Bringing a taste of home to expats in Toronto
A café owner has become an ambassador for traditional Irish fare in Canada
Wild Geese: Maeve McCarthy, The Pantry, Toronto
McCarthy left Bantry, Co Cork, in her early 20s. Growing up, she had spent many weekends at her grandmother’s bed and breakfast, helping to make food for the guests.
She studied economics but decided to stick with hospitality. “I love food. I love the buzz of making traditional Irish cooking for people,” she says.
It was in her early 20s, after a summer in Boston, that she eventually wound up in Toronto. Her friend had just opened an Irish pub and offered her work in the kitchen, making traditional Irish meals.
She immediately felt at home in the city. “The minute I landed here, I loved it so much. I loved the Irish community here,” she says. “People say I haven’t lost my accent, but I’m talking to Irish every day.”
After two and a half years, McCarthy left to manage another pub, making use of her Irish contacts to expand its catering service. “There were lots of opportunities with the Gaelic football and the seniors’ society,” she says. “We were doing lots of christenings and weddings.”
Eventually, she realised she could go it alone. Along with her sister, she opened McCarthy’s Irish Pub, a homely establishment which has become a firm favourite with Canadian locals and Irish expats. Serving her Irish meals to hungry new arrivals from home, she scented an opportunity.
Unlike other North American cities, there were no Irish-style delis in Toronto.
“I’d see young Irish guys at the pub all the time telling me all the things they missed from home. They turned up their noses at it when they were young, but now they were craving it.”
The idea of a speciality Irish cafe selling simple, traditional fare took seed. She started eyeing up an old grocer’s store across the road from the pub, which had been lying vacant.
The Pantry was a success from the get-go, with construction vans full of workers hungry for their breakfast rolls pulling up every morning. Other favourites include shepherd’s pie, lamb stew, corned beef and potato cake and fruit scones.
The café has also turned into an outlet for local Irish food makers to sell their produce. One expat brings in spices from Sligo to make traditional Irish sausage with Canadian pork.
“My guy has nailed it,” says McCarthy. “It’s a unique taste you can’t get anywhere else. Not a sausage in Canada would compare to it.”
Another expat sells his soda bread through the café. And, Canadian bacon being on the meagre side, McCarthy sources juicy rashers from an Irish butcher in Toronto who “smokes them like in Ireland”.
Business is booming to such an extent – 50 per cent better than expected – that she is planning to open a second café in the west end of the city.
“The Canadians are lapping it up,” she says. “You can get burger and chips anywhere, but not bacon and cabbage stew.”
McCarthy is still very attached to home and takes pride in being an ambassador for local fare.
“I’ve never missed a year going back. I want to showcase how good Irish food is. The quality is amazing. I’m trying to get the Irish cheeses in now.”
Meanwhile, her campaign to get the meat imports ban lifted continues. “It’s a pity we can’t get Irish lamb here. If we’re getting it from New Zealand, why can’t we get it from Ireland?”
“Our lamb is the best in the world.”