A bunch of foodies in Cork are driving the city to the forefront of the Irish culinary story. One of them is Alice Coyle, freelance designer and Fab Food Trails guide.
Alice promotes Cork food by taking groups on whistle-stop walking tours around the city to sample indigenous fare from local producers and restaurants. She particularly highlights the expertise that these people can bring to your daily shop and points out that they’re a resource that is there for everybody to use. Recently on a trip to Cork to see Bob Dylan in the Marquee I put my name down for one of her Fabulous Food Trails.
Here is what I learned over three hours about the food, ingredients and people that make Cork a foodie city.
A group of twelve congregated outside the English Market on Patrick Street on a beautiful sunny Saturday morning. In our group were Canadians, Americans and Mexicans – the Americas were well represented. There was a couple from Dublin and one local from Cork city. The local felt the most bizarre with the prospect of been shown around her own city. We all like to think we know the best spots to go in the place we call home but often it’s helpful to be shown your city from a different perspective – though most wouldn’t admit that.
“I love when I meet locals, and they say ‘Oh we know the city, we come in every Saturday’…and I always manage to surprise them. They finish up an inch taller with pride having not realised exactly how much was on their doorstep. You’re never a tourist in your own town!” Alice
Our tour guide, Alice, knew how to put the Cork native at ease explaining that she’d adopted the city after four years studying architecture in University College Cork and giving food tours. During that time she’d steeped herself in the developing food culture. She nevertheless continues to learn about the ever-evolving producer to plate process daily from the people she meets on the tour, especially in the English Market.
The first stop was on the River Lee looking up to St. Finbarr’s Cathedral. Here we got a brief history lesson. St. Finbarr’s was the original 6th century settlement that was built at the mouth of the River Lee. It is a rich and fertile riverbed that was perfect for growing foods but prone to flooding. In the 9th century the Vikings came. They were attracted to this port because of the trading routes it opened up for them. Locals describe Cork as Northern Europe’s version of Venice and we heard why: Cork is all rivers. Most of the roads you see today used to be rivers but now are filled in. As a result the city is prone to flooding. Recent floods affected some of the businesses that we visited on the tour. If you are interested in greater detail about the history of Cork’s food past our tour guide wrote about it in this Insert Magazine piece.
The first shop we visited was Filter Coffee for an interesting caffeine fix from Eoin. He gave us a description of the daily grind himself and his partner have gone through in order to establish Filter as a hub for coffee lovers in Cork. It is part of the Third Wave coffee movement that has swept Irish cities. They stock local roasters Badger & Dodo and The Golden Bean as well as Dublin’s third wave mecca 3Fe (Third Floor Espresso). Filter is also used as an exhibition space and is a relaxing haven for those interested in a quiet, quality beverage or an in-depth discussion about your cuppa with the friendly fanatics serving you.
They have regular espressos, milky coffees and a filter bar made out of a thick recycled plywood door where you can try a range of brewing methods. I had never heard of the 16-hour cold brew coffee before, have you? While we got to sample a shot of it Eoin described the impact of the long brewing process: it brings out the smoother elements of the coffee bean and removes the acidity that you get from an espresso. I’ll still take mine hot though.
Sufficiently stocked up on history and caffeine we headed back across the river to get some food into us.
We came to Nash 19, which is located on a quiet Princes Street; it’s a narrow cafe that stretches back and opens up into a gallery with sculptures and paintings displayed in beautiful alcoves. The cafe was redesigned after flooding destroyed it in February. They have done a fabulous job; architectural enthusiasts will love the practical flood proof finish to the skirting boards and floor which Alice, an architect in training herself, was able to highlight to the group.
This is where the essence of the Fab Food Trails started to become clear. Claire Nash stocks Jack McCarthy Black Pudding and she served this to us on a bed of beetroot crisps. McCarthy pudding is locally sourced and our host described the trusted relationship built between themselves and Jack McCarthy’s farm – these relationships are the cornerstone of the restaurants that we visited. Knowing where your food comes from and how the animals were treated during farming is integral to the added value that these places want to deliver to their customers.
The black pudding was an exquisite mouthful; the sumptuous sausage was perfectly paired with the contrasting crunch of the crisp. I bought some to take home with me and Claire generously sent me off with a complimentary jar of relish imploring me not to burn the pudding, “It loses all that flavour you just tasted. Make sure to just heat it up and not burn it.”
With taste buds nicely stimulated the group headed off to Jacques Restaurant on Oliver Plunkett Street where we were greeted with stone walls and a restaurant that had a distinctive wine bar feel to it. On the marble counter top was stacked fresh produce: rhubarb, carrots and in-season strawberries. We were served roast beetroot with Knocklara sheep’s cheese, fresh Macroom yoghurt, caramelised walnuts all resting on organic leaves. The mission statement of Jacques is, as we learned throughout the tour, interchangeable with the mantra of the food trail:
“…(w)e have built up a great network of growers & suppliers, giving us access to the best raw ingredients in Cork. Our aim is to serve simple fresh Cork food, bursting with flavour, in a friendly relaxed atmosphere.” (Jacques Restaurant)
As we walked to the next spot I got talking to a father and son from New Jersey who had flown in just that morning to start a trip around the country. They hadn’t slept but the trail kept jet-lag at bay. They were delighted to soak up tips of where else to visit around the country from the willing Irish. Dingle, Clifden, The Burren – each Irish member of the tour had a suggestion accompanied with a personal recommendation for the visiting Americans, “go here, ask for so and so – they’ll look after you.” It’s a cliché but it was still invaluable insider knowledge that was being dished out and it was more valuable than any time spent trawling through trip advisor reviews.
