FOR weeks, traders had cleaned and preened their stalls. Walls were repainted, woodwork re-stained, spare floorspace filled with mature trees and braces of pheasant hung anywhere room could be found.
The market’s centrepiece, a Victorian cast-iron water fountain, was also re-painted and festooned with fresh fruit and vegetables from the nearby stalls.
Everywhere hung red banners welcoming the Queen to the “small city with a big heart”. And all for an 85-year-old woman who has won the hearts of a nation in just four days.
Visiting dignitaries and campaigning politicians may have forged a well-worn path to the English Market over the years but there was never a walkabout like this. In the words of one trader, “this is as big as it gets”.
And so after all the waiting, the Queen walked through the iron gates from the Grand Parade and a ripple of applause broke out through the Victorian food emporium. Looking up, down and around, she smiled that soft near-shy smile we’ve seen for the past four days, seeming eager to absorb as much as she could about a market that she has allegedly wanted to visit for some time.
Her first encounter was with the inimitable Pat O’Connell from O’Connell’s fish store, who proudly pointed to his prize John Dory and fresh prawns, caught off Castletownbere that morning.
But it was the giant prawns and particularly a 15lb fresh salmon that caught the lady’s eye. “This is fresh?” she asked.
“Caught this morning in the Lee, your Majesty. The river has been cleaned up in recent years, the stock is returning and we’re catching salmon there again,” he beamed.
Then he picked up a rather ugly-looking gurnard and brought it over to her.
“Did you see that fish, Philip?’ she beckoned to her husband smiling.
“I have to tell you a secret ma’am,” the brazen fishmonger ventured. And so he sidled up to the Queen and whispered into her ear. She laughed heartily as if enjoying his informality and we were all left to wonder just what he had said.
And then it was on to Off The Pig’s Back, the cheese stall where the Queen told owner Isabelle Sheridan how much she liked Milleens and Cashel Blue.
Prince Philip wandered off, looking at some unusual French cheeses, but quickly returned to his wife when she called out: “No Philip. Have a look at some of the Irish cheeses here.”
It seemed as if the market was a real visual feast for the royal couple, with one regularly calling to the other to take a look at this or that particular delicacy.
Philip said he was finding it all too tempting. “I’m putting on weight just looking at these cakes,” he told the girls at the Alternative Bread Company.
They had made a Duke Special chocolate biscuit cake in his honour so he didn’t feel ignored when surrounded by queen cakes and Queen Victoria sponges.
Of course, the Queen was shown that traditional Cork dish, tripe and drisheen.
“How would I cook it?” she asked one stallholder, as we all imagined her flying back to Buckingham Palace, eager to get out a saucepan so she could try out that holiday recipe at home.
In fact, tripe made it into the hamper presented to her by Tom Durcan of the English Market’s Traders’ Association.
She was also given Joleen Cronin’s Coast of Cork book and Diarmuid and Dónal Ó Drisceoil’s book Serving A City: The Story Of Cork’s English Market as well as a brooch depicting Cork’s Butter Exchange by silversmith Chris Carroll.
It was the spiced beef in the hamper that caught the Queen’s eye though.
But this time it was Philip who had the questions: “Why spice it? And how do you cook it?” he asked.
“I told them to boil it and then explained how the spice was used to preserve beef on boats and ships years ago,” said butcher Mr Durcan. “You know, I was a nervous wreck before I met her. I really was. But she is a lovely lady who just makes you feel relaxed. I won’t lie though. I have a couple of Murphys in the stall fridge over there and I can’t wait to get over to them. What a day. I think we did Cork and Ireland proud though.”
Picture: Queen Elizabeth enjoying a light-hearted moment with fishmonger Pat O’Connell
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