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Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Ireland: Travel treat (part 2: Cork)

Continued from previous post:

"If Ballymaloe Cookery School is one of its kind, Ballymaloe House is a pioneer that has spawned many a follower. And Cork has since reinvented itself as the cuisine county for all the traditional foods that aren’t available elsewhere.

The extent of this is nowhere more apparent than at the venerable English Market, in Cork city, the nation’s ‘second city’ after Dublin. Cork has all the chain eateries and supermarkets, the brands and designer labels that Dublin does — it is, in that sense, quite as cosmopolitan. But duck into the wrought-iron arches of the English Market’s many gates, and suddenly you are in the stronghold of farm foods.

First up on the left from the Grand Parade entrance, the famous O’Reilly’s — astoundingly, this stall subsists on just two products: tripe and drisheen.

Along the line are all the other poultry and butcher’s shops — pigs’ heads stare at us, nestled among collars, bodices, skirts and crubeens at Kathleen Noonan’s; the Chicken Inn has free-range fowl in every form; the Organic Shop has free-range pork; and just about all things porcine are laid out all along the aisle, from pork chops to sausages to terrines and pickled trotters.

Improbably, the Bubble Brothers are sat next to Noonan’s bodices and Frank Hederman’s smoked salmon — selling organic wines!

Bang in the middle, though, is where I’m headed, following Darina’s odd advice — for the Olive Stall is what I’d take for an Italian deli. Showing us around is Maeve from Bord Bia (the Irish food and drinks promotion authority), who grew up on a farm herself and is a good friend of Darina’s. Maeve concurs that the Italian-run shop is unusual for the English Market: ‘A lot of more traditional people aren’t entirely happy about some of the newer, more innovative stalls — like the Olive Stall, which is very popular with young people. For instance, my nephews and nieces love it. But I think that you can’t hold back from changing with the times.’

Given all that, and the huge bowls of marinated olives, bocconcini and pimientos lining both open counters, I didn’t see why Darina thought this was the one place I would find the elusive carragheen moss, harvested at the seaside for making a gelatinous dessert rather like an uber-light blancmange (an Indian friend I made it for likened it to the dew-softened malaiyo of Banaras). I see nothing resembling it, as I peek past handpressed olive oil or orange peel soaps, bottles of flavoured vinegars and lavender water. But a hesitant inquiry elicits a brisk ‘Si’ and a bundle of the dried seaweed from behind a package of lavender buds. A quick whisper from Maeve about ‘lavender lamb… used rather like rosemary on a roast’, and I buy a bagful of those too (I confess to saving a handful for a drawer sachet).

To my right, all along the south side are the fish and seafood stalls — locals evidently love it, and there is much leisurely conversation and debate with the O’Connell behind the counter, or Mr Martin or Brandon, before a scoop of mussels, a brace of crabs, or a nice half-dozen herrings are wrapped up.

Opposite, I spy a tray of those heart-shaped French cheeses, coeur de chevre, among the astounding selection at Iago’s, run by the bespectacled and jolly Sean Calder-Pott, who also offers fresh pasta. Further along, just before the lanes open up into a wider court, there is Mary Rose’s stall, the Coffee Central, where bemused colleagues stop for the java. But I’m not done yet.

On the opposite side of the court is the lure of Niall Daly’s Chocolate Shop, and I am snagged en route by Mr Bell’s Arbutus breads, more Irish and French cheeses as well as condiments, salume, grains and pasta at On the Pig’s Back, which evidently didn’t stop at pork. There’s even lullaby milk, from Mary Burns of Ardrahan Farm (artisan of another renowned cow’s cheese I sampled for supper at Ballymaloe) — it’s the morning milk, high in melatonin, which soothes insomniacs!

Back towards the Grand Parade end is the most famous baker’s — ABC (Alternative Bread Company), where the traditional soda bread is at its best, and granary cobs, grinders, S loaves, bloomers, baguettes fly off the shelves. And there’s unleavened Passover breads but no challah because it’s baked only on Friday (and runs out early); there is, however, Polish bread and pumpernickel, rye and mixed seeds (for your arteries) and health breads (for your waistline and heart) and gluten-free (for your allergies). They’ve got local barmed (yeast) breads, of course, but the best barm brack (the Irish tea bread) is near the Princes Street end, at the Old Mill Shop, past the old fountain.

On the other side of the fountain, just diagonally across from Coffee Central, at Moynihan’s you’ll find Cork’s unique ‘buttered eggs’freshly laid in early autumn and preserved for the winter baking with a coat of fresh-churned farm butter. Maeve remembers her mother making those, but few churn butter at home these days even on farms, and this is now the only place where these beauties can be had.

Round the other side is a smoky window full of the country’s best packaged black and white puddings, from Clonakilty’s, as well as more drisheen. Across from the Old Mill, there’s organic vegetables and fruit as well as an astounding assortment of yoghurt-coated nuts, buckets of different seeds, dried fruits and candied pineapple slices… The stall of the sugarplum fairy, perhaps? I’m too busy bagging and buying to look up.

Especially as the clock nears noon, for looking down on me is the literal crowning glory of the English Market — Kay Harte’s Farmgate CafĂ©.

Each day, the best produce of the market makes it’s way into the pots, and the menu is written up in chalk, next to a board listing ‘today’s suppliers’ by name. It’s the best advertisement the wonderful people preserving and furthering Irish culinary heritage below could have — and it’s free. The food? Well, it floors us. There’s tripe and drisheen cooked in milky onion gravy (yes, it’s offal and tastes like it). The best shepherd’s pie ever. Finally, the surprisingly hard to find Irish stew, done to perfection. And the best seafood chowder I’ve ever had (my third bowl in Ireland). Chicken that, unbelievably, oozes flavour. (Below us, the O’Callaghan stall still has some for sale, though they’re fresh out of the pheasant by 10 and a solitary guinea fowl awaits its pot.)

It’s a wrench to walk away, but it’s back to Dublin."

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