After meeting a sketch writer’s dream of local characters, I’m inclined to think that calling Ireland’s oldest food market in the centre of Cork town The English Market is another joke in a county where levity is the order of the day. (Try asking for directions; I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much.)
We walk past a gaudy fountain, past acres of chicken and fresh fruit and veg to find baking, from mammy-style jam tarts to sophisticated numbers from Heaven’s Cakes; we inhale the aroma of fresh oysters from Kay O’Connell and peer at Cork’s notorious tripe and drisheen – the stout offspring of a haggis and black pudding, and an orgy of offal.
Upstairs on a balcony, the Farmgate Café is a bustling destination for le tout Cork,
all vintage-shop fittings and artwork-clad walls. I could happily live on its oysters and homemade fennel-seed white soda bread, but we try a luxurious fish chowder; sweet, Nordic-style pickled herrings from Silver Darlings in Limerick; salmon from Clare Island and a velvety, sharp lemon tart. The tripe and drisheen we leave for the hardcore.
A pint of Beamish in the fabulously atmospheric, candlelit Mutton Lane Inn, hunkered up against a narrow entrance to the market ablaze with murals of local characters, is the best way to cap off the visit.
We take to the road, staying in sybaritic country house hotels. Castlemartyr is the very last word in swank, all touchscreen controls in huge bedrooms. It’s a magnet for the rich and famous – everyone from Bill Clinton to Beyoncé. And, oh wow, the breakfasts. I thought the Scots did a mean fry-up, but I fear the Irish have us beaten; this one gets extra points for white pudding and crumbly, treacly soda bread. Our taxi driver tells me that monks used to live at Castlemartyr, playing football on the verdant lawns. ‘In their robes?’ ‘Oh, yes!’
The hedges in these parts drip with fuchsia, giving way to low-slung towns and villages. One, Midleton, is gaining a reputation as
a foodie hotspot. Here’s the original branch of Farmgate, a thriving farmers’ market that draws visitors from miles around. We leave with our bags filled with Frank Hederman’s Irish salmon, smoked over beechwood into dry silkiness; Gubbeen Smokehouse chorizo and salami; Ó Conaill chocolate; porcini ‘dust’ from Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms (it proves a killer addition to risotto, adding earthy umami); reeking cheeses and magnificent sourdough rom Arbutus Bread. Hederman’s also furnishes us with a perfect smoked lobster tail; we hoover it up in the car park.
We’ve been drawn to Midleton by Sage, where chef Kevin Aherne is a real talent. For a small town, this informal, bustling restaurant’s food is remarkable. The ‘12-mile’ ethos – the majority of its free-range, line-caught or organic produce is sourced within 12 miles – is a rare, successful demonstration of locavorism at work. Its 12 Mile Sharing Board offers
a croquette of sweetbread; sticky pigs’ cheeks with a suggestion of local chocolate; white pudding topped with a crisp of pork crackling. A courgette fritter – like the Turkish classic – is light and lovely.
The presentation is sophisticated, and nothing is too much trouble – if we want
to substitute hake for cod, it’s done with grace. It’s a proper community restaurant, too, with a legion of local fans. The friendly front-of-house welcome comes from Kevin’s wife Réidín; there’s a lot of blarney talked about Irish charm but Sage has it in spades.
We do a quick skip out of county to Waterford. Well, with a restaurant as wonderful as Tannery in Dungarvan, it would be rude not to. Here, chef Paul Flynn – a well-known face on Irish TV – and his warm, charming wife Máire have transformed a former leatherworks into one of Ireland’s best restaurants.
The food is a clever meeting of classic technique, glorious produce and Flynn’s distinct touch: a ‘pie’ of duck with, maybe, a flawless pithivier surrounded by wild mushrooms; or short rib of beef left to languish for days in stout before slow cooking to jammy tenderness. Mash is gorgeously buttery, and a raviolo of lobster with pickled ginger is a stellar dish.
The Flynns suggest a drink after dinner, which leads to us falling down the rabbit hole of Dungarvan’s great pubs: Robert
A Merry, Wine Merchant and Family Grocers, aka Merry’s Bar, is as beautifully restored a piece of living history as you’re likely to find – the sign outside says ‘If loving carbs is wrong, I don’t want to be right’. Next we visit unreconstructed Downey’s(53 Main Street, 00 353 584 2993) – the kind of place, with its original wooden counters, that theme pub designers would give their eye teeth for. Here, thanks to our new Tannery pals, we indulge in that most Irish of adventures, the lock-in. Luckily, its chic guest rooms at Tannery Townhouse are but a short stagger away.
The restaurant making the biggest noise round these parts is Michelin-starred Cliff House. But we leave the intricate, complex dishes of chef Martijn Kajuiter for another time, choosing instead to catch some delicate, unseasonal rays on the bar terrace. This has got to be one of Ireland’s loveliest locations, and eating a hummock of sweet crab from Yawl Bay piled onto soda bread with lemon mayo while looking out over Ardmore’s golden sands feels like a rare privilege.
Then it’s back to Cork to the legendary Ballymaloe, empire of Darina Allen, dubbed ‘Ireland’s Delia’, and a woman who’s done much to put Irish cuisine on the map. Contrary as ever, we choose the Saturdays- only pizza from the cooking school – airy, blistered dough drizzled with aioli and pocked with fennely homemade sausage.
Bloody but unbowed, we feel that Cork town deserves a bit of a valedictory pub crawl. The city is blessed with fine boozers: there are more crackers under the Cork Heritage Pubs umbrella; I particularly love Arthur Mayne’s Pharmacy, carved out of
a former chemist shop. In case all the nostalgia gets the better of you, there’s a modern Enomatic machine for dispensing wine, and a short, sharp food menu – terrines, soups and charcuterie, with ingredients from The English Market. Which, pleasingly, is where we came in.
By Marina O’Loughlin (@MarinaOLoughlin)
Written January 2015
Main image above: martinmorrell.com; The Cliff House Hotel’s bar terrace overlooks the sands of Ardmore beach
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