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Sunday, January 6, 2008

Ireland: Travel treat! (part 1: Ballymaloe)

In my last post, I mentioned owing the editors at the Outlook Traveller magazine for the trip of a lifetime.

Today, I give you details of that trip — by way of the (page-shatteringly) long version of an article published in the December 2007 of the magazine, reproduced here with kind permission from Traveller editor Kai Friese, garnished with links that print readers were denied (sorry, limitations of the medium):

"It’s the best breakfast of the year. Beats the pork bao in Singapore, the hoppers at Kovalam, the Dublin coddle and the choices of Paranthewali Gali. What convinces me is a single mushroom — the meatiest field produce I’ve ever ingested, grilled dark and juicy.

It grew in Shannagarry, where I’m staying in one of the 34 sought-after rooms in Ballymaloe House. Lady of the house Myrtle Allen made hospitality history here when, in a time of French food being the only fare worth serving commercially or socially, she went ahead and opened up the country seat her farmer husband was left by a local Quaker as a bed-and-breakfast — serving up the produce of her own yards, orchards, woods, fields and garden, cooked in the best traditions of a farmhouse family kitchen.

Today, it is a special stay for people from the world over — far from city lights and bustle, the nearest pub (in this nation of microbreweries and the world’s first distillery) over in Ballycotton, the few who value peace and excellence come to recede into an old-world idyll.

The fantastic fungus crowns the free-range eggs (I think I said hello to the hen who laid them a while back, out by the chicken coop behind Ballymaloe House). Its savoury jolt is the perfect counterpoint to the mellow sweetness of the famous stoneground breakfast porridge from Macroom that converts confirmed oatmeal-haters who come to stay. The porridge is supplemented by a jug of cream fronted by a discreet card declaring the name of the farmer who milked and skimmed it, and another jug of new milk so creamy it’s hard to tell the two apart but for that card. The mandatory brown sugar — extracted from sugar beets in Ireland — is sprinkled over. There’s also smooth, thick yoghurt made daily, and the first apples of the season from the orchard in back arrive poached with sweet geranium. It is followed by Irish smoked kippers or fresh fish — the day’s catch at nearby Ballycotton Bay. And that’s where the mushroom comes in, along with a tomato from one of the greenhouses I’ve just been exploring.

On another table, the trio of preserves (strawberry, rhubarb and marmalade) is homemade; the bread and scones, including the mandatory wholemeal brown and the barm-y, currant-studded spotted dog arrive oven-fresh as I dig into the hot dishes. The butter, of course, is expectedly great — I’ve yet to have come across an oversalted greasy pat since landing in Dublin four days ago.

As I ruminate over my pot of Irish breakfast tea in one of several interlocking dining rooms (each individual in its country-house décor), I realise it should have come as no surprise.

Not after the walk round the grounds of this country manor, down the winding paths through woods and orchards, through a series of arches affording entrance into as many patches of kitchen garden.

There hothouses hang garlands of tomato and zucchini vines. Espaliered pears are dropping into the hands of staff gathering for today’s table. Raspberry canes are yielding up their ripe fruit — I’m offered a sweet, dark handful as they pick. Blooming nasturtiums and sweet peas are waiting to be carried into the rooms.

Roses are clambering up the walls, along the backs of garden seats, waving under and around windows. Rows of lettuce and kale, a small field of leeks stand shoulder to shoulder, their ranks swollen by feathery fennel and dill.

Dark chard leaves are improbably unfurling on their ruby and topaz stems. Pumpkins are flowering, metamorphosing, plumping up into golden globes.

Further back the ducks and hens hide the ducklings and fluffy chicks under bushes and in reeds, shadowed from my inquisitive gaze.

Another early hint of this cornucopia was served up last night — over five courses, each entailing a choice from at least four and up to seven options. Ballymaloe House’s dinner is a premium plate, costing Euro 70. And it’s ridiculously cheap at that price.

A seemingly unassuming quartet of starters kicks off. My Shanagarry Hot Cucumber Soup is a delight of nuanced simplicity. However, all around this last dining room in the house, and through the labyrinth of other, multi-coloured dining rooms the length of the house, satisfied sighs sound behind plates of chilled (garden-grown) beetroot soup and the mushroom broth.

My starter of warm wood pigeon salad with Cumberland sauce is another advertisement of the richness — and self-sufficiency — of Ballymaloe, for the fowl were bagged in the woods behind the house by the sons of the family. But it has been nerve-wracking to choose, bypassing the Ballycotton mackerel in herb and lemon butter; the crab tart startled by tomato and ginger; the Castletownbere mussels cooked in (of all things!) Goan style; the terrine of pork, spinach and garden herbs. The game-y meat is paired with an Argentinian red by the assiduous sommelier — Ballymaloe remains one of the few old-school culinary houses that still puts down a cellar of vintages.

I’m close to sated. It’s with much pondering that I opt for a ‘lighter’ main course — the mandatory vegetarian option for each course is here represented by courgette blossoms frittered with a stuffing of herbed Ardsallagh goat’s cheese. Not easy to say ‘nay’ to the baked halibut; the John Dory in orange butter; the traditional roast duck with stuffing; the intriguing bacon braised with Chablis cream sauce and piquante beetroot; or the braised lamb with garlic, scallion, potatoes and two sauces. However, this dish turns out to be the only one I’m not enamoured of — there’s simply too much of the rich cheese for the delicate flowers to support.

