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Why Irish Chefs Love County Cork

Many of Ireland's most adventurous new chefs are settling down in rugged, coastal County Cork. Opinionated Irish food critic John McKenna guides writer Howard Jacobson on a delicious road trip.

Join the line for a table at the fishy fishy Café in Kinsale and they tell you the wait is 20 minutes. "And that," says John McKenna, "is the longest 20 minutes in Ireland."

I'm in County Cork with John, the 46-year-old editor and cofounder of Ireland's Bridgestone Guides—source of the country's most opinionated and influential restaurant reviews—and since we have a lot of eating to do, we are eager to get started. A former attorney, John launched the Bridgestone series with his wife, Sally, in 1989 so they could spread the word about the innovative chefs they were discovering all over Ireland. Right now, John says, the biggest excitement is in County Cork, where the McKennas live and where many of Ireland's most adventurous chefs and artisanal producers work.

If you imagine the map of Ireland as a pig squatting on its hindquarters, County Cork is the back legs—all rolling green pastures in the north and east, but more rugged the farther west you travel. Good farming country and, where the land seems to splinter into the Atlantic Ocean, good fishing. "Cork has always worked on its belly," John explains to me. "It used to feed the British Navy." But where once the region's young chefs and entrepreneurs would have left to try their luck elsewhere, now, thanks to a booming economy, they're returning home, bringing along with them the skills they acquired abroad.

An hour ago I was getting off the plane from London; now I'm seated at the Fishy Fishy Café with a glass of good Chablis in one hand, a cup of excellent seafood chowder in the other, watching the line lengthen. The whole Fishy Fishy experience, over which owner Martin Shanahan presides like a shop foreman, with a pencil behind his ear, is permeated with the down-to-earth energy of the town: open kitchen, bare tables, people coming in to gossip and a counter selling fresh fish to take home.

How the seven-year-old Fishy Fishy Café manages to feel so local without being in the least parochial is its secret, but it cannot be unconnected with Shanahan's stint as a chef in San Francisco in the early '90s. The chowder has more coriander in it than you'd expect on this side of the world, more tarragon and a spicier tomato base; the John Dory hints of somewhere more exotic than the Atlantic, its tangy, fresh-tomatosauce tasting of the Mediterranean.

After lunch, we drive for about an hour to Shanagarry to the legendary Ballymaloe House, a country-house hotel and restaurant where, some 40 years ago, owner Myrtle Allen dragged Irish food out of the Dark Ages with her insistence on locally produced, ingredient-driven cuisine. The place is distinguished not just for Allen's cooking but also for the large collection of 20th-century art that her husband, Ivan, began putting together in the '40s. Everything runs at an even pace here; the rooms are spacious and serene, furnished with antique country furniture, and the French windows give out onto grounds you would be content to breathe your last breath in. The glorious misty garden has a stone tiger lurking in the rhododendron bushes, glossy turkeys out of storybooks and an albino peacock in a tree.

We are not at Ballymaloe House for the food, or at least not directly, because John is soon rushing me off to Ballycotton, a coastal town about five miles away, for dinner at Grapefruit Moon, which Myrtle's grandson Ivan Whelan opened in 2002. No sooner do I open the car door on Main Street than someone calls out to me from the shadows, "I really envy you." When I ask why, he answers, "Because if you're going to Ivan Whelan's, you'll be eating rare filet steak with onion rings piled to the moon."

He is right to envy me. Moments after we take our seats in the plain, almost Quakerish dining room—with white-linen-topped tables and barely decorated walls—Whelan sends out a turnip soup specked with fried salami from Gubbeen in West Cork, an outlandishly rich combination of flavors. The steak béarnaise is perfect too: bloodred, tender but just fibrous enough. And the onion rings do indeed reach the moon. That the steak, like the salami, is local, goes without saying. Many of the dishes on the menu have an international flavor—the turbot comes with a balsamic beurre rouge, the pork with mango salsa and pappadams—but the ingredients are from Cork.

Grapefruit Moon's sole dramatic touch is provided by Jean Manning, the co-owner, who goes about her business with a mesmerizing grace, her black hair streaming behind her like seaweed. "I think you'll find this surprising," she tells us in a low voice as she delivers a deliciously flinty 2003 Austrian Muskateller Steinriegl. How she makes an Austrian Muskateller seem like an inevitable choice, I do not know. But she does the same with a De Muller crianza from Spain. "I knew you'd like it," she whispers.

"This is what's great about this place," John says. "No one's pretending we can do our own wine in Ireland, but there's no falling back on French wines for safety's sake."

