West Cork is known, according to an article in Bon Appetit back in May 2008, as “the California of Ireland,” due in part to its striking coastline and artisan foods. Though I see a far wider range of produce in Northern California than I did throughout County Cork, its clear Cork leads the way in Ireland.
The wealth of produce showing up in Irish restaurants surpassed what I saw in London just prior, despite the fact that London has grown by leaps and bounds in dining. In Ireland, I beheld more than a mere couple types of greens, and was offered fresh vegetables and fish, locally-made meats, cheeses and products on almost every menu. Going back a few decades, they have their own pioneers of farmers markets, Slow Food cooking, and organic farming, like Darina Allen (head of the famed Ballymaloe Cooking School), who is their equivalent to Alice Waters. Not dissimilar to home.
Whether dining on the cheeses of Ardrahan, Ardsallagh, Knockalara, Gubbeen (also love their sausages), or Clonakiltys legendary black pudding (yes, made of thick, dried blood mixed with meats, grains and vegetables), all is made in County Cork. Each are examples of the artisan quality of the region, products one finds on menus from Dublin and beyond (see my article on Dublin last issue).
Driving on the Western side of Ireland, the touristy town of Killarney nevertheless enchanted me with its quirky Irish spirit, cobblestone streets, and prime location as a gateway to the stunning Ring of Kerry. Often celebrated as Ireland’s finest coastline, a (long – allow a few hours) drive around this Peninsula is full of visual thrills and should be done at least once in a lifetime.
The city of Cork itself can feel a tad dingy. It has evolved since its more industrial days, with a few welcome pedestrian-only, cobblestone streets, marked by food destinations, like the English Market. After a few days here, I suspect Id have been happier staying in the countryside or along the coast. The entire county is packed with goodness and Cork is a base from which to take it all in, with plenty of celebrated restaurants and pubs for when the days explorations wane. The more I explored its streets, the more I came to appreciate its blue collar charms. There’s gourmet finds, like dark chocolates and hot chocolates at O’Conaill’s, creative fish ‘n chips at the Fish Hatch, or a glass of wine by a plunging waterfall in the alley entrance of Greenes Restaurant.
New Midleton Distillery (where Jameson, Redbreast, Powers, and key Irish whiskies are produced), is barely a 20 minute drive away, as are darling coastal fishing towns like Kinsale. The highlight of Cork was hearing Ricky Lynch, local music legend who evokes more than just a bit of the spirit of the Highwaymen, covering everything from Johnny Cash to the Beatles with a voice that is iconic on its own.
Lynch plays every Monday night at atmospheric Counihans, my most memorable pub experience in Cork. As elsewhere in Ireland, locals, particularly older gentleman, struck up a conversation with us, eager first and foremost to talk music. As one of the great loves of my life, I can talk endlessly on the subject. These Irishmen spoke with glistening eyes of Bob Dylans upcoming concert that week right there in Cork.
The manager at New Midleton Distillery excitedly told us the same thing earlier. It seemed every Cork man over a certain age had tickets, eager to finally see their hero live. Having seen Dylan a couple times since the mid-90s, I hope they weren’t disappointed. Ive no doubt his shows were once unforgettable, but in recent decades he comes across a garbled mess. Dy;an could easily be playing to no audience for as little as he acknowledges (or engages) them. But for these heartfelt, rugged men of Cork, I pray that every word out of Dylans mouth, distinguishable or not, was a revelation. They deserve at least that.
ENGLISH MARKET – FARMGATE CAFE
After what Id heard about the English Market, I must admit I was ever so slightly disappointed. Yes, its loaded with excellent local cheeses, meats, breads, juices and chocolates that reflect the talent and heart of the county. But when one has visited many of the worlds best markets and food cities, the range and scope wasn’t quite what I had hoped for. After the initial letdown, I reset my expectations and made way for my usual excitement for the best in local foods. Upstairs, Farmgate Café could not be a more appealing respite for a relaxing breakfast, lunch or pastries.
