Saturday, December 13, 2008
The kind of place that makes you feel all ‘with it’ and organic and goodie goodie just by navigating its winding, labrinthine passages, Cork’s English Market has long been a tourist-trail favourite. Right up there with the Shandon Bells and Blarney Castle in terms of popularity, the foreigners can’t get enough of it. It’s the raw, bloody, honest-to-goodness realness of the place, the battered butchers blocks, the big cleavers and the angry red men beheading things with them.
There’s a sociable atmosphere that, let’s face it, you just don’t get at your local Tesco. Add to this the current obsession with grocery prices and carbon footprints and you really couldn’t dream up a better way of saving money, helping the planet and supporting local small businesses than shopping at the English Market… so why aren’t you?
While there are plenty of Cork people, myself included, that use the market as their main food source, many visit just once or twice a year for speciality or traditional fare like spiced beef or tripe and drisheen (- you really don't want to know), yet more still use it simply as a short-cut between Princes Street and the Grand Parade. What the passers-by are missing out on is not just fresh produce and Cork culture at its very best, but also an opportunity to make a proper fucking difference.
Home to an abundance of goodies, from fresh steak and organic vegetables to the darkest and most decadent of chocolates, local honey, thick and unctuous, and a variety of Greek olives and stinky local cheeses, the English Market is a foodie tourist paradise, but for you're local and you'd like to ditch the weekly robotic walk around the nearest supermarket, it could be much more.
When I first moved into town, far away from homemade dinners and kitchen cupboards that miraculously refilled themselves every week, I wasn’t incredibly confident of my ability to keep myself alive. I liked watching TV cooking shows, but I was afraid of the actual cooking. It was all the chopping and measuring and pinching of herbs. I didn’t know how to crush garlic but it sounded difficult and you needed special machinery.
A tonne of pasta, umpteen cans of tuna and too many cardboard pizzas later, I’d had enough. Something had to be done. I bought a cookbook, a kids one, and a wooden spoon, because I wanted to look like I meant business.
Four bright red tomatoes, half an organic onion, some fresh Basil (it comes on a plant? Who knew!) a tablespoon of olive oil and two bulbs of garlic were purchased, along with half a pound of mince, which an English Market butcher showed me exactly how to sauté, and I had cooked a meal from scratch! I was hooked. I wanted to cook more things, but I needed some serious guidance.
I decided to experiment with the basic ingredients in the recipes but I had a obsession with overcooking everything in order to rule out Salmonella, which I was and still am very afraid of. I needed some advice, and where better to get it then from the very people who sold me the ingredients? If you don't ask you don't get, so I asked. There wasn’t a fishmonger or butcher in the English Market I didn’t approach for cooking instructions and more importantly, there wasn’t a single fishmonger or butcher in the English Market who didn’t stop what they were doing immediately and gladly divulge their tried and tested methods, tricks and tips.
Not only did these people happily hand over prized family recipes to a random tit without a clue, but they made a point of asking me how it turned out the next time I was passing. Then they patiently dissected all of my dinner disasters until they pinpointed exactly what I had done wrong before supplying a new set of fool-proof instructions that even I could follow.
As if the free advice, quality of service and the electric atmosphere wasn’t enough, the English Market is also the perfect choice for anyone looking to buy food that is not suffocated in plastic. Most of the meat on display is free from packaging, fish is wrapped in brown paper and with a re-usable bag in your hand, it’s possible to do an entire grocery shop without touching a single piece of plastic. If you’re worried about your carbon footprint, you can also be sure your food genuinely hasn’t been flown in from halfway across the world, most market produce is so locally sourced that it’s possible the stallholder drove it there himself and if you want to know for sure, just ask him.
Price-wise the English Market will have you wondering why you ever threw your hard-earned cash away on pre-packaged meat and flavourless, mass-produced tomatoes.
Take the incredible chilli meatballs, six for €3 from Bresnan’s, fresh steak burgers, 75c each from Durcan’s Butchers, ten plump chicken fillets for €11 from The Chicken Inn, juicy steaks carefully chosen to suit your needs at Ashley O’Neill’s, crusty sourdough bread from the Alternative Bread Company for less than the cost of a litre of milk bought from a convenience store. Beats the hell out of the expensive anorexic chicken breasts and extortionate rubbery burgers to be found in the freezer aisle of the more ‘popular’ stores.
The stall holders themselves drive the English Market to achieve on a daily basis what a chain supermarket will never, ever accomplish. They give a shit. Each stall holder has a vested interest in the specific item they are selling. There is nothing the cheese guy couldn’t tell you about Oak Smoked Gubbeen, there isn’t a part of a fish that the staff of Kay O’Connell's couldn’t fry, bake or boil into a meal fit for a king.
The Observer Food Magazine wasn’t kidding when it placed the English Market among the ten best food markets in Europe. While it may not have thousands of free car parking spaces, a ‘Clubcard’ or a ‘Finest’ range, it is home to the best prices, the finest shopping atmosphere, the finest food and the finest folk you could hope to meet on the weekly grocery run.