Cork once held the lofty title of Butter Capital of the World. There is something delightful about a condiment having a dedicated capital city. While the ‘Butter Roads’ (to my dismay, not roads made from butter) that once connected each dairy producing town in Ireland to Cork’s central Butter Exchange, now lie idle, Cork’s claim to gastronomic fame is intact.
Farmhouse cheese, black pudding, beer and, of course, whiskey continue to be produced with a fervent, almost obsessive passion in the ‘Rebel County’.
As I arrived into the eponymous county-capital on a dreary Sunday evening, weaving over a series of bridges that Rube Goldberg would deem convoluted, the streets in the city centre were devoid of people. Passing the site of the now defunct North Mall Distillery (recently purchased by University College Cork and the Mercy Hospital) I located much of the missing crowd perched on stools in the Franciscan Well’s beer garden. Behind the bar three 30 gallon tanks pump unfiltered beer, brewed onsite, to the dispense taps. I ordered a Friar Weiss; a cloudy sherbety wheat beer that has an aroma of fresh banana bread and ordered a freshly grilled pizza from the beer garden’s resident pizza oven. The Franciscan Well is a Brewpub at the fore of Ireland’s fledgling craft beer revolution. The ‘Well’ supplies draught beer to many of the local pubs, and has recently released their second limited edition seasonal beer in a litre bottle: the Century Stout. The Century is brewed to a recipe discovered in Cork library dating back to the 1950s. It has a depth of flavour not associated with nitrogen forced stouts such as Guinness, or the local pints of Murphy’s and Beamish.
The large bottle of beer is perfect for sharing between two settled next to the open wood fire at a communal table in the beer garden accompanying pizza oozing with local goat’s cheese; the melodic chatter of sing-song accented locals filling the background.
From the Franciscan Well, it is a short hop along the banks of the River Lee to the Bier Haus. This corridor-like pub boasts a range of world beers, Irish craft brews and some interesting drams. The bar has a faintly speakeasy vibe to it, and hosts a diverse crowd. It is tempting to burrow into one of the comfortable couches for the rest of night, sampling the massive range behind the bar, and enjoying owner Dave’s typically Corkonian hospitality. If hunger strikes, sustenance is close by. When a neighbouring restaurant closed recently, Dave took the opportunity to expand, annexing the Bier Halle to the already successful bar, and offering typical ‘beer hall’ food. The New York Salt Beef style Rueben is especially recommended, washed down with a stein of 8 Degrees Howling Gale Ale, brewed up the road in Mitchelstown by two antipodes lured to Cork by two Irish cailíns.
"A great place to stop for a dram, with each of the whiskeys distilled ‘over the road’"
Leaving behind the comforting embrace of the Bier Haus’s Chesterfields we trekked through the squally winds across the Lee to Crane Lane, a live music venue for some craic agus ceol (loosely translated to fun and music). Located in the remains of an old Gentleman’s Club, Crane Lane comprises a series of interconnected rooms, featuring a tangle of Irish ‘Trad’, Burlesque, Bluegrass, Western Swing, Blues and Rock & Roll. We weaved through the crowd with pints of Rebel Red Ale filled perilously to the brim while listening to a man onstage playing a Sitar accompanied by a Brazilian man with a poodle perm channelling Miles Davis on trumpet.
In the back room we settled in to a red leatherette booth to listen to a jazz quartet with a couple of Redbreast 12, the fruity pot-still distilled nearby in Midleton and contemplated turning in at a reasonable hour to make an early distillery tour.
The drive to Midleton the next day is an easy one, twenty minutes east of Cork city by car. The town is the site of the ‘Jameson Experience’, a tour through the distillery which produced whiskey in Midleton until 1975. The new distillery is onsite, but is not open to the public. Nonetheless, the tour is an impressive one, through the still house, the maltings, the cooperage and the warehouses, where the aroma of the spirit still lingers, perhaps seeping out from the beams that supported the maturation of whiskey here for 150 years. The distillery gift shop is also one of only two places selling the 12 Years Old Jameson Distillery Reserve (the other being the Jameson Experience in Dublin), with the charming option of having the bottle personalised. Don’t be shy about volunteering for the whiskey tasting at the end, where a comparison is made between Bourbon, Scotch and Irish whiskey and a certificate offered to those shrewd enough to distinguish between the three. A short stagger from the distillery is Canty’s Bar, a beautiful wood panelled pub where distillery workers have drunk for generations. It is a great place to stop for a dram, with each of the whiskeys distilled ‘over the road’ stocked behind the bar.
Cork is about more than just beer and whiskey though, boasting an incredibly proud food tradition. Dishes native to Cork include spiced beef: a cured joint similar in texture to corned beef but infused with the warming aroma of cloves, pepper, juniper berries and stout (always Murphy’s, never Guinness!); corned crubeens (trotters) and drisheen: a lamb’s blood black pudding. Each are strongly represented in Cork’s covered English Market. The market site dates from 1788 and the Victorian architecture was sympathetically restored after a devastating fire in 1980. The English Market could not be further from the trendy ‘farmers market’ phenomenon. No art-directed soil dipped carrots in twee baskets to be found beneath its canopy, the English Market teems with grocers, butchers, fishmongers and fruiterers; men and woman with soil under their nails and opinions on everything from the merits of roosters versus Kerr’s pinks spuds for roasting to Cork’s chances in the All Ireland. We made our way past the boules of fresh soda bread and pigs heads staring unblinkingly from beneath the butchers counters to ‘On the Pigs Back’, a smallgoods stall run by Isabelle Sheridan. Isabelle stocks each of Cork’s farmhouse cheeses, fresh pork paté and black pudding made by ‘Sir’ Jack McCarthy with fresh Irish pork blood (a rarity as most commercial pudding in Ireland is made with imported freeze dried beef blood).
Jack is one of the great characters of the Irish food scene. He is possessed of a passion for meat such that a visit to his shop in Kanturk is akin to visiting Willy Wonka’s Pork Factory. People are known to stop by Jack’s shop for six sausages and emerge two hours later laden down with cured jowl, wild garlic cured West Cork prosciutto and dark chocolate, mint and pistachio black pudding. I managed to escape the lure of the porky goodness in the English Market with only pork pies: tiny morsels of seasoned rare breed pork, encased in flaky pastry that leaves a trail of buttery confetti in its wake as I retreat to a nearby pub for a last pint of delicious Irish red, hoping the crumbs lead the way back, ‘Hansel and Gretel’ style for a mid-afternoon snack of smoked crubeen.