English Market is full steam ahead for Yule

In this two-part series, KATE RYAN talks to traders at the English Market as they prepare for the annual Christmas rush
English Market is full steam ahead for Yule

Alan O’Loughlin of Ballycotton Seafood - “we’ve seen a different type of customer coming to the counter - people that were cooking a lot at home during lockdown have learned to cook different things”

LAST year, I spoke to traders in The English Market to find out how they had adapted through two years of lockdowns, eyeing 2022 with optimism.

Fast forward a year and a cost-of-living crisis is raining on our parade.

It’s easy to feel despondent, but for our market traders there are many reasons to be optimistic. I’ve revisited the market to talk to traders and discovered that all are positive that things can, and will, get better.

This week, I feature Terra Ignis at the Start Up Stall, Hassetts Bakery, and Ballycotton Seafood.

Terra Ignis - Linda O’Flynn @terra_ignis

The Start Up Stall at The English Market provides a platform for fledgling food businesses ready to launch. Terra Ignis is the newest business to plant itself there.

It is the creation of Linda O’Flynn, bartender and taste maker, with experience developing cocktail menus at award-winning Cask, and her her partner Ivo Duarte, a chef with more than a decade of experience. They have a one-year-old daughter, Daisy.

The couple share a passion for fermentation and have the unending curiosity to ask, what if? Emerging from an embattled post-Covid hospitality sector with a baby in tow, it was a case of now or never to combine their skills, change career paths, and show Daisy it’s OK to give things a go and see what happens.

“We’ve both been fermenting for years. It was always something we got really excited about, so we thought, why not have this as our lives,” said Linda.

“The English Market is such an amazing place to be, it’s one hub we can work from, so I feel really blessed we are able to start here.”

Linda started fermenting ten years ago, intrigued by a friend explaining kombuchas and vinegars she had learned to make while travelling through Peru.

“I didn’t know anything about it. I thought, what do you mean you just leave it there, support it, it doesn’t go off and is good for you? It blew my mind and I just fell in love with it.”

What excites them about fermentation is how little control there is, and the unpredictability of how flavours turn out.

“Put tomato, onion and basil together to cook it, you know what that’s going to taste like. But with fermentation, it takes on a life of its own. It’s about the ingredients and whatever it is they want to do. I love having the patience to wait and even then, you don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Fermentation opens a whole new library of flavours; an exciting proposition for people who spent their careers in the taste industry.

“There are so many types of fermentation to work with and they all change the flavours, and this endless possibility of flavour combinations beyond that. Every factor changes everything.”

BYWORD FOR LUXURY: Hassetts Bakery in the English Market, one of three retail outlets in Cork
BYWORD FOR LUXURY: Hassetts Bakery in the English Market, one of three retail outlets in Cork

Terra Ignis craft drinks (kombucha, soda, gut shots), vinegars (drinking, cold for dressing, hot for cooking), and condiments in micro batches of just 10 to 20 bottles a time. Drinks are seasonally influenced and vinegars inspired by the landscape, mindful that whatever is growing around them is what they should be using.

Quirky, fascinating flavours are their trademark, but when it comes to condiments the goal is a twist on classics with oak bark-fermented ketchup, fermented hot sauce and Wooster sauce.

“We wanted to create larder ingredients that people know how to use but with that probiotic benefit. It makes fermentation a little bit more accessible for people.”

The versatility of their products punch above their weight fighting for valuable larder real estate, yet there’s no space for boredom at Terra Ignis, or among their customers, whose curiosity is invigorating.

“For a product like ours, it’s so important to have that interaction. People love the products and that they’re changing all the time; it’s why they keep coming back to us.”

As the festive season approaches, keep a watchful eye for Terra Ignis gift boxes and Starter Packs. Linda has been working hard designing a new Bloody Mary Mix (the ultimate festive pick-me-up), and a pine needle kombucha vinegar that she says is divine!

In 2023, plans are afoot to host fermentation workshops, and a new website, with an online shop offering nationwide delivery.

Hassetts Bakery - Sarah O’Connor @hassettsbakery

Since 1984, Hassetts has been a by-word for luxurious butter shortbread biscuits. Chocolate-coated Jelly Stars, dipped Viennese and classic shortbread are the beloved trio.

Hassetts have traded from their stall since 2014, one of three retail outlets in Cork, and Sarah O’Connor is the area manager. This time of year, the bakery is running around the clock to keep us in our favourite nostalgic biscuits and classic Christmas treats.

It’s been a monumental year for Hassetts. After decades of modest growth, they announced news of a contract to supply Lidl with a range of cakes under the brand, Rachel H.

But, says Sarah, the retail outlets, such as the one in the English Market, remain touchstones for enduring Hassetts qualities of traditionality, handmade and fresh.

“The bakery is extremely busy with the Lidl contract. In addition to our line of four fresh cream cakes, we supply under the Rachel H brand (doughnut, éclair, jam and cream slice, custard slice) we’re doing an exclusive Christmas Cake for them, and they’re taking our crackers for their cheese hampers.”

The products for Lidl are different from those customers purchase at the stall, where every item is handmade and hand-finished.

