna: wild plants alongside cultivated crops; wild pollinators alongside chickens to scrape the soil and larger herbivores whose ruminant behaviour increases farm bio-diversity.
This vision of doing and having less to create more and better things is, in effect, taking a giant step back in time to farming in the older ways rather than the larger, mono-culture farms of modern times. It is an approach to farming that is seen as radical, but in fact is still in the living memory of some.
There’s a small army of people looking to volunteer on the farm, so much so that Hugh is currently tackling how to incorporate that offer of help into a fair and equitable exchange system.
The concept behind The Seven Heads is to create a visually unique location that promotes sustainability, wellness, friendship and an appreciation for local, seasonal Irish food and farm to fork principles. It is an enticing proposition, and one that will begin to bloom.