(March 2011) Aoibheann McNamara roams at home this time and embarks on a culinary ramble through Tipperary, Cork and Waterford.
I have travelled alot abroad and have enjoyed it all very much. These days I feel that perhaps I should consider holidaying more in Ireland. Staycations are the new thing to do and where better than Ireland as it is a wonderful country with amazing people. From an economic point of view, we should all be buying Irish and support everything Irish and this should extend to taking a holiday in Ireland.
With little time away from the restaurant, I managed a sneaky weekend off in February. I did a culinary meander through Nenagh, Co Tipperary and stopped off in the iconic Country Choice and delighted in their robust minestrone soup with big chunks of Limerick baked ham and homemade pasta served with traditional soda bread. Peter himself was there and we had an animated chat about Donegal tweed and then he was off. This place is wonderfully indicative of contemporary culinary Ireland. With energy, passion, gusto and style, Country Choice is traditional to the core with an amazing array of products, predominantly Irish and universally of great taste.
A lazy drive then down to Ballyvolane House in Castlelyons, Co Cork, arriving just before dark so we could take in the full picturesque isolation of the place. We rang the bell several times to discover, after no one answered, that it was actually open; I thought this was brilliant. The owners, Justin and Jenny Green welcomed us warmly. We were given the tour, which appropriately started with the details surrounding the honesty bar. The style of the place is in tune with a house of its age but it is peppered with interesting design features from an Asian influence, which comes presumably from the time Justin and Jenny lived there. Also clearly visible is the incredible aesthetic and design awareness of people confident to paint a children’s playroom charcoal grey from Farrow & Ball and sure, ‘we’ll paint the door too!’ We were then shown up to our expansive room with sunken wooden encased bath with views of the gardens and the carpet of snowdrops on the lawn. Little features in the rooms like a bush radio, fireplace littered with interesting books and a kilner of homemade preserve made the bedroom introduction complete and perfect. This is definitely a home and so the style and space are welcoming and intimate almost. Books and art in the drawing room give a sense of the personality of the owners. Wellie boots in differing sizes are discarded at the door alongside croquet gear. This is a place to feel at home, in the vein of Nick Jones’ Babington House in Somerset, where both Justin and I had the great pleasure of working.
On the evening we arrived, we had a light supper in the drawing room of rock- et and parmesan salad, followed by lemon drizzle cake and some offerings of Riesling from the honesty bar. Justine and Jenny were heading out to their Chop House in Lismore to host the monthly curry and beer night and since a trip to the Chop House was also planned, the intrigue continued and the anticipation grew for our visit there the following night. Breakfast the following morning was on a communal table with many others. Justin’s father actually serves breakfast in between reading old French novels and does so with gentleness and care. Ballyvolane is Justin’s family home and it is certainly a family affair; along with three children and grandparents, it is a multi generational exercise in happy country living. Breakfast itself was superb with the finest local ingredients for the trusty fry, six different types of seasonal stewed fruit, homemade breads and preserves. Not being able to wait for dinner, we popped into the Chop House in Lismore for a late lunch after a wonderful few hours at Middleton market.
The Chop House is a traditional Irish pub with a restaurant out back and a garden dining area for the summer. But it is a traditional pub put in the hands of people who changed it into a space of rustic wood and blue grey paint and yet did so with commitment to the integrity of the original space. The old snug and stain glass still exists but it is refreshingly crisp, aesthetic and perfectly cosy. We had a light lunch of Jerusalem artichoke soup and treacle marinated smoked salmon. After getting repeatedly lost we eventually got back to Ballyvolane only to say a very brief hello to the babysitter and then happily turn on our heels and head back to the Chop House for dinner.
Justin entertained us over elderflower Bellinis at the bar and we chatted about food glorious food until our table was ready and then, as the name suggests, we ordered the carnivore options. Devilled lamb kidneys to start followed by hanger steak and lamb chops with varying sides of home grown potatoes and vegetables, all from the walled garden at Ballyvolane. Dessert was an exercise in joy with lemon posset topping the list, also Eton Mess of berries and something obscenely chocolaty, while a delicate New Zealand Pinot Noir made the night all the more (or less) mem- orable. The food is simple and brilliant, executed with confidence and style. The place itself reflects the perfect place for Ireland right now, a place that embraces the old and looks forward with class and commitment.
Lismore, a beautiful heritage town of only one thousand people is blessed with an offering like this, as are the bordering areas. People travel from Cork and beyond regularly to experience all that Justin and Jenny have created. On Sunday morning before 9am, Justin, Oni and I and three swirling dogs went to feed the pigs and the chickens. Justin knee high in muck and looking like Withnail in his long barbour coat looked the picture of happiness. He doesn’t just talk the talk on the ecology and cycle of food, he lives and breathes it. This was the perfect end to a magical weekend. Ireland is lucky to have people like these minding, developing and nurturing the culinary and hospitality of Ireland for today and for the future. One of strongest and oldest of our industries is tourism and food tourism is the key to that future. Justin and Jenny and their two exceptional places are leading the way and what an enchanted way it is. www.ballyvolanehouse.ie