As Cork restaurants get set to reopen, we look at the county's proud history in the food industry

As Cork restaurants get set to reopen, we look at the county's proud history in the food industry
Myrtle Allen. Ballymaloe Twitter feed.

CORK people are enormously proud of their food.

It is evident in the over 500 eateries in Cork city alone, in the various farmers’ markets held at Emmet Place, Cornmarket Street, and across the county, in the famous English Market which attracts both locals and tourists alike and in the history of the city’s food industy which has overcome many obstacles down through the years.

The industry went through and survived difficult periods in history including potato blight, cholera, the Spanish Flu, the Burning of Cork and various flooding incidents and is now facing its latest challenge after Covid-19 forced the closure of Cork’s restaurants, cafés and bars for over three months.

As our hospitality sector begins to reopen, we take a look back at how Cork’s food industry has changed down through the years.

Flooding in Cork's Patrick's Street, 1961.
Flooding in Cork's Patrick's Street, 1961.

Cork was born in the guise of a monastic settlement in the sixth century before developing into a Viking trading port and vibrant merchant city over time.

The economic prosperity of Cork grew in the eighteenth century and was based mainly on the provisions of trade.

Salted beef, pork and butter were exported to the West Indies. The unrivalled ability of Cork Harbour to shelter the biggest fleets assembled during the American War of Independence and later during the Napoleonic Wars was a major factor in the expansion of the provisions trade in Cork.

St. Patrick's Hill, Cork circa 1905 Ref. 479 old black and white
St. Patrick's Hill, Cork circa 1905 Ref. 479 old black and white

Medieval town dwellers enclosed their settlements with defensive walls but also depended on the outside world for their supply of food and other necessities.

There was a wide variety of markets trading in meat, fish, potatoes, milk, and corn within the walls of medieval Cork while animal husbandry and fruit and vegetable growing occurred in rural areas.

After the partial destruction of the city’s walls during the Williamite siege, the city began to expand rapidly and began to take on a recognisably modern configuration.

The English Market faced a variety of difficulties from its earliest years but today is one of the city’s most well-known tourist spots, attracting thousands of visitors each year, as well as being a favourite among locals.

The market continued to serve the people of Cork during the Covid-19 pandemic with a mix of diverse traders offering locals fresh produce each day.

St. Patrick's Hill, Cork circa 1905.
St. Patrick's Hill, Cork circa 1905.

Food trails are increasingly popular activities within the food industry which explore Cork’s food, heritage and culture.

Food trails such as the Fab Food Trails, Kinsale Food Tours, the Cork Gourmet Trail, and Cork Heritage Pub Trail are relaxed food and cultural experiences celebrating Cork’s historical and new eateries, some of which are off the usual food route.

West Cork also has a huge food culture thanks to a mild climate and its gentle generous nature and the area boasts an array of farmers, growers, charcutiers, cheese-makers, fish smokers and bakers.

Some of Cork’s best-known foodies and their talents have been passed down through the years to give us the talented chefs and cooks that we celebrate today.

Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House. /Picture: Denis Minihane.
Myrtle Allen at Ballymaloe House. /Picture: Denis Minihane.

Myrtle Allen was an Irish Michelin star-winning head chef and co-owner of the restaurant The Yeats Room at Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry.

Mrs Allen, who passed away in 2018, married Ivan Allen, a vegetable grower, who was working at the farm Kinoith in Shanagarry 1943 before the couple bought Ballymaloe House and the surrounding farm and opened The Yeats Room.

By the 1960s Mrs Allen and her sous-chef, Darina who later married her son Tim Allen started giving cooking classes which later moved to Kinoith under the name of Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Myrtle Allen relaxing at Ballymaloe House. /Picture: Denis Minihane.
Myrtle Allen relaxing at Ballymaloe House. /Picture: Denis Minihane.

Today, Darina Allen is one of the country’s best-known cooks and best-selling authors.

As well as the change in the culture of the food industry, food options in eateries and markets have also changed and vegetarian and vegan options have become more readily available.

Cork now has over 250 restaurants which offer vegetarian options and over 145 vegan-friendly restaurants, including Koto, Liberty Grill, Market Lane, The SpitJack, and The Quay Co-op, to name a few.

All of which are set to reopen under new safety measures from Monday after over three months of being shut.

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