SAUCEPANS bubble away, pans sizzle on hobs and there’s a tempting aroma of roast turkey, hearty stew and fish pie wafting out from some of Kinsale’s famous restaurant kitchens these days.
Is this a gastronomic mirage in the near empty lockdown streets of Ireland’s renowned gourmet capital, you may well ask yourself. After all, the award winning eateries have been shuttered since mid-March because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s not a mirage. It’s just community spirit in action.
Almost every shop and restaurant in the town displays the upbeat message ‘Back Stronger Kinsale’.
Against a backdrop of considerable anxiety for the hospitality and restaurant sectors, chef-owner members of Kinsale’s long running Good Food Circle and an army of local volunteers are doing something truly useful and uplifting.
Leading chefs are rolling up their sleeves, donning aprons and protective gear and getting back into the kitchen. Their mission is to cheer up cocooning residents of the town and district who live alone, cooking them tasty dinners delivered by a team of volunteers.
The collective cook-in started before Easter. Since then up to 70 meals are prepared each weekend on a rota basis by participating restaurants.
‘Kinsale Covid19’, a volunteer group co-ordinated by local dynamo Niamh O’Connell and others who had to close their businesses, suddenly found time on their hands which they have put to good use.
They came up with the idea of sponsored care bags — food and health care essentials — to help cocooning or isolating members of the community.
Niamh said: “Our businesses went into freefall practically overnight so this has been a distraction; Kinsale has an amazing community spirit and generosity; people always pull together and they were delighted to help with funding and with their time.”
She reels off a list of generous locals who have made donations. One example is a more recent arrival on the restaurant scene, Cru on Main Street who “off their own bat decided to make some meals for the cocooned elderly”, and local fishermen Mark Hurley and Jonnie Walsh, who donated the fish for fish pies made by Fishy Fishy restaurant.
“It has evolved from shopping for groceries and collecting medication for those who couldn’t get out, to the care bags that can keep going thanks to a Go Fund Me campaign, generous donations from businesses and privately and the Good Food Circle members turning out fantastic meals,” added Niamh.
John and Julie Finn were due to celebrate the seventh anniversary of their elegant small restaurant Finns Table on Main Street, Kinsale on March 15. But the day before they found themselves having to close in the interests of staff and customer safety.
“Back in January, when coronavirus was in China, I never thought it could come all the way here but how wrong I was,” says John.
His call to ‘culinary arms’ came after he and Julie offered to prepare dinners as an addition to the care packages the volunteer group were putting together.
The Good Food Circle’s supremo, Ciaran Fitzgerald of the Blue Haven, was alerted and contacted member- owner restaurants who gladly came aboard.
“I cooked 70 turkey and ham meals on the Easter weekend for those who were cocooning,” said John. “Forty more over the May Bank holiday and smaller amounts here and there in between. It was nice to get into the kitchen and turn everything back on again.”
John, in common with everyone affected by the ongoing pandemic, admits having “good and bad days” — the latter when he worries about the future and is trying to “figure out how we will be able to conform to whatever regulations on social distancing are put in place”.
The couple and their six-year-old son Bill live above the restaurant so John was used to waking up in the morning to a deliveries drop off. “I miss all that, but on the up side we have had valuable time with our son, out cycling and discovering local spots we never knew existed.”
Daniel Horgan of Man Friday, who cooked Irish stew for 70, said: “We took the view that the quicker we shut the restaurant, the sooner we could open again, but that hasn’t been the case. We all worry, it’s a scary time and we only wish that the restaurant sector gets support from the government to help with the recovery.
“It was lovely to get into some kind of routine and knock off a few cobwebs in the kitchen, and it’s a great cause to be making food for older people who might not cook themselves and are cut off from the outside world happy.”
Other restaurants involved in the initiative include The Bulman, Jim Edwards, Fishy Fishy and, later in the month, the Blue Haven, the Trident and Actons Hotels, followed by the White House will do the cooking.
Hal McElroy, general manager and managing director of the Trident and Actons, secured some funding support from The Lions Club for the ongoing cocooning cuisine.
He said: “It was great to see these chefs going back into their kitchens, good therapy also to contribute to those who are cocooning.”
Recipients have been fulsome in their praise for the initiative. Mrs Rita Cullinane, a widow in her 70s from Dunderrow, said: “It was such a surprise and so thoughtful; they delivered a beautiful turkey Easter dinner from Finns Table. It was so tasty.
“I wouldn’t dream of having turkey here on my own. I’d probably only have had a small bit of steak for Easter, if I had even bothered. It hasn’t been an easy time for anyone, but it will pass.”
Kinsale resident Shelagh Terry, who is 91, said she is writing to all the restaurants to thank them for their kindness.
“I appreciate the thought so much and their food has been so delicious; I had enough bacon and cabbage and enough brown stew to do me for more than a week.”
A native of Coleraine, Mrs Terry explained that when her husband died some years ago she stopped cooking. “I was 10 when World War II broke out; those were difficult times also and when I started work in the bank TB was rampant; you had to be X-rayed before they would let you join.
“I’m in the world a long time and my advice to everyone is just be patient and everything will be alright; think of others like these lovely people caring for me in Kinsale are doing now.”