Hey Dad, that's the same ugly fish as last week

I have a wee bee in my bonnet about how difficult it is to get good fresh fish in the “greater Bandon area”. When we moved down here, I thought I would have fish coming out of my ears (as opposed to sleeping with the fishes). But it was the complete opposite.

The SuperValu in the town has a small fish counter but you can never rely on it to have anything you want. And in the spirit of old Ireland, there are two fish stalls every friday up near the top of town. Whilst this is a lovely tradition and long may it continue, I do tend to want fish other than on the same day every week. The two vendors also only sell the usual staples like cod etc.

I got excited one day when I spotted a van with a sign saying “The Bandon Fish Shop”. And where do they turn out to be based? The English Market in Cork City! I think they live in Bandon, hence the name……

Of course the English Market is heaven for all sorts of food, particularly fish. If you visit the city and don’t check out O’Connell’s fish stall, you are missing something very special. These guys have everything. They have a counter which has a constant running stream of water on it and they gut and fillet at high speed on demand. Not quite the high jinks of those guys in the Market in Seattle who throw the huge fish at each other but still pretty bloody impressive.

There are only two problems with the English Market - it is a 40 minute drive and the only day I can go is Saturday when it is mayhem from about 10am onwards. Ideally I want to use the double buggy to cart around the two younger ones whilst I have Oisín in a head lock to stop him running away but the aisles are just too narrow and there are too many people to make it a pleasurable experience.

I spent a day last year touring villages near the sea trying to find one. Clon is on the bloody sea and they don’t have a fish shop - the fish counter in Dunnes is a joke. Nothing in Kilbrittain, nothing in Timoleague. But I did spot a sign for Ummera Smoked Salmon and headed in that direction, thinking I was being very cunning as they would surely know where to get fish in the area.

We drove up a rutted track to find a fabulous wooden building which unfortunately looked closed but a van arrived just after us and it was the owner, Anthony Creswell. I spent about twenty minutes having a really good chat. He is an interesting, friendly and funny guy. The Smokery is just so cool; It is totally environmentally friendly and uses a reed-bed system for filtering its waste. If you get a chance, try their salmon, it is fantastic. They are part of Irish Smoked Wild Atlantic Salmon Presidium of The Slow Food movement, along with Marky Mark’s Da’s company, Dunn’s of Dublin (which is also fabulous and a lot easier to get than Ummera). But the unbelievable thing was that he had no idea either where we would get fresh fish other than heading down to the ports.

I gave up for a long time except for the odd foray to the English Market. Then a few months back there was rake of ads for Fish shops down in West Cork. Union Hall Fish Sales advertised that they now had a place in Skibbereen and then Antcar advertised that they had a shop in Union Hall which is a major fishing port.

Two weeks ago I headed to Skibb. On the way we passed through Leap (pronounced Lep or Leep?). Fab Lake/Estuary/Sea/Bit of water as you leave the village. I toured Skibb and failed miserably to find the Union Hall shop, but I did find “The Baltimore Fish Shop”. I had the three younger squirts in the car so I bundled two of em into the buggy and Oisín pushed. The shop was quite small and pokey with a very small selection of fish. But Ois was enthralled. “What’s that ugly one called Dad”, “Monkfish, Ois”. What about that long one “Cod, Ois”.

So I got some plaice, tuna and smoked haddock. I wondered about overall freshness as the place wasn’t exactly hopping but when I took the fish out later to cook, there was only the smell of the sea so it was top quality. All of it was lovely. Fishcakes for the kiddies, fried plaice for us and then tuna with spaghetti and tomato sauce for the squirts the following day.

So of course I had to go one better and the following weekend headed down to Union Hall to check out Antcar. This is one of the best drives you can do in the country. There is the lovely view of Rosscarbery Lagoon just before you turn towards Glandore. And then Glandore, dear god Glandore. My C in Honours English in the Leaving means I lack the descriptive skills to give you any sense of the views as you drive through and past Glandore. I can see why lots of “stars” have houses there. Jaw-droppingly fabulous sea vistas. Easily as impressive as the Grand Canyon.

After Glandore is one of the coolest bridges in the country. It is a small metal pokey thing and it is one car wide apart from a bulge in the middle to allow those playing chicken to pass each other. I would love to have been at the meeting where they decided the design of the bridge. “I call to order the monthly meeting of the Ballymagash Town Council. The first order of business is the planned bridge joining Union Hall to Glandore”. “We have £1000 available to build it, how much will it cost?“. “£2000”. “Bugger, anyone got any ideas?”. “How’s about half a bridge?”. “What, they swim the rest of it?”. “No, half a bridge, one donkey cart wide”. “Genius, motion passed, build it”. That is lateral thinking at its very finest.

And so onwards to Antcar. Absolutely brilliant. It is a small shop fronting their wholesale business and was hopping at 11.30 on a saturday morning. Shibs and Fionn were buggy-bound and not that interested. Ois had eyes bulging out of his head when he spotted the massive lobsters in the tank. And then, “Hey Dad, that’s the same ugly fish as last week”. You’re spot on Ois, it’s another monkfish. Poor lad nearly jumped out of his skin when the crab beside it made a move. The guy behind the counter was extremely friendly, helpful and did a great job on gutting and filletting.

On the way back I popped into The Lettercollum Kitchen Project in Clon which is half food shop (mainly organic) and half pre-prepared food for foodies who hate cooking. They do fantastic quiches, salads, tarts and a bunch of other things. The shop half has lots of things made from spelt (what the hell is spelt?) and good value in spices and other ingredients. I splurged. I also got a big bar of Green & Black Caramel chocolate and broke the diet badly for one lip-smacking day. We had a weekend of gurnard, haddock, a fab Gigot de Lotte (Monkfish roasted with garlic and rosemary) and calamari.

And then onto the final chapter in my slightly obsessive adventure. Last weekend, I tried to find the Union Hall Fish Sales place again in Skibb and this time I succeeded. They are just on the road out to Bunalun. So I guess Bunalun Organic Products is not an invented name after all? The Co-Op is another smallish shop fronting a wholesale business. The selection was not great at all but the fish looked good. One thing I had noticed in Antcar was a complete lack of molluscs and it was the same here so I asked why. He just said it wasn’t part of their business. Maybe this part of Cork doesn’t land much in the way of mussels or scallops? I think it is the right time of year for them. I got some sole and frozen scallops and then asked him about the John Dory. I wanted to know if it was best to cook them whole or get him to fillet them. “Dunno mate, don’t eat the stuff”. Jesus! What is his weekday job? Vegetarian in a butchers? So I got him to fillet them cos they looked awkward to do.

On the way back this time I went to the Organic Shop on the same street as Lettercollum. Pick a random name from the 1916 boyos and they are both on that street. This is a branch of the one in the English Market. They seem to have re-focused since Lettercollum opened and now do a lot of fresh veg and food rather than the dried goods. It’s also an excellent shop but the prices are pretty steep. In any case, the sole was lovely but idiot-boy forgot he was going to Boston for the week so the rest of it was frozen until I get a chance to eat it.

So top tip for eating fish in Cork: Move to Union Hall.

Update 1: Finally went to Scally’s Supervalu in Clon. Fish not bad. but even better - they do bacon from Gubbeen in Schull. I’ll be back.

[tags] Baltimore Fish, Union Hall Fish Sales, Antcar, Skibbereen, Bandon, fish, Cork, English Market, fish on fridays[/tags]

Conor O'Neill

Tech guy who likes running slowly

Bandon, Cork, Ireland http://conoroneill.com