On a stall at Cork’s English Market, a small miracle has occurred: a couple have worked out how to sell rainwater to the Irish.
When Texan Virginia O’Gara arrived in Ireland, she soon realised that the two things in plentiful supply were cabbage and rain. Now she and her husband Donal run a vegan business called My Goodness. It’s part of an extraordinary – but quiet – gastronomic revolution taking place in Cork.
Suddenly, this city and county in Eire’s deep south is losing its reputation for dour cuisine and becoming a foodies’ delight. There are now three Michelin-starred restaurants, plus a plethora of vegetarian and vegan outlets.
The River Lee running through Cork’s city centre
The O’Garas moved into the English Market – traditionally a haunt for butchers and fishmongers – 18 months ago with a sign promising: ‘Everything you need for that awkward vegan.’
‘We harvest rain water,’ they say, and use it to produce kefir and kombucha (fermented drinks with health benefits).
The atmosphere and culinary scene on offer are certainly strikingly different from what I remember from my childhood visits to Ireland. In those days it was all about stew, potatoes and Guinness. Now all the talk is of vegetarian delights and award-winning restaurants.
The most unexpected figure on the scene is chef Takashi Miyazaki, who met his English teacher wife while working at an Irish pub in Hiroshima in his native Japan. They headed to Ireland in 2008 and ended up in Cork where, while running a Japanese takeaway, he set up a small 25-seat diner. It is now the only Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant in Ireland.
The anonymous front of Ichigo Ichie gives no indication there is even a restaurant inside. But this gives diners a feeling of privacy as Miyazaki – who hails from Fukuoka in southern Japan – cooks for them at the bar. ‘People will travel from England to try the Michelin-starred restaurants here,’ says Miyazaki, who offers a no-choice ‘kaiseki’, a tasting menu of up to 16 courses, for about €95 (£82). The only complaint you hear from locals is that it is difficult to get a table.
Michelin star: Takashi Miyazaki in the award-winning Ichigo Ichie
Besides Ichigo Ichie, which is in Cork’s city centre, the other Michelin-starred restaurants in County Cork are Restaurant Chestnut, which is in a former pub in Ballydehob, south-west of the city, and, further south-west in Baltimore, Mews, a homely establishment in a former coachhouse. Ichigo Ichie and Restaurant Chestnut opened only in April last year so the pace of change in the area is rapid. And it’s not just the food that’s changing. Over at the River Lee Hotel in the city, the River Club has brought a new elegance to the oldest of Irish pastimes: drinking. Smartly dressed young people gather to enjoy cocktails.
‘They’re classics with a Cork accent,’ says Sinead McDonald, the brand manager at the recently revamped hotel. The drinks menu, which includes O’Coffee Boulevardier (whiskey with coffee), Espress O’Martini (vodka, coffee and liqueur) and the Don of Kinsale (tequila, agave, grapefruit and soda), has attracted celebrities including Snoop Dogg, Damon Albarn and The Prodigy.
Thriving: Cork’s English Market is traditionally a haunt for butchers and fishmongers
Deputy manager John Martin spent more than six years in London and enjoyed the diversity and variety there. ‘When I came back to Cork, I thought it would be the same as when I left, but everything had changed,’ he says. ‘We have such variety now.’
Even the beers in Cork have changed. What used to be a country dominated by Guinness and Heineken now boasts microbreweries such as the Rising Sons in Cork city centre, which has won 15 gold medals at the World Beer Awards since opening in 2015.
In a country not known for rapid advance, Cork is on the move. There is one thing they can never change: the weather. At least now when the heavens open, the downpour is replenishing the supply of kefir and kombucha drinks.