The Veggie Places team flew to Cork from Gatwick with Ryanair. We picked up a hire car from the airport which enabled us to do a bit of exploring outside the city. When we come again, we would hire a car on the day we needed it and pick it up in Cork. This would save the airport car hire charge, finding places to park in Cork and getting locked out of the multi-storey car park that was, unbeknown to us, closed on Sunday (with our hire car inside and a flight to catch). You don't really need a car at all unless you want to venture outside the City. There is a bus from the airport that costs around 6 Euros or a cab will only set you back 15 Euros.
If you are vegetarian and even a novice cook, the chances are you will have heard of Denis Cotter and his
Café Paradiso. He has written three readable and practical cookery books, basing them on his inimitable style of cookery: a love of vegetables and Irish cheese. He forged an early friendship with market gardener Ulton Welsh, who runs the bed and breakfast named
Gort Na Nain, half an hour's drive from Cork.
Café Paradiso Welsh supplies most of Café Paradiso's vegetables as well as other top Cork restaurants. He is a keen vegetarian too and has recently become a beekeeper, which explains why some of Cotter's offerings include lashings of delicious Irish honey.
The Irish are renowned for their good nature and friendly disposition and we noticed this as soon as we were off the plane. Cork is prettily placed in the south of Ireland and has a series of waterways running through, so you are forever crossing small bridges. Café Paradiso is situated near one of these waterways in a student area of the town, very close to the centre. There are three rooms above; we had the red room, quietly placed at the back. Geraldine greeted us warmly when we arrived and we were very satisfied with our home for the next three nights: spacious with a sofa as well as a comfortable bed, good shower room and nice touches like a fridge with complimentary water and home made truffles, some home made biscotti and real coffee with a cafétiere. We popped to the pub next door for a drink before dinner; it was nothing special but the barman was friendly and as we were about to have a meal in a restaurant I have been wanting to visit for about ten years, I didn't really care.
The café is just that - a café. It's very homely and perhaps a little bohemian but oozing character. I had brought my glad rags complete with killer heels and smart trousers, but ended up wearing jeans on all three nights. However, don't let the casual ambience in the café lull you into thinking the same will be true about the food. This is a well oiled professional operation and the food is knock out. It was packed each night we were there with tables being turned as quickly as they were vacated. The Irish have perhaps some of the best cheeses in the world which Denis uses with flair, so food tends to be rich here. However, of the six starters and mains, at least half were vegan. The portions are also generous. Cotter is adventurous and experimental but he is not mean.
Gort Na Nain Staff were incredibly efficient and friendly and nothing like the snooty sycophants we had endured elsewhere the previous weekend, where the food was in a different league (i.e. awful) yet had cost twice as much.
Home made bread with olive oil kicks off the meal. I had said I was just going straight to a main meal but that was before I spotted the temping array of six starters, all of which sounded divine. In fact Paradiso's menus feature scenes from Michaelangelo's Sistine chapel and you do feel as if you have died and gone to a better place once you have read the menu. Very few places I know could offer such novel yet successful executions of taste: beetroot mousse, cauliflower soup with curry oil, poached quince or rice paper parcels of Asian greens - and that's just four of the possible starters. Mains offer an even more difficult choice. Aubergine parcels stuffed with spinach and Knockalara cheese served with a puy lentil salsa and crushed potato cake proved so irresistible, I had the meal two days running, which is very bad of me but I just could not help it. Puddings are as good as everything that has gone before and you are left groaning with all the indulgence. Fortunately, it is a short waddle to the blue door in the photograph and up to your room.
Breakfast offers no respite. Scrambled eggs, cooked to perfection, are heaped onto toasted home made sourdough bread served with grilled tomatoes and potato hash; Portobello mushrooms with chives and sour cream are served with grilled bread and rosemary aioli. On my last morning I had fluffy buttermilk pancakes with caramelised apples, maple syrup and cinnamon mascarpone. I wondered whether the plane would be able to take off. Denis makes rosehip syrup, chutneys, jams and biscotti which are available to take away: I felt a few small gifts might help to placate those I left behind at home.
On our first morning, we drove west along the coast, taking a circular route via Bantry, Kenmare and Killarney and then back through Macroom. The roads are empty and at times the landscape is quite bleak, especially on the moors.
Organico Café A car boot was in full swing when we visited the High Street area of Bantry - pieces of tat that I imagine most of us would throw away. There was also a street market selling Irish cheeses, bread and olives but I wouldn't travel from Cork to visit it. Mr Big was keen to try a proper Irish pub, but the one he chose felt like we had walked onto the set of Shaun of the Dead. We were eyed suspiciously as we entered. It was only eleven o clock in the morning but middle aged men and women were sitting alone with their favourite tipple in front of them, staring morosely into space. It was eerily quiet and I was glad to leave. We made our way to Organico café which could not be more different. Up a flight of stairs is the café, which is above the whole food shop and bakery run by two sisters. Rachel masterminds the cooking and Hannah minds the shop (literally). After our pig-out at breakfast I had decided to skip lunch but that was before I noticed a rather tasty sounding lentil burger with salad. It was served with the most delicious home made chutney. Organico is friendly and cosy and everything a neighbourhood café should be.
Kenmare is a very pretty town with chocolate box shops and attractive hanging signs. We had a coffee in Jam in Henry Street and browsed in the interesting shops.
Quay Co-op The health food shop owner told us that the vegetarian restaurant had gone "long ago". Macroom is another fine town but the "vegetarian restaurant" sign we saw was misleading. When we tracked it down it was just a café selling pizza.
Back to Cork - it's an attractive town to visit. The indoor market is claimed to be one of the biggest in Europe but many stalls were butchers and as I don't much like the smell of raw meat this was not a particularly pleasant experience for me. A place we liked for a coffee was Scotts. It was a cross between a café, a coffee shop and a wine bar. It sounds awful but in fact it works really well. Here you could have cup of tea or a stiffer drink and it was humming with shoppers when we visited. They serve food too but did not appear to have much to interest veggies. However, one place you must not miss is the Quay Co-op Café. It's a bright turquoise building, just over the bridge from the tourist office. Here is housed an excellent whole food shop, bakery and café run as a co-operative. We had lunch here one day. Much of the food is vegan; all the salads are for example. After our Paradiso indulgences, I was glad to have a plate of five salads - all fresh and delicious. The set up is self service and I suppose some might label the food hippie food - but if you like, as I do for lunch, simple stuff well prepared, then you will love it. It had a nice buzz to it and I would definitely return.
Our long weekend in Cork ended far too quickly and we are both keen to return. I've been vegetarian for nearly 30 years and eaten out in many places but Café Paradiso is definitely in my all time top ten
Note: Veggie Places always reviews anonymously, posing as an ordinary customer. If we do divulge who we are, it is always after we have paid in full for food or accommodation.