Ballymaloe House in County Cork, Ireland is a wonderful country guest house with a stellar kitchen. There is also the Ballymaloe Cookery School just down the road in Shanagarry, which is owned by the son and daughter-in-law of the original Ballymaloe House couple, Ivan and Myrtle Allen. As I prepare to leave England and go back to New York at the end of September, I decided I couldn’t leave without seeing Ireland, so I duly booked my flight to Cork and a room at Ballymaloe. I was not disappointed.
Upon arriving on Saturday midday (after many a wrong turn and lots of consulting of Google maps on my iPhone), I immediately went over the the cookery school to check out their gardens, which are fantastic, and supply much of the produce for both the school’s and the guest house’s kitchens. They include an acre of glass (green) houses where they grow all kinds of tomatoes, squash, cucumber and herbs. There are also pigs and chickens running around.
After a full tour of the grounds and school (including the dairy where they make cheese), I was pretty hungry myself to I headed back to the House for some afternoon tea. By the time I arrived, the sky had cleared up and I sat outside overlooking the garden with an open faced smoked salmon sandwich, tea and shortbread biscuits. Aside from the wasps who kept competing with me for said tea, sandwich and biscuits, it was quite idyllic. (I rounded out the picture-perfect experience with my book “How to Save the World” by David Bornstein, a very good read about social entrepreneurship in case anyone is in need of reading material.)
In order to prepare for what I knew was going to be an epic dinner, I took a walk around the Ballymaloe House grounds (where I discovered a peacock as well a nice group of cows – you can see more photos on facebook.) And at 8pm, freshly showered and dressed and armed with my Kindle as a dinner companion, I made my way down to the dining room.
Ballymaloe serves a prix-fixe each night that consists of 5 courses – a small starter, an appetizer, main course, cheese and dessert (the latter two served from a trolley, which I love.) Here is the menu from last night (apologies for my finger obscuring the upper left corner; click on the image to see it blown up and legible.)
After some tough deliberation, I chose the courgette carpaccio to start – super-thinly cut green and yellow courgette with a light lemon and olive oil dressing, a few baby greens, a bit of radish, a few nasturtium petals, and all topped with finely grated parmesan. It was delicious and light, a great way to start the meal accompanied by the Ballymaloe cocktail – champagne with a bit of their homemade elderflower syrup.
This was followed by the hot buttered Ballycotton lobster (Ballycotton is a fishing village about 10 minutes away with beautiful seaside cliffs). I got just the tail, which was smaller than a US lobster, and with a bit of a stronger seafood taste. It was like buttah and practically melted in my mouth.
This was accompanied by not one but two white wines – a glass of white Burgundy with a nice minerality that contrasted well with the shellfish, and a little taste of a South Australian white blend which I didn’t like as much when I tasted it on its own (more fruit forward, and juicier), but when paired with the lobster and a bit warmer, it too was delicious. I had a similar dilemna when choosing the wines for my main course (goose), and so I ended up with a half glass of each. One was a pinot noir, the other I just can’t remember, but both were fabulous.
The main course – traditional goose served with runner beans, apple stuffing and Bramley apple sauce – was divine. The meat was tender and juicy and the skin was nice and crispy. Bramley applesauce is the real deal – you’ll never eat Mott’s again.
At this point in the meal, I was beginning to feel a bit full. So I asked for the cheese plate to hold off a bit so I could begin to digest and prepare for the last two courses. Like all the products used at Ballymaloe, the cheeses were all local and included 2 fresh goat’s milk cheeses, a range of hard to semi-soft to soft cow’s milk cheese, and a creamy Cashel blue.
They were accompanied by little homemade cheese crackers and some fresh grapes. It was a struggle, but I finished all of them. And then it was on to the last challenge: the dessert trolley.
Despite the fact that at this point I was really full and almost unable to eat another bite, I tried three things: apple blackberry tart, homemade caramel ice-cream with hot caramel sauce, and a lemon posset (kind of like a mousse or pudding). And besides, the posset doesn’t count because it’s kind of like a palate cleanser, right?
I made a valiant effort, had a few bites of each, and then somehow got back to my room upstairs and fell into bed.
the morning after
At 6:45 am my alarm went off – yes, on purpose. I lay awake pondering whether to actually get up or roll over and go back to sleep, but in the end I peeled myself out of bed, threw on some clothes and tramped down to the kitchen where I had been told I could help make the morning’s bread. It was still relatively quiet in the kitchen when I arrived, and Ann the bread-mistress took me back to her baking room at the back.
First I made my own mini Irish Soda Bread loaf (which is sitting vacuum packed in my kitchen ready to be shared at work tomorrow). This is surprisingly easy to make:
450 g wholemeal flour
200 g white cake flour
1 rounded teaspoon baking soda
1 rounded teaspoon salt
600 ml butter milk
Set over to 200 degrees C, or 400 F.
Mix dry ingredients by hand (litearally). Pour in buttermilk while continuing to “stir” with your other hand – the correct technique is to make your hand like a claw and move it around in a circle. When the dough is just combined, turn out onto a heavily floured surface. Sprinkle with more flour on top, shape into a rounded cake, and cut a deep cross in the top. Bake for 45-50 minutes.
Then I helped make the white and brown breads, and helped to eat some of the fresh scones hot from the oven. Quality control is very important.
The flour in the kitchen is kept in big plastic bins under the counters. Each one is labeled in black permanent marker and is on wheels for easy access. Ann has a scale she uses to measure out the flour for each ingredient. The white bread took yeast, butter, white flour, salt, baking soda and water, then went straight into a bread mixing machine.
The brown bread – my favorite so far – is mostly wholemeal flour, which just a bit of white bread flour, salt, water, yeast and a little bit of treacle. We again mixed the dough literally by hand, until just combined. Then small loaf pans were well coated in vegetable oil and sprinkled with flour before the dough went in.
Somehow Ann has a sixth sense that tells her when to take things out of the oven – the only timer in sight was apparently broken, and she just “knew” when things were done.
After breadmaking for an hour, I went back to my room, planning to return and eat my own breakfast in the dining room. Instead I went back to sleep for two hours, then made the tail end of breakfast at 10:30, where I got to sample the fruits of my (admittedly limited) labor:
This was followed by a full Irish breakfast of poached eggs, rashers, sausage, roasted tomatoe, mushroom and boudin noir.
After all that I set out for a walk along the cliffs of Ballycotton – a truly spectacular landscape. And there I discovered another great food experience, wild blackberries:
View more photos of the house and landscape here. Also, the Allens are prolific cookbook writers, and you can get all their stuff on Amazon, including a book on breads that has the recipes for everything mentioned above.
Location: Ballymaloe House, Shanagarry, Midleton, Co. Cork, Ireland
Prices: Dinner: €105 for one, including wine and tip; Room: €124 per night for one person (€200 per night for double occupancy)
- Aer Lingus from London Heathrow to Cork (1.5 hours)
- Europcar rental, 30 minute drive