The Perry Street café was next and it hummed with the lunchtime rush as we arrived. We were seated at a long wooden banquet table and got to rest our feet and socialise as our orders were lost amongst poached egg chaos at a busy lunchtime. Brunch meant prioritising paying customers over embellishing tour groups with details of the food we were about to eat – we just got served our food here. Alice filled us in on what we were eating as we were accustomed to this treatment by now and everyone was curious. What came out more than made up for the wait. A stainless steel saucer brimmed with exquisite cod that flaked on my tongue. It was accompanied with baby potatoes in a soupy, stew-like sauce. Talk was quickly replaced with audible approval.
The English Market is the centre for fresh, locally sourced produce in Cork and has seen a surge in tourism since Queen Elizabeth’s visit in 2011. It’s the main stop on the food trail. Alice once more delved into her store of Cork history giving us an insight into the English Market’s turbulent past. One fascinating detail was that in 1970 the market was nearly levelled to make way for a multi-storey car park! This would have been a town planning disaster. Thankfully those in power came to their senses and the plan was abandoned. During the 80s investment restored the market to its 18th century glory and trade has picked up ever since with more exotic foods sold beside the local produce that has always been there. We were ushered through the bustling market and treated to Tom Durcan’s spiced beef as well as Kay O’Connell’s prawns and oysters – all unique to the market and exceptionally tasty.
Our final stop was The Cornstone for an aperitif cheeseboard selection. If you think the local was abandoned at this stage for some fancy French imports you’re wrong. The cheeses were all Irish. In fact they were almost all sourced from county Cork: we had cheddar from Dan and John Hegarty’s farm in Whitechurch, North Cork; we had Ferguson’s Gubeen from Schull in West Cork; Ardrhan Farmhouse from Kanturk and finally, the exception, Cashel Blue from Tipperary, but then again it’s not a long way from Tipp to Cork.
N.B. The food trail in Cork has a number of venues which it visits on rotation and the above are only reflective of the tour that particular day. The venues change every tour and it’s down to the discretion of the tour guide where you will go on the day.
To book a Fab Food Trail visit http://www.fabfoodtrails.ie/ – there are also tours of Howth, Dublin and Kilkenny available.
Q & A with tour guide Alice Coyle:
What’s it been like running a Fabulous Food Trail in Cork over the last four years?
There are just so many great people in Cork. I say people because it is the people behind the food that really make the food trails. They are just so into what they do.
How did you build up your relationships with the cafes, restaurants and the English Market?
When I moved to Cork I knew nobody. So in a way that made me see it with fresh eyes. I’d no loyalty to anybody, I was just drawn to the business’ that seemed really passionate about what they do. I simply approached them, in their shop, or across their stall or counter and told them what we do. 90% of the time people got it straight off the bat. They liked us bringing people who are in to their food in to visit and taste the produce. They relished the opportunity to speak directly to other people who cared. The other 10% were just doing a job if you know what I mean?
What criteria do you use to pick the stops on the trail?
I like good food. Not necessarily expensive fancy pants food, just good simple stuff. I also don’t eat wheat, and when you’re a student (I went back to study architecture at 30) who wants to eat lunch for a fiver say, you cant go to Centra or the likes, so you seek out the places that do something a little different. And these were the places I was drawn too.
What balance are you trying to strike in the choices you make?
I like to bring people to all scales of operations….You have the farmers market trader who’s getting to grips with the Environmental Health Office and social media while hunting for slugs at night. And then you have the big restaurant who go through herds of cattle at Christmas feeding office parties yet still managing to keep it real.
How have you developed the trail?
It changes all the time. Which keeps it interesting for everyone involved.
How has food in Cork changed under your watch?
I’ve seen the English Market take off since the Queen of England visited. That has it’s own challenges funnily enough. It needs to be very carefully managed from a tourism point of view.
What other projects are you involved with?
I finished a degree in architecture last year. Since then I have set up my own design practice here in Cork, www.alicecoyle.com, where I work both alone and in collaboration with other architects and designers.
Having grown up in the catering and hospitality industry, my passion has always been for food, and so my design work is usually food related; cafes, bars and restaurants. I’m designing a small cafe as we speak. And a new alternative ‘third space’ type office facility in the city centre, it’s going to be really cool! I’m also writing a series of food related articles for Insert Title magazine, all about where your food comes from, accompanied by a series of Cork Food Maps (another passion of mine; maps). I’m involved in all sorts of projects of that kind. So you see being a Fab Food Trails guide makes a lot of sense for me.