WHEN we think about and talk about The English Market, the collective of traders is at the forefront of our minds - a community since 1788.
The traders work together to preserve the traditionality of this great Corkonian place of commerce, while also innovating to keep in step with the needs of every generation of customer, and drawing people in.
During the worst times, customers relied on The English Market for a supply of fresh food, but also for a sense of sanctuary, familiarity, a hive of normality. It provided connection, conversation, and community for customers and traders alike.
It is often said that the Market has survived fire, flood, and war, but, during the past two years it has truly come into its own and, invigorated by a new sense of appreciation, this treasure in the heart of our city has seen off the pandemic in modern history and is now looking forward to the next chapter in its history.
ABC (The Alternative Bread Co) – Sheila Fitzpatrick
Many took to bread baking in the early months of the pandemic, but, says founder and owner, Sheila Fitzpatrick, she never saw that as a threat.
“I loved the idea of people trying to make their own bread, I never regarded it as a threat to the business! To understand the skills that go into making the bread is a good thing.
“Realising how difficult and time-consuming it is perhaps will bring a new appreciation of the skills of the baker and the time that goes into producing these types of bread.
“People were asking for tips - we gave out some of our sourdough starter - but those same people are now coming back in for their regular sourdough. They might be making it occasionally but for their day-to-day bread, they’re leaving it to the professionals!
“I feel very lucky that we were able to continue working and be open the whole time. It was scary – we couldn’t think about it too much and just carried on. It certainly brought us very close as work colleagues, but it also gave us a huge bond with our customers, especially our older customers, it was something familiar to them. They were delighted to see us and we them, and it created this lovely feeling as if we were getting through this together.
“We got a lot of local people for whom it was like they were discovering the market again for the first time: we were their local shop.
“We had a different type of customer coming in, people who hadn’t been in the market for years came back - I think as a place to go, something different to do, and then they’ve stayed and remained customers.”
With a dedicated cohort of customers, what is Sheila planning on doing next?
“People are concentrating on the nutritional content of their bread, now. We’re looking at the flours we use in making our breads, its nutritional content, and that it’s more nutritious now without any additives. Going forward, that’s what I want to focus on, how we can improve the nutrition of the bread we make.”
ABC make 90 different breads – most daily, with the addition of seasonal baked goods too.
“I’ve always believed we can’t call ourselves ‘alternative’ unless we’re constantly changing.
"24 years ago, when we first opened our ABC stall, we were very alternative because we were making bread that was so different from what anyone else was doing. Now, a lot of people have entered this business and are doing different things, so I’m constantly looking for the next thing.”
Those next things are nutrition and breads of other nations.
“We always have catered for those who need Gluten, Lactose and Wheat Free breads, but we do find that they are becoming a bigger part of our bread sales now,” says Sheila.
“We were the first bakery to make Polish bread in Cork 18 years ago; we make Lebanese bread, Italian breads, even things like Daktyla, a Greek bread with honey, sesame and olive oil.
“We’re constantly looking for inspiration; there isn’t anything we wouldn’t consider baking – as long as it’s the best and as authentic as possible.”
Tom Durcan Meats – Tom Durcan
Even for a household name like Tom Durcan Meats, the past two years has not been an easy ride.
“We traded away, but everything became more difficult to do,” says Tom, who launched a local delivery service in 2020, ensuring that, if customers couldn’t come to the market, he could go to them.
Managing logistics for a fresh product was far from plain sailing as demand skyrocketed. But that wasn’t all.
“Meat prices went through the roof. There was a lack of staff to work the abattoirs across the country and so the quantity of meat that would normally be available wasn’t - and it’s still not back up to scratch yet.
“I’ve never worked so hard in all my life. Flat out. I’ve been in the trade about 36 years now, I started in 1985, but this has been the hardest year I’ve put down. The availability of product, staff shortages, price rises… But there is some light at the end of the tunnel, we’ll get some bit of normality back next year or so.”