English Market is the heartbeat of County Cork’s culinary spirit, a place from which to sample many of the county’s best. The artisan breads of Alternative Bread Co. please, though I found the highlight their dense Chester Cake, an almost forgotten Cork tradition revived. A clever use of stale bread leftovers, it’s sweet, spiced and heavy with a lemon sugar icing. I ordered fresh fruit juices daily from Fruit Boost, and snagged black and white pudding from Ashley O’Neil. One needn’t go hungry at the English Market.
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Jacques is an established Cork classic, around for 30 years, with a distinctly Irish take on French dining, utilizing local ingredients.
A light, vibrant Castletownbere crab and apple salad (13.90) packs much flavor. Coriander, coconut, and lime perk up locally-revered crab. Piedmont peppers are stuffed with Knockalara cheese & Gubbeen salami (9.90), harkening to Spain by way of County Cork.
A cornmeal pancake entrée is topped with red onion, courgette (zucchini), Ardsallagh goat cheese, tomato and baby caper salsa (21.90). Rack of free range pork is perfected in a mustard Parmesan crust, atop spring cabbage and Granny Smith apple puree (22.90).
The real deal is a 25 prix fixe before 7pm on Friday and Saturday, and all night Monday-Thursdays. A mellow retreat off an alley, Jacques white walls are lined with black and white photography taken by a family member in decades past, adding a vintage spirit to the modern, peaceful dining room.
Cork’s vegetarian destination, Café Paradiso, has cookbooks from its famed chef. The simple, casual space belies somewhat pricey dishes, although wine and a three-course 35 prix fixe is the dinner deal. Disappointment came in lackluster service from a French waitress who acted above her customers. She got our order wrong once, but did so twice with the poor table next to us, bringing out the wrong starter and entrée. The diner said she would deal with the wrong dish so as not to watch her companion eat alone. Atrocious service soured an already rainy, gloomy night.
This was even more off-putting when dishes were less exciting than hype had intimated. Potato watercress soup (10 a la carte) with sweet pepper and walnut sounded delightful but was bland and forgettable. The same goes for a gingered sweet potato spring roll (13) stuffed with sesame green beans, vermicilli, pickled cucumbers. A side of coconut chili dip promised flavor but did not deliver. Another lackluster dish was a feta, pistachio, couscous cake (24) in sweet & hot pepper jam. Reading so well on the menu made each bite even more of a letdown. The winner was a hazelnut crepe stuffed with asparagus and Ardrahan cheese (25). Topped with balsamic beetroot and lentils, hints of mustard and tarragon butter solidify the dish’s lush spirit. If it werent for the above-it-all, incompetent waitress, we might have considered dessert.
The opposite of Corks dingy greys, Kinsale is a bright seaside village, Irish in spirit, evoking fishing villages the world over. Fishy Fishy is the celebrated town restaurant serving a menu of local seafood. It is particularly interesting to note the turning point for the chef/owner was coming to San Francisco years ago.
In his book and menu, he waxes eloquent about the freshness of the seafood in San Francisco and the international influences that keep its food dynamic. He talks of bringing back techniques and ideas he gathered working in SF. One sees hints of this in dishes like a salad of sauteed monkfish topped in a sweet chili sauce.
Asian ingredients and fresh salads pop up, confirming a California stamp. It was touching to find influences from my home across the world in this tiny seaside town. This is the restaurant to visit within miles and is a comfortable, cheery respite for lunch or dinner near the Irish coast.
MURPHY’S ICE CREAM
My top treat in Ireland (I went to their shops in Dublin and Killarney, with a third in Dingle), is Murphys Ice Cream, lush with ingredients representing the country, from Kerry Cream to Dingle Sea Salt. I went crazy over Brown Bread ice cream: it captures the dense heft of brown bread yet with creamy texture. And they make a killer dark, rich drinking chocolate, too (chili optional).