I was down in Cork for the first time ever this weekend, and I loved it. It wasn’t like anywhere else I’ve been in Ireland – the light was different, the accents were different, and most bizarrely of all, people seemed to be doing their main Saturday shopping in the markets rather than the supermarkets. I actually found myself feeling a bit confused about where I was a few times, as I kept seeing snatches of other places, a dreamy and faintly disorientating amalgamation of European cities I’ve been to over the years.
Given its role as a major 18th century exporter, this feeling of ‘other’ about Cork is perhaps fairly unsurprising, and there’s a longer history of foreign influence on the city too – pottery excavated in Cork revealed that there was extensive Medieval trading with Bristol and the Saintonge region of Bordeaux.
For me, it felt like Jersey, with its identikit Victorian market, complete with pictures of the Queen, a colourful water fountain, fresh fish and a confusingly similar layout. It felt like Pisa with the pink light on the Lee and the tiny winding streets, and like Zurich with the edges of the city rising up high above the river. Most of all, though, it felt like Lisbon, with bells ringing out from tiny high squares and the Bairro Alto-like back streets of Shandon, where you get the feeling that life hasn’t changed a huge amount in decades. A strong milky coffee and a genuine-tasting, lemon zest-scented Pastéis de Nata in the dark-wooded Cork Coffee Roasters café on Bridge Street further added to this lovely confusion, as did the narrow laneways running down from the local walled churches to the river.
There’s a Mediterranean feeling closer to the city’s commercial core too, with all of the Spanish and Italian cafés, and the backstreet delicatessens selling big sides of jamón and freshly made pasta; great tranches of salt cod in the English Market, foreign accents everywhere and unfamiliar cuts in the butchers. It feels unexpectedly European; properly, Medievally European, in a way that Galway, Belfast and Dublin do not.
In a way, I should have known better than to be surprised by this. I learnt a lot about Cork’s history as a port – and key global butter exporter – when I was in school, as I did my Leaving Cert History project on the evolution of butter exporting and the growth of the creamery movement in Ireland (butter obsessed, even then), and it all started to come back to me as I looked at firkins and butter paddles and maps of trade routes in Cork’s charming if faintly eccentric butter museum, which is a ten-minute walk from the main street.
The butter connection sets this strange cosmopolitanism in context – it’s the reason why Cork has more of anywhere else than everywhere else, perhaps, and it remains an important link for the city even now: the English market continues to sell the curio that is buttered eggs (which is basically an egg that has been preserved with butter, rubbed into its apparently highly porous shell), and the little butter portions that our toast came with were proudly emblazoned with ‘Bandon Co-operative – A Taste of West Cork’.
Having purchased a little painted pottery bowl at the olive stand in the market, I decided to make an olive and artichoke tapenade that I came across a few months ago in Jersey. It’s very quick to make, and with its punchy, briny Mediterranean flavours, seemed like just the right thing to eat after my weekend in Cork.
It has a compelling, slightly sour-savoury quality thanks to the artichoke hearts, and it’s as sophisticated as it is addictive. Unsurprisingly enough, it’s very good with more olives, warm bread and cold, creamy, Irish butter.
ARTICHOKE & GREEN OLIVE TAPENADE
Feeds 6 as a starter – serve it with an antipasti platter of warm bread, butter, olives, breadsticks, artichoke hearts and salami
100g green olives, stoned
100g jarred artichoke hearts, oil drained off
1 clove of garlic
2tbsp lemon juice
Lots of ground black pepper
Stone the olives and place in a large bowl. Drain the oil off the artichoke hearts, reserving a little to pour on top of the tapenade at the end. Add the hearts, along with the rest of the ingredients, to the bowl, and blitz with a hand blender till the tapenade is almost completely smooth. Decant it into a smaller bowl and make a little pool on top. Add a teaspoon of the leftover artichoke oil, and decorate with any of the little petals that are left in the jar. Serve at room temperature, or refrigerate and serve cold.
Other spots we enjoyed in Cork: The Farmgate Café, which was possibly the most civilised breakfast I’ve had – polite staff; little pots of homemade marmalade; free refills of hot, strong filter coffee; Michael Longley poetry on the walls and a lovely sense of calmness, despite the buzz of the Saturday morning market downstairs. Two other mentions: Ramen, which delivered a very, very decent Thai Green curry, and The Sandwich Stall in the English Market, which sells amazing sandwiches on crusty Arbutus bread – we shared a Reuben baguette, made with Cork spiced beef in place of pastrami, and it was, as my dining companion remarked, a ‘study in sharpness’. Delicious.