The Sandpoint Eater: Oh the Irish!

By Marcia Pilgeram
Reader Columnist

I just made a quick trip to Cork, to see a friend in failing health, and spent a couple of extra days in West Cork before heading back to Dublin for my flight home. During my time in Cork, I was only allowed time with my friend for an hour in the morning and another in early evening; so, when I wasn’t in the hospital, I was left with long quiet days to wander around the city on my own. 

A favorite haunt of mine in Cork is the centuries-old English Market, off the South Mall.  Normally I am with one friend or another who’s on a tight schedule, only making a quick stop for fresh fish or hand-cut beef steaks. But this time I was on my own to peruse every nook, cranny and stall of the 400-year-old structure. I was there every morning and lingered each afternoon until closing. 

I watched multi-generational shopkeepers in sturdy aprons and tall Wellington’s hauling product back and forth, all day long, as they set up or tore down their stalls, every day except Sunday. Most stalls are devoted to only one product type, such as eggs, chicken, pork, beef, produce and, of course, fish and seafood arriving fresh every day. The fish and seafood always interests me the most, and the choices were endless: blue shell mussels from the sea-waters of Bantry Bay, velvet and brown crabs from Castletownbere, and wild Atlantic salmon from Ballycotton. 

There’s a booth devoted entirely to artisan sausages, and another that offers only a selection of smoked fish. A sign on the smoked fish stall offers a New York Times quote, “Mr. Hederman smokes fish, which is a little like saying Steinway makes pianos.” 

Moynihan’s Poultry has an endless variety of whole roasters or specialty cuts, cutlets and confits of duck, and more grades of (and the largest) eggs that I’ve laid eyes on. 

There are stalls and stalls of staple selections, too, like jams, chutneys, spices, and myriad choices of legumes and rice. There are flower peddlers and endless choices of artisan chocolates. There’s a coffee stall or two, with sturdy stools and real cups, with a biscuit or two tucked in the saucer. 

The only ready-to-eat foods are sandwiches, and the variety is staggering. I chose a toastie, with onion jam and three kinds of cheese. 

Besides all the visuals at the market, I love overhearing the thick brogues and animated conversation between purveyors and market patrons. It’s easy to see (and hear) how deeply rooted this ancient market is in their lives as they discuss upcoming Catholic confirmations and First Holy Communions, and how one should properly season a lamb shoulder, all while peppering the conversation with bits of local politics. 

While I love the lyrical country accents of Cork, I have a much easier time understanding their “city cousin” Irishmen in Dublin, and it’s one of my favorite cities — large enough to host a wide array of arts and culture, but small enough to offer old Irish charm and quaint, traditional pubs.

It was fitting that I found myself in the heart of Ireland in March. Besides celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this month, it’s also Irish-American Heritage Month, celebrated by proclamation of our president and Congress to honor the achievements of Irish immigrants. 

While I was there, Dublin was gearing up for the March madness that is St. Patrick’s Day. More than 30,000 visitors (mostly Americans), will descend upon the Emerald Isle. Right now the shops are working overtime, filling every inch of space with merchandise for the wildly anticipated crowds.

Most locals agree that the dynamics of the holiday have changed drastically over the past decade. St. Patrick’s Day of yore was more of a religious holiday celebrated with mass, small local parades in the villages and a pint or two at the pub before heading home for the family meal. 

I was surprised to learn that not a single one of my Irish friends will be serving corned beef and cabbage on St. Paddy’s Day! A leg of lamb and seafood topped their choices. Sounds good to me, and mussels will undoubtedly show up on my holiday table. I hope you might give them a place at your table, too. Sláinte!


Mussels in white wine and garlic

Be sure to buy live mussels. Cover loosely in refrigerator with a damp towel until ready to cook. Any open mussels that do not close when you tap on their shells are dead and need to be discarded. Serve with lots of crusty bread to soak up the juices. Serves 4.


• 2 cups dry white wine

• 4 shallots, finely chopped

• 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

• 1 tsp sea salt

• 4 pounds live mussels

• ⅓ cup parsley, finely chopped

• ½ cup of butter, cut into pieces

• Quartered lemon



Rinse and scrub mussels under cold running water. Remove beards and discard. Set in a strainer until ready to cook.

In a large stockpot set over medium heat, melt ½ of the butter, then add shallots, garlic, lemon quarters and salt. Simmer 5 minutes. Add mussels, shake pan, pour in wine, cover and increase the heat to high. Cook just until mussels are open, about 5-7 minutes. Don’t overcook.

Stir in parsley and remaining butter. Divide mussels into four serving bowls. Serve with bread and wine.

Cold mussels are also delicious, served with saffron aioli.

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