It’s a family affair at the stall with Tom, his wife and sons Harry and Johnny all working in the business. It’s a recipe for success: picking up prestigious awards for Tom Durcan’s Spiced Beef and Chimichurri Sauce this year from the Irish Food Writers’ Award and Blas na hEireann. “It’s phenomenal the difference these awards make,” says Tom.
“Real foodies are reading what the food writers have to say and following these food awards all the time.
“We’ve definitely seen plenty of new faces, and our online presence as well helped a bit in doing click and collect.
“The new eating out became eating at home. People were looking for better quality meat and putting more time and effort into cooking at home. Demand for our Ribeye Steak went through the roof – it’s a good flavoursome steak that’s easy to cook well at home.
“Some of the stranger cuts like skirt steak and brisket, things that weren’t popular before, people had plenty of time to be cooking, so they experimented with new cuts of meat. And that’s carried on, too.”
Spiced beef is still the best seller, of course; but are we going to be OK for spiced beef at Christmas?
“We will have shortages, I’d say, I would think so. My advice is to get the spice beef order in early.”
You have been warned!
There was also the small matter of opening an entirely new business in The Marina Market.
“It’s called Nua Asador,” Tom explains. “It’s a Brazilian method of barbeque cooking over wood fire. We cook steaks on request – whatever kind of steak you want cooked in about 10 minutes. It’s a novelty, but it’s going well, thank God!
“We’ve started using traditional Irish Dexter beef now, too, from Simon Evans-Freke, who rears the cattle at the Castlefreke Estate in West Cork. The flavour from the fat on the Dexter beef cooked on the wood is absolutely amazing.
“I guess it’s madness opening a new business in the middle of a pandemic – it’s been terrifying and exciting, but I’m enjoying having something new to sink my energy into.”
The Roughty Foodie – Margo Ann Murphy
“Sometimes these kinds of challenging times can make you stronger, and we’re just after opening a second stall now.”
It’s fighting talk from Margo Ann Murphy of The Roughty Foodie, and the stall she’s talking about is Roughty’s Little Sister.
“The stall is about all things Cork – beautiful Cork cheeses, chutneys, Ummera smoked meats, Gubbeen salamis, Howe Hill Farm Irish flowers when in season, also flowers all year round. It’s where we’ll have our hampers and cookbooks written by all the Irish food writers.
“I have beautiful Irish products and didn’t have enough space for them, so then I said, sometimes, you can excel under pressure – well, I do anyway. Then I thought, you know, I can go for it, and I don’t have to spend a fortune, so everything I’ve used to create the new stall is upcycled – from the fridges to the props. We picked up and painted bits from around the place to create this old-fashioned style market stall and I’m really proud of that.
“What really matters to me is that the products that we’re selling on the counter are just amazing.
“I think the penny has dropped just how good local can be. People had time to take stock and say we deserve the best. The pandemic has brought out the best in a lot of people – it has changed how we work, how we think, what we eat, where we shop. It’s very important, if you can, to support small local business.
“I don’t think I’ve ever worked as hard as I did these past two years, and I’m grateful to the customers who come to The English Market.
“Anyone who works for themselves, part of them must be a little bit brave. Sometimes I do feel I’d like more time with my children, but it’s my life and I wouldn’t have it any other way!”
It’s hard to imagine that someone so effusive as Margo Ann could ever have an off-day, and so it proves when I ask if there was any standout moment of the year for her?
“I have to say, the people of Cork are tremendous people, and we would be nowhere but for the customer that comes in here. They voted with their feet and supported us.
“But I have to say the day that Clodagh McKenna visited was special too. She’s a pure natural Northside girl and she gave The English Market – and my stall - some show that day.
“She danced around there and was a total natural, and of course she has met her prince too – a pure love story!”
The Roughty Foodie and Roughty’s Little Sister will be among the hottest stalls in The English Market for all your Christmas gifting.
“We have Pure Cork Hampers, amazing English Market tapas boxes with smoked salmon, cheese, spiced beef, figs, berries, chestnuts, homemade chutneys, an array of Irish chocolates, and lovely crafts from rural Ireland. There will be something for everyone’s pocket – and, if you want your shopping carried back to the car, we will carry it for you, too!”