There’s a musical plink of raindrops on beer kegs along the narrow laneway to Cork’s English Market before you duck in out of the day into the smell of food. I last visited with the retired west Cork cheesemaker Bill Hogan. We found one of the final pieces of Gabriel, his beloved cheese, on a stall and bought a crumbling chunk of vanishing food history. The rind on the hunk of cheese was so funky it had turned brown and flaky like the bark of a tree.
Hogan’s legal battle made history over a decade ago when he won the right to sell his cheese despite a TB outbreak. The court cases were revealing about the underlying State attitude to farming: large-scale industrial dairy good, small artisan cheesemaking bad.
The English Market is food culture that is not confined to rarefied worlds. The butchers’ fridges are crammed with racks and roasts and chickens that will form the backbone of bank holiday dinners. Thoughtful cooks and people who like a chat with a fishmonger or a butcher will make a special journey here. Plenty of it is priced as it would be in the supermarkets.
I've come for the oysters. They are carried up from a stall downstairs, freshly shucked and on ice, dressed with just a small pot of shallot vinegar and a few lemon quarters
The English Market has tourists like me, but it’s also a working market. As Dublin City Council moves to redevelop the fruit and vegetable market, they would be well-advised to spend many hours in Cork. Maybe then Smithfield won’t be slicked into an “experience” rather than a living breathing place where people go to buy the makings of dinner.
Kay Harte set up the Farmgate Cafe on the balcony in 1994, a sister restaurant to her Farmgate Restaurant and Country Store in Midleton. Her daughter Rebecca is at the prow of the ship now.
There’s an in-the-know feel to getting into the cafe. An obvious staircase is marked as an exit only. The entrance is another staircase behind the fountain. Take a left and you’re in the cafe end where people stand overlooking the market, elbows on the railings like the watchers at a cattle mart.
Turn right and it brings you to the restaurant side, glassed in from the buzz of the market hall below and a place that feels unchanged for a quarter of a century. There’s a chessboard black and white floor, small wooden tables with fresh flowers and chairs, a shelf full of well-used cookbooks and a repurposed pharmacy cabinet branded with the words Kodak and Disinfectant (with a missing “s”).
Lunch is a one-pager. It kicks off with a pat of Glenilen butter. The difference is that it’s served at room temperature, not waxy and dead straight from a fridge. There’s house soda bread which is cakey and delicious with powdered fennel to add a lovely aniseed flavour.
I’ve come for the oysters. They are carried up from a stall downstairs, freshly shucked and on ice, dressed with just a small pot of shallot vinegar and a few lemon quarters. At just over €2 apiece with this bread and butter, they’re one of the best Irish food experiences money can buy.
I'll come back for the spuds. They knock the socks off almost everything calling itself a potato in almost all restaurants in Ireland
A bowl of piping-hot lamb stew is everything the day outside (and indeed most days) needs. Generous chunks of gnarly soft brown meat are served in a light broth with herby notes of thyme and sweet wedges of swede and carrot. It’s lamb stew like it should be made, not a grain of flour to thicken the broth.
You can add thickness by mashing the Lady’s Bridge potatoes into the stew if you wish. These are steamed and have burst out of their leathery freckled skins with such an exuberance of flouriness it’s almost comical. I came for the oysters. I’ll come back for the spuds. They knock the socks off almost everything calling itself a potato in almost all restaurants in Ireland.
Dessert is a slab of apple tart, the fruit lightly flavoured with just enough cloves and finished with a pale custard that’s a ground zero for all apple tarts.
There is nothing new, nothing innovative but everything important is happening here. The English Market could be a food museum but it’s a living, breathing place. Lunches like this one could become a memory rather than a lived reality. If you haven’t been, get there soon. The Farmgate sets a standard for cooking any Irish restaurant should be proud to follow.
Lunch for one came to €33
- Verdict A perfect lunch
- Facilities Small but fine
- Food provenance Extensive. It's all about Cork
- Music Lovely
- Vegetarian options Limited but good
- Wheelchair access Sadly, as a legacy building, the cafe and restaurant are inaccessible. It's a problem that needs to be addressed