Joe McNamee visits the Coffee Shop in Union Hall, West Cork, this week and leaves smiling and satisfied.
I’ve always been intrigued by Union Hall. In another lifetime, I regularly stayed in the now defunct Maria’s Schoolhouse B&B run by Maria Hoare and husband Jim Kennedy.
I participated in Jim’s Atlantic Sea Kayaking expeditions, camping overnight on Rabbit Island, making midnight flits across Glandore Bay, our paddles, wands, conjuring up glowing phosphorescence.
I took prolonged cycles around winding roads, walks through wooded hinterland and passed wonderful evenings in the cosy pubs of what is, hands down, one of the prettiest seaside havens in Ireland.
Yet I always felt Union Hall was holding something in reserve, sensing an innate ‘shyness’ in comparison to Glandore, the more illustrious neighbour across the bay and I always return with something of a questing nature.
Maria and Jim left Union Hall over a decade ago but Jim’s daughter, Jessie Kennedy, has returned with partner Billy O’Flaherty as proprietors of The Coffee Shop.
It is a cheerfully ramshackle room, its flow interrupted by a supporting pillar and an entire corner and then some annexed by the kitchen/counter area. Local landscape photos cling nervously to an old picture rail running around the room; menus are chalked on random blackboard-painted walls; shelves hosting local deli produce are in sore need of replenishment.
All in all, it is probably safe to surmise the makeover budget was less than Trump-ian. Yet, somehow, it works, managing to be a warm and welcoming space, a perfect place to lay down a little warmth in bones well-chilled by bright but bleak November.
My Heart’s Delight downs a mouthful of her chowder as I give her the look. Well? She is unsure. ‘I don’t know, a bit thick.’ Most chowder people invariably dwell in opposing camps: those who prefer it thick and creamy and those, such as MHD, who come down very strongly in favour of a thinner broth-style concoction.
Then there are those few ‘broad church’ types such as myself who are happy to take it either way as long as it tastes good — and this chowder tastes simply stunning. Firm nuggets of fresh fish come from the excellent Fish Shop, mere yards down the road (whose own Stephen Hurley picked up the inaugural ‘Bord Iascaigh Mhara Young Fishmonger of the Year’ gong just weeks ago).
This certainly falls into the ‘thick’ camp though it is anything but stodgy, rather a cream with notions of mousse-iness, texture echoed in the beautifully balanced flavours, fulsome bass notes of marine umami with faint aniseed notes trilling around the upper register.
I offer to swap. ‘In exchange for what?’ asks MHD. ‘Whatever you like,’ mumble I from somewhere deep inside the bowl, ‘house, children, car, take the lot — all I need is this chowder!’
The progeny rate highly a pair of sausage rolls in buttery puff pastry. Two pasties, one meat and one vegetarian, are encased in good shortcrust pastry though earthy root vegetables and brown lentils of the latter triumph over the too dry meat option, a filling longing for some lush, rich gravy. Both are served with mixed salad plates, bright beetroot hummus starring. Partners in
Partners in life as well as business, proprietors Jessie and Billy O’Flaherty have a musical background. Jessie is the daughter of late lamented Cork singer Mandy Murphy, inheriting much of her mother’s phenomenal talent, but before Billy began working in the musical world, he trained as a baker so we dispense with dithering and order one each of his freshly baked sweet comestibles.
No 2 Son relishes a dense flourless chocolate cake sporting dusky cocoa notes.
A fluffy carrot cake wears lightly the lactic tang of cream cheese icing. La Daughter enjoys a cupcake in her usual manner, one designed to discourage any sharing. And then there’s Billy’s Florentines, a traditional Italian confection of nuts and dried fruit bound together with sugar and honey, often coated with chocolate as are these especially fine renditions, so fine they’d draw nostalgic tears from any wandering son or daughter of Florence.
Utterly sated, we settle a ridiculously cheap bill (also purchasing Jessie’s latest CD, The Carbery Songs and more Florentines for the road) and hit the highways once more, having taken yet another step closer to the heart of Union Hall.
Someday, I’ll get find it and The Coffee Shop is as fine a place as any to continue my questing.
€49.80 (including coffees and vanilla milkshakes, excluding tip)
“Warm, welcoming and serving up some deliciously simple food”
The Coffee Shop, Union Hall, West Cork, Tel: 087 1737748. Winter hours: Tues-Sat: 9am-5pm, Fri-Sat: 9am-7pm, serving evening pizza from 4pm-7pm
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