County Cork has always enjoyed a reputation for serving the best food in Ireland. Buoyed by great local producers such as Ballycotton Seafood and the Jameson whiskey distillery, along with the city’s English market, its modern culinary scene started in the 1960s when Myrtle Allen pioneered field-to-fork dining at Ballymaloe House. In the 1970s, Arbutus Lodge in Cork city became the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Ireland. Over the years, the city’s food scene, influenced by an influx of international chefs, has evolved impressively, mixing traditional Irish food with something more innovative.
Now in the English Market alongside seafood, butchers and poultry counters are Japanese food stalls, charcuterie and kombucha stands. On the city’s docks, the Marina Market (established during lockdown) is a container city of hipster booths serving smoothie bowls at Young Plant, Mexican food at Burittos & Blues, and Korean fried chicken at Poulet-Vous. Fifteen restaurants in the county are listed in the Michelin guide, among them the Turkish Dede in Baltimore, which has one star, while across the city diners battle for tables at Michelin-listed restaurants such as Ichigo Ichie (one star), Greenes, Da Mirco and Goldie, which has a Bib Gourmand award.
Last month’s inaugural Cork on a Fork festival served a taste of the city’s broad culinary scene. Run as a pilot this year, the five-day event mixed whiskey and cheese-tasting masterclasses with classes for sushi and yoga.
The Maharani afternoon tea on offer during the festival at the iconic Metropole hotel captured the vibe. The Cork institution, which opened in 1897, offered an Indian high tea inspired by Maharani Gin – a local spirit created by the new Rebel City Distillery, the first distillery established in Cork for nearly 50 years. The gin is zested with pomelo and spiced with nutmeg, mace and cassia and is a fusion of Cork and Keralan cultures, created by Irishman Robert Barrett and his Indian wife, Bhagya. The Met’s tea combined Maharani G&Ts alongside delicate poppadom wraps, delicious tiny aloo masala bites and chai-spiced scones.
In Izz Cafe, on the banks of the River Lee, owner Izz Alkarajeh spent the festival giving demonstrations of his tiny coffee roastery. A Palestinian refugee who relocated to Cork, Alkarajeh started out selling maneesh flatbread pizzas in the farmers’ market before opening his cafe in 2019. “Looking at the food scene in Cork, we realised there was potential for a Middle Eastern food place,” he explained. His rich menu of musakhan, manooshet falafel, za’atar and cheese has won him awards and accolades from Irish restaurant critics. Now his roasts of Palestinian coffee blended with cardamom sell across Ireland, while locals flock to drink his Arabic coffee spiced with saffron, cardamom, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.
Watching his demonstration, locals Martina Murphy and her daughter Audrey enthuse about Cork’s evolving food scene. “The vegetarian options are definitely better now. There are different healthy alternatives and options for people with food intolerances,” they told me, reeling off restaurant recommendations, among them Sonflour, a trendy new vegetarian restaurant serving Italian street food.
In a slim room decorated by Italian chefs Lorenzo Barba and Eugenio Nobile to resemble an Amsterdam coffee shop, Sonflour’s simple menu of pizza and pasta reflects Barba’s belief: “Choosing between pizza and pasta is like choosing between the son and the daughter.” They pride themselves on their sustainable approach, cooking each portion fresh, and only making enough for each order so that there’s no wastage.
Across town on MacCurtain Street, Cork institution Isaacs restaurant – which brought French brasserie dining to the city nearly 30 years ago – now has neighbours including Crème French, serving French food with a twist, the fabulous MacCurtain Wine Cellar, and the unassuming looking Glass Curtain – opened during lockdown in the old Thompsons Bakery building and already one of Cork’s most exciting dining experiences.
Chef Brian Murray travelled the world, working in Dubai and on yachts in the Caribbean, Asia and Africa, before coming home to create a menu he describes as “reflecting my travels around the world through the lens of Cork”. He mixes local produce with international flavours to create delicately fragrant langoustine crudo, silky squid noodles and monkfish with yuzu soy hollandaise. His signature dish is a play on traditional Irish cabbage and bacon made with pork belly and foam.
There is an Irish tradition of laying a spare setting at the table in case a guest stops by. On the long shared food tables laid in the street for Cork’s food festival, it felt as if they were keeping that tradition alive.
Katie Glass’s trip to Cork was provided by Irish Ferries