Young Thais are drawn by the big city lifestyle
Lunch at Cork's English Market gives new meaning to the phrase “locally sourced food”. Tucking into a hearty bowl of Irish stew or a platter of sea-scented rock oysters at one of the market’s mezzanine Farmgate Cafe tables, you can look down on the stalls where the chefs sourced their produce that very morning.
Ireland's second city, tucked away in the southwestern corner of the country, revels in its reputation as a champion of fine food and drink. But the self-styled “Rebel City” also regards itself as the nation's only guardian of Celtic culture; a city that is more genuinely Irish than Dublin.
The “rebel” nickname dates back to the late 15th Century, when the city lent support to the Yorkist cause in England's Wars of the Roses, but it is chiefly associated with the Irish War of Independence (1919 to 1921) when Cork was a hotbed of resistance to British imperial rule – an era dramatically fictionalised in Ken Loach’s 2006 film The Wind That Shakes the Barley (starring Cork-born actor Cillian Murphy).
Stroll the streets
Cork's compact size – its population of 120,000 is less than a 10th of Dublin’s – makes it ideal for exploring on foot. The city centre is a low-rise sprawl that straddles an island in the River Lee, where modern glass and steel buildings such as the Opera House (radically remodelled in 2003) sit shoulder to shoulder with 19th-century Neoclassical architecture and remnants of Victorian warehouses.
Across the river to the north is the picturesque suburb of Shandon, where brightly painted terrace houses cluster around the clock tower of St Anne's Church. You can climb the 18th-century tower for a grand view over the city and a chance to ring the Shandon Bells, immortalised in a sentimental 19th-century song that was carried around the world by the Irish diaspora. Laminated song sheets beside the bell ropes detail the range of tunes that can be rung on the eight bells, from Abide with Me to Waltzing Matilda. Nearby, delve into history at Cork City Gaol, a grim reminder of the darker aspects of Ireland's past. In addition to being a place of execution, the jail was used to incarcerate republican political prisoners during the War of Independence and the Irish Civil War (1922 to 1923).
Go to market
But the Cork’s main draw is its well-deserved reputation as the food capital of Ireland. The epicentre of the city’s gourmet scene is the English Market, dating from 1788 and regularly lauded as one of the finest covered markets in Europe – TV chefs Rick Stein, Rachel Allen and the late Keith Floyd have all raved about it, and it was a high point of Queen Elizabeth's 2011 visit to Ireland.
Get there by mid-morning to browse the colourful stalls that groan with the bounty of County Cork's rich farmland and coastal waters. Fish merchant Kay O'Connell's 24m-long marble counter glistens with more than 50 varieties of fish and seafood, from cod and ling freshly landed at the West Cork port of Castletownbere, to organic smoked salmon from Bantry Bay, 80km west of Cork, to tanks filled with live lobster and crab.
There are greengrocers' stalls piled high with cabbages, leeks and a dozen varieties of spud, and a whole range of butchers' shops, with their serried ranks of pork ribs, ham hocks and sides of bacon, dark red slabs of richly marbled sirloin, and neatly arranged trays of crubeens (pigs' trotters, cooked long and slow to gelatinous tenderness then crisped in the oven – a local speciality).
Look out for A O'Reilly's display of tripe and drisheen, two of Cork's traditional favourites. Drisheen is a variety of black pudding, made with beef and sheep's blood and poached in milk. If you are feeling adventurous, try it at the market's famous Farmgate Cafe.
Founded in 1984, the ethos of Farmgate Cafe is simple – to promote top quality local produce and champion traditional Irish cuisine. At the top of the stairs near the market's Princes Street entrance, turn left for the formal, table-service restaurant or right to order at the counter and grab a bar stool overlooking the market below. The menu ranges from scrambled eggs with smoked salmon to lamb's liver and bacon to fish chowder, shepherd's pie, and tripe and onions with drisheen – and all of the meat and fish comes from the market stalls below.