And so I scrape half aside. After all, up next is a multi-tiered trolley of Irish farmhouse cheeses — some made by a single family on just one farm in the whole wide world. I can’t not sample Cork county’s own superb Gouda counterpart, Coolea. No disappointments there, though the plethora of flavours has lulled the brain into a soporific lull that clouds the roster of names.

I’ve overindulged, of course. When the desserts arrive on a cart large enough for me to sleep in, I know a twinge of regret. But it’s soothed away by the blackberry sorbet I do choose — and the chocolate-dipped strawberry I do manage with my coffee in the family drawing room, in the company of Rory Allen’s humour, guitar and other musically minded visitors.

Then it’s up to bed, up a short flight of half-hidden stairs into my first-floor room in the front of the house, its blue toile wallpaper echoed in the Victorian-boudoir soft furnishings. Sleep under a hand-quilted white coverlet until dawn lights on the yellow roses framing the window seat.

And from there to that early-morning ramble, whence breakfast…

After which, we drive down to Ballymaloe Cookery School.

I’m eager to see Darina Allen, Ireland’s most famous chef and pioneer of the Slow Food movement on the island in person. I’m fully prepared to be intrigued by the school’s working, to be impressed by Darina herself and her daughter, the well-known TV chef Rachel Allen, if she’s there. But again, I’m caught off guard.

Smoke your own meat and fish! How to cure a pig in a day! Sustainable seafood! Growing organic vegetables! Making butter, yoghurt and cheese! The beginner’s guide to bee-keeping! Foraging for wild foods! Just a few of the tantalising lessons taught at the Ballymaloe Cookery School. The day we visit the converted apple store that serves as sprawling schoolhouse, it’s house-full for Claudia Roden’s demonstration of Jewish dishes from around the globe. (Yes, I had to go to Ireland to learn what was unique to the Indian Jewish kitchen.)

And again, although I knew the school grows almost everything used in its kitchen on its grounds as well as housing students there, I’m floored by the charming 18th-century converted farm buildings grouped in the midst of orchards and gardens.

Clematis, honeysuckle and roses clamber up the whitewashed and pink cottages. In the greenhouse Darina’s husband Tim Allen (son of Myrtle over at Ballymaloe House) takes us through, experiments are underway alongside the serious work of organic farming.

Tomatoes festoon a segment, chillies pop up underfoot through another, melons twine through a third, and onions are hung up to dry by the potting table at the end. Over on the right, alternate panes of the tent ‘roof’ are painted opaque with mud — to see how the lettuce and kale beneath like it best. The kale is most amused; the lettuce not so much. I am amazed by the magnitude and innovation.

Nor had I expected to meet a family of pigs in a furrowed field, eating fresh grass like any cow! Or three abandoned calves being hand-reared. Or to be invited to a Palais de Poulet, where the egg-laying French hens fuss about. When they aren’t out pecking around the grounds. And while I was aware of the school’s reputation for excellence, I hadn’t imagined it stretched to 3-month certificate course graduates being on a par with chefs emerging from institutes such as Cordon Bleu with 2 years of study and experience under their hats.

Back inside, through the orchard gates outlined with apples (russets, Cox) and pears (Williams), the kitchen is a cook’s dream of paradise — one entire room devoted to bins of flours and sugars, giant jars of spices and herbs; another one lined with ovens along two walls and enough preparation counters to sleep one of India’s railway-station families of 20 in unaccustomed luxury, with a corner grid of serried whisks that brings a tingle to my fingertips; a third room of cooktops, which the teachers and students cluster around for demonstration and practice sessions. Over all this, Darina presides.

Today, there’s an open-to-public demonstration, so they are busy preparing enough of Claudia’s dishes to feed all comers, our eight-strong team of journalists included. Glistening red mullet are lowered into boiling pans of tomato sauce barehanded as we make our way to the ‘demo kitchen’.

Claudia cooks for a rapt audience, and as Darina joins her behind the hobs, the angled mirror above the worktop reflects to us a seamless symphony of stirring, turning, serving, garnishing, arranging — until the granite is covered by colourful dishes in blue, white and green, satisfyingly weighted with roast chicken, couscous, cheese flan, a dish of mashed courgette, coconut and date chutney a la India, and the mullet of course.

When we sit down to sample over lunch, the onion sauce is the hands-down show-stopper. But the huge wooden bowl of nasturtium-scattered salad leaves is the novelty I’m drawn to. I’m delighted to be seated next to Claudia, who murmurs ‘the courgette should have been more sour’, and while I polish off second helpings of the fluffy ricotta pancake and a fruit salad with orange blossom water, Darina joins our table too. She is well travelled in India and has been quietly involved in charity work for children, setting up a school, and wants to hear more of the country; Claudia has never been and hopes to see for herself someday.

Too soon, we must rinse our coffee cups, brush off the crumbs from still-warm biscuits, shake hands and say goodbye. But not before we’ve stopped at the shop next door to the exuberantly colourful café, to load our backpacks with cookbooks, the school’s jams and preserves (rhubarb and ginger, gooseberry and elderflower, and good old hedgerow jam is my booty), and other kitchen paraphernalia, from fridge magnets to mixers.

Then it’s off to the Old Distillery at Midleton for a tour and a tasting to wash it down with the mandatory double-distilled-only, peat-free Irish whiskey — topped up with ginger ale as per the Jameson bar recommendation, though we wouldn’t have dared ‘spoil’ it like this back home!

Dinner is served with the greyhounds, at the racing track over in Cork."

1 comment:

Plantscapes designs said...

Nice blog...this has been a wonderful garden tour-thanks for sharing!