Ari, a local lad who’d been one of Somers’s very first customers when she opened in 2003, and who counted many fishermen as close friends, had a different read of the country’s fish situation. According to him, their quotas were the fault of recreational anglers, who want to find the rivers near their vacation homes stocked with fish when they drop in from London and Dublin on weekends.
“The anglers’ lobby have pull,” he said. “Lawyers, judges—all these people are anglers, and it’s just greed. Total greed.” We nodded appreciatively, and kept silent about our appointment to go angling in the Blackwater River in a couple of days.
Everyone we encountered in West Cork seemed to be engaged in a discourse about food, peppered with Irish wit and enthusiasm, but driven by a surprisingly good sense of taste and a fierce respect for the people who produce it. Aside from the previously frozen fare found at most pubs, the food at restaurants often pays homage to artisanal food producers. So at Gleeson’s Restaurant, in Clonakilty, where Robert Gleeson’s cooking is refreshingly simple and seductive, you’ll see on the menu that the smoked haddock comes from Sally Barnes, the duck in the terrine from Helena Hickey. Whereas back home in New York such farm name–checking feels pretentious and belabored, here it seems like no more than a modest tribute to these individuals’ talent and hard work. It’s the tasty results—the best smoked fish and the most vibrant terrine we’ve ever had—that seal the deal.
Clonakilty is the kind of town writers like us adore. We tend to exalt humble victuals—oxtails, marrow bones, pig trotters—and this town is famous for what may be the lowliest of all: black pudding, the sausage made of cow’s blood boiled with oatmeal and spices. How Clonakilty came to be synonymous with the stuff is a simple story: in the 1880’s a local butcher named Philip Harrington developed a following for his blood sausage. A hundred years later, another butcher, Edward Twomey, bought the shop, branded the Harrington recipe Clonakilty Black Pudding, and distributed the delicacy throughout the United Kingdom. If you’re devouring a black-pudding pizza at Harrods in London (and you should), you’re eating County Cork’s finest export.
The fact that the black pudding Gleeson serves with fall-apart-tender braised pork belly comes from Avril and Willie Allshire’s free-range farm six miles outside town in Rosscarbery—and not from Twomey’s shop just around the corner—is noteworthy. And the proof, well…it was in this pudding, which was insanely good: spiced with rosemary and clove, beefy and rich, every bite seeming to raise the red blood cell count—goose bumps, too. It was like tasting pain Poilâne fresh from the Rue du Cherche-Midi oven, or beignets and chicory at the Café du Monde, or crab Louis at the bar at Swan Oyster Depot: that sensation of “nowhere better.”
We’d seen nothing like the wide motorways that gird Cork City since we’d left the industrial air-cargo zone around Shannon Airport. Here, near the city, the Celtic Tiger was roaring. Hard by the highway, branded luxury-condo towers rose, advertising themselves with enormous billboards. One of them pictured a cute rabbit with the words hi, neighbor. A bunny?On this ring road?
Once we were inside the heart of Cork City, a bustling commercial district that hugs the Lee River (no relation), we hastened to the English Market, a 1780’s brick pile wedged tightly into the old town. Its interior, devastated by a fire in the 1980’s, has been restored, and it’s now jammed with fishmongers, butchers, cheese purveyors, and traiteurs. The crowning jewel of the place is the Farmgate Café, which occupies the second-floor mezzanine of a lofty three-story hall with clerestory windows and a vaulted ceiling. Every market should have a restaurant as winning, with farmers and marketers sharing communal tables, drinking half-bottles of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc, and tucking into hearty regional dishes from a short menu. We ate lamb livers with wide, beautifully pink slabs of bacon, and a creamy, buttery soup with tripe and drisheen—a black pudding that was smoother and more gelatinous than Gleeson’s, with a gamier, more barnyardy flavor. Truly, we were becoming scholars of the black arts.
After lunch, we walked north, crossing the Lee River to the Cork Butter Museum, which we figured was a must. We found some medieval-looking churns and old butter-block wrappers with sublime graphics, but the pièce de résistance was an ancient corporate team-building video for the Irish Dairy Board. It’s worth the price of admission to see the irony-free playback of TV ads dreamed up by a London agency. In one, a woman plays a harp in a cave to an audience of cheese wheels while the voice-over intones: “The cheese that comes from Ireland matures to the sound of harps.”