“We make sure the two don’t get muddled into one,” says Sarah, “but it’s definitely helped to raise Hassetts profile and we have become busier.”

Progress is inevitable when quality speaks for itself, but when it comes to the English Market, Hassetts stall get their Jelly Stars and gift boxes before anyone else.

Linda, Ivo and Daisy of Terra Ignis. The couple share a passion for fermentation and set up in the Start Up Stall at the English Market
Linda, Ivo and Daisy of Terra Ignis. The couple share a passion for fermentation and set up in the Start Up Stall at the English Market

“We put them in the market first because we sell the most there. The English Market is more traditional, and people come for the Jelly Stars, for the nostalgia of them, and pick up large boxes of them, so we stock the market early to make sure we have them in!”

Sarah says trading this year was hard to predict. Coming out of Covid, things should have looked up, but with a cost-of-living crisis coming hot on its heels, Hassetts had to adjust. The cost of butter and cream alone increased by 60% - a price rise was inevitable.

“It’s been rocky, but we’re starting to find oor feet again, things have picked up well with biscuit sales and Christmas orders. Our customers did pull back a bit - we all needed to - but now they’re starting to spend that little bit they pulled back on.”

A stroke of luck, maybe, but the volume of orders from the Lidl contract meant Hassetts were able to buy more of their raw ingredients in bulk, reining in price increases to their customers without compromising on quality.

Back at the market, business is brisk, and the aroma of freshly-baked mince pies fills the air. The order book is open for festive favourites: Black Forest Gateaux, After Eight Mousse Cake, Yule Log and Christmas Cake. “We’re pretty much full steam ahead for Christmas,” says Sarah.

This bakery, with big expansion plans on the horizon and valuable contracts to fill for a large supermarket chain, still takes time to talk to customers at their stall and individually handmake festive cakes for them.

“We make sure our shops stay traditional. We have a lot of regular customers, and don’t want to veer away from what they want or expect at Christmas. We stay with them, keeping those orders traditional - the way it’s always been. That’s important for our customer.”

Important for Hassetts, too.

Ballycotton Seafood - Alan O’Loughlin @ballycottonseafood

Ballycotton Seafood moved into the English Market three decades after it was established in 1984. Alan O’Loughlin is stall manager here, a real ‘boots on the ground’ kind who has seen this stall go from strength to strength.

Unit 42 is on ‘Fish Alley’ opposite Hederman’s and O’Connell’s where the craic is mighty, and the competition fierce but friendly.

“We’ve a really good relationship with them; working that close to people for so long, you can’t help but develop good relationships over time, and we do have great craic!”

It’s a tight team of five full time staff, and one part-timer, Matthew, who helps on weekends and school holidays. It’s all hands-on deck of a weekend.

“It’s like a battlefield behind the counter, but it’s hard to describe the buzz of having 20 or 30 people in a queue, running full pelt from early in the morning until you fall down in the evening. It’s an excellent feeling and I wouldn’t swap it for anything.”

The daily catch is hauled by small day boats that cast their nets a few miles out from shore and land into Ballycotton harbour. What’s landed that evening is fresh at the stall the next morning.

“Being so close to where we fish means we’ll almost always have a daily supply of wild fresh fish. We cover fishing, processing, retail and wholesale, but first and foremost we are a fishing company - we catch our own product.”

Having greater control of the catch means price rises for customers have been minimal, working hard to not rock that boat.

“Because we catch the fish ourselves, we don’t pay an inflated price for what we’re buying. I’m sorry to say some companies have gone to the wall, as a result we have picked up a lot of their trade from restaurants asking us to supply them with fish.

“Our trade has gone up and we’re really busy which is good for us, but we don’t like to hear of other businesses going to the wall.”

The stall has also had to adjust course with a changing customer base, too. The suits and ties in offices stopping by at lunchtime and after work have opted to remain working from home.

“We’ve seen a different type of customer coming to the counter - people that were cooking a lot at home during lockdown have learned to cook different things. Now they’re coming asking for different types of fish to cook at home.”

“Where Mary might come to the counter for her few fillets of whiting, now she’s asking what prime fish has landed in today. I can be taken aback a small bit, people are after going really adventurous with their buying and not afraid to try different recipes, different types of fish, different ways to cook it. It’s nice to see someone who would have come for the standard staples not afraid to try different things.”

Looking ahead to Christmas, Alan believes it’s a hard task for fish to nudge turkey and ham off the top spot, but fish as a starter or as party food is a winner.

“We have our own smokehouse in Garryvoe where we fillet, salt and smoke our sides of salmon - I have to say, it’s phenomenal!”

“We’ve our own range of party food in the freezer section: filo prawns, scampi, things like that for sharing. Just pop in the oven and they’re ready to go in a short time.”

“We do our own cooked range as well. We have a kitchen in Midleton with an in-house chef and her team will cook whole salmon and dress it. It makes for a fabulous centrepiece if you are having anyone over for Christmas.”

From fresh fish to frozen party food to cooked-to-order centrepieces, the Christmas book is now open at the stall.

“After the jazz weekend, everything kicks off here. We have a saying: when the trumpets stop, it’s show time!”

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