When it comes to dairy products, there's no reason to go abroad at all. To send us off happy, Manning and Whelan assemble a selection of Irish cheeses that includes a superbly crumbly and virginal St Tola organic goat cheese made in County Clare and a smoked Gubbeenso piquant that even the normally voluble John McKenna loses the power of speech.

As consolation for missing out on a Ballymaloe dinner, I am treated to breakfast there. The highlight is a silky porridge made with Donal Creedon's oatmeal, milled in Macroom in Cork's Lee Valley—where it's stone-ground, not rolled—and mixed with raw sugar and cream. What porridge is doing being a delicacy when it ought to be a penance I am not sure, but I now see why Creedon is high on John's roll call of heroes. And I discover just how big a hero John himself is when pupils at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, taking tearful end-of-term leave of one another, break into applause when they see him. Clearly they know that just as you must have artisans of vision, so too must you have enthusiasts of vision.

And now we're off on a half-hour's drive to the city of Cork itself, home to the English Market, which John ushers me into as though it is a cathedral. Many of the county's leading artisans or purveyors have stalls here. This is where you come to buy Declan Ryan's Arbutus breads, the best soda bread in Ireland, John reckons, and rye loaves so good you need never visit New York. Here is where you find drisheen, the soufflé-like sheep-and-beef-blood pudding, recommended for the sickly, the toothless and the not-too-easily nauseated, for which Cork (once called "the slaughterhouse of Ireland," so much offal did it consume) is infamous. But above all, here, from Pat O'Connell, who lords it like a very Neptune, is where you choose your fish—all the bright-eyed bream and snapper, all the squinting Dublin Bay prawns and crayfish, that your imagination, never mind the Atlantic Ocean, can accommodate.

After we leave the English Market, we drive north to Ballyvolane House, a fine Georgian mansion on the Blackwater River that has its own trout lakes and a croquet lawn. "The reason Ballyvolane works so well," John says, "is that it's taken an idea that had become rather dull—the country-house experience—and revamped it."

As though to prove John right, the chef-owners Justin and Jenny Green serve us rhubarb martinis (they grew the rhubarb in their own garden, of course) in front of a log fire in the drawing room before showing us the way to a communal table flashing with cut glass and polished silver. So this is what it is to live like a lord! A decadent Jerusalem artichoke soup is set in front of us, followed by lightly seared local turbot with a salsa verde. Everything is from Ballyvolane's garden or thereabouts, everything you can reach your hand out for, but it's conceived and put together with a boldness that can only come from someone who has knocked around the world a bit. Dashingly good-looking, the Greens took over in 2004, having worked first at the Mandarin Oriental in Hong Kong and then at Babington House in Somerset, England.

In the morning, I soak in a grand Victorian bath, deep enough for all of O'Connell's lobsters, and wait to see where John means to point me next. Schull it is—a town in the rugged far west of Cork, very nearly the westernmost point of Europe, and home to Gubbeen Farmhouse Products. Gubbeen Farmhouse represents, for John, local artisanship at its very best. It is here that new generations of the Ferguson family, widely traveled, are smoking everything that moves. Cheese, sausages, salami...you want Irish chorizo? Look no further than Gubbeen Farmhouse. And if you want its smoked ham on a plate with eggs, then nip over to Good Things Café, sitting prettily at the head of Dunmanus Bay.

Good Things Café, which opened in 2003, evokes Fishy Fishy. The same open kitchen, the same sensation of being in a community store, the same creamy Cork light streaming in off the sea. Carmel Somers worked with Sally Clarke of Clarke's in London and at Markwick's in Bristol before opening Good Things. She is not, however, the extrovert that Martin Shanahan is, nor does she produce dishes of his cornucopian expansiveness. The food here, like the chef, is more pensive and introverted, which might be another way of saying more surprising in its innovations. The sweet potato, leek, coriander and ginger soup has John reaching for superlatives. "A classic," he says. "So simple, and yet so refined." And the Swiss chard, spinach, Durrus cheese and nutmeg pizza is a joy, partly by virtue of how earthy it tastes, but also because the crust is saltier, nuttier and crispier than any I have tasted before. "In the tradition of humble Irish flat bread, you see," John explains. "Real Irish Italian pizza!"

"What I like about the people of Cork," John tells me as we devour the last crumbs, "is how punky they are. Look at what you're eating! It's not national cuisine, but it's not just fashionably international either. They've got the courage to sunder the rules here."

From the outside, Good Things Café resembles nothing more grand than a village tearoom, enjoying quiet prospects of Dunmanus Bay, at what feels like the edge of the world—yet it is as if we are at the very center of it.

Howard Jacobson, a London-based novelist, writes for The Independent, the Sunday Times and the Observer Food Monthly. His most recent book is entitled The Making of Henry.

Published August 2005
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