Ok, so I know that market and exotic are not usually words that you might find in the same sentence, however the English Market in Cork most definitely is exotic.
It is a melting pot of cultures, both the stalls and the clientele. From Moroccan Mr Bell (clearly not his real name!) selling a mix of colourful spices and North African cuisines, to ‘On the Pig’s Back’ combining French charcuterie methods with local Irish produce, to create unique cured meats and other hot sellers.
There’s chocolate stalls selling exquisite looking pralines and other brightly coloured sweets, to Heaven’s Cakes selling delicious looking desserts which would look at home on the Great British Bake-Off.
Roots of the English Market in Cork
Don’t be fooled though. This is not just any market. It has been part of the Cork scene since 1788, and was originally a market for the aristocracy. Now it is a pulsing venue for families and friends to gather, shop and socialise over tea and coffee. Shopkeepers laugh and joke with customers, dishing out advice about the best cuts, along with recipe suggestions. It reminds me of visits to the greengrocer when I was child, when supermarkets did not rule, and shopkeepers knew all the locals and their gossip.
The English Market occupies the heart of the city, and the hearts of Corkonians, and is a treasure trove of sweet stories to melt anyone’s heart.
Shane, our guide, passionately regales us with an eclectic mix of anecdotes about the market and its inhabitants. Who would have thought a market could be so fascinating?
So here’s a few of my favourites to amuse you.
The Great Fire
In the 1980’s the Princes Street part of the English Market tragically burned to the ground following a gas explosion. Although firemen bravely battled to bring the fire under control, the market was left in ruins, the sole survivor being the fountain which remains today.
Supermarkets were springing up on the outskirts of towns and city centre businesses were gradually dying out, but Cork Corporation boldly decided to rebuild the Princes Street market, the site of the current Farmgate Café, and it is a good job they did.
The Café brought in trade, and helped to revitalise city centre trade. I can testify to the bustle, as it almost impossible to move in places due to the numbers of visitors, jostling for position in front of the vibrant stalls, packed with rainbow coloured vegetables, meats and olives.
Princes Street market today is a feast for the eyes with brightly coloured stalls, an abundance of juicy looking vegetables and of course the Farmgate Café peering down from above. It’s a busy place, split into two with a self-serve café on one side and an upmarket restaurant on the other with set menus, fine wines and local craft ciders on offer.
While diners relax over an indulgent lunch, a guitarist plays soothing background music and people watching opportunities abound.
Treat yourself to lunch here and prepare to linger as portions are ample and the drinks menu extensive. You won’t be disappointed!
An Irish speciality is a blood sausage known as Drisheen. Its creation dates back to the 11th century when poor drainage around the abbatoirs meant that the blood of slaughtered animals would pour into the roads creating a river of blood which would seep into the paving stones.
Of course, there was a lot of blood and this was not to be wasted. Some innovative chap came up with a plan to put it to better use and so bloody drisheens were born. It is made by mixing both cattle and sheep bloods together in urns and leaving it to coagulate. As the blood solidifies, the sediment sinks to the bottom leaving a clear, white serum which is then boiled and served in a large intestine.
It sounds totally gross doesn’t it?
The locals here are far from squeamish however, and it is loved by many a Corkonian, all of whom seem to have a tale to tell about this ‘delicacy’ and their youth.
To the uninformed, it looks just like any other sausage, maybe a bit bigger, and darker. To me, it sounds absolutely horrific and thankfully we are not asked to try any. Locals swear by its health giving properties however, especially for women after childbirth or those suffering from iron deficiencies.
Of course it was also a favourite back in the day of the toothless set, of which there were apparently many!
Patrick and the Queen
The Queen came to visit in 2011, and stopped off at the English Market to meet local stall owners. One of the people she met was Patrick, a jolly chap who owns a fishmongers on the East side of the market.
Anyone familiar with our Liz will know that she is not prone to frivolity, preferring instead to maintain a veneer of severity.
God bless him, Patrick knew just the buttons to press and cheekily informed Her Majesty that ‘the last time he was so nervous was on the day of his wedding’ which she seemed to find mightily amusing, the moment captured on camera, immortalised in print. So if you ever need proof that HRM does smile, there you have it.
Patrick joins us for a chat on our tour of the market, joking away with Shane, our guide. I’m coming to realise that this is just the way in Ireland as I am continually surprised by how friendly and jovial everyone is.
Bubbles from The Brothers
Brother’s Bubbles is a wine and champagne stall which has revitalised the drinking culture of Cork. When it was established, drinking choices in Ireland were Murphy’s, Guinness, Blue Nun and Black Tower.
Anyone who has drunk the latter will know they are not the best. These days, they are tucked away on the bottom shelves of the supermarket, usually in the bargain bucket session, and drunk by teenagers hell-bent on earning their first hangover stripes.
The brothers started sourcing wines and champagnes from smaller vineyards throughout Europe, giving rise to a collection of diverse wines not commonly found on supermarket shelves.
Prices are reasonable, and occasionally they offer wine tasting sessions to market visitors. Keep me informed, as I may have to return especially. Isn’t it a great looking stall? (I know you may want to call it a shop, but Shane informs me they are in fact stalls!)
A True Community
One of my favourite stories is that of community. 90% of prepared meals are made from produce sold within the market, as are meals from The Farmgate Café.
I am really struck as I wonder the isles by the laughter, jovial conversations and real sense of camaraderie in this small space. It really is like taking a step back into my youth when everyone knew one another and came together to help one another.
This market really embodies the ‘sharing is caring’ philosophy.
Inspired to Visit?
If you fancy a trip to the market yourself, you can fly direct from London City to Cork with Cityjet, or you can fly from a variety regional airports. Skyscanner will help you find the best options.
Maybe you have visited Cork, and have your own story to tell about this market. If so, please pop your thoughts in the box below as I would love to hear from you.
Thanks go to Shane, our hosts at the Farmyard Cafe and the English Market for being so patient when we were blocking the foothpaths immersed in Shane’s tales.