Even before I left Ireland in 1974, Ballymaloe (pronounced Ballymaloo) had a reputation. That reputation has only grown since. A family-run enterprise, it is known for great hospitality, delicious food, championing of Irish produce, and turning out a generation of Irish chefs. “Ballymaloe-trained” is synonymous in Ireland with “Great Cook.”
To celebrate the second anniversary of the day we got engaged, Robert and I treated ourselves to an overnighter at Ballymaloe House earlier this week. It’s about half an hour from Cork, in the rich farmland of Ballycotton Bay. We stopped off in Cloyne first – see Robert’s post – and arrived in time for a late lunch served in the conservatory.
Having checked in to our large and comfortable room with its own little outdoor terrace, we spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the grounds, winding our way through bluebell-lined paths and along a stream edged with yellow irises and overhung by weeping willows. We dropped into the Ballymaloe shop too, a treasure trove of kitchen equipment and tasty goodies.
Before dinner we read more about the Ballymaloe story. Myrtle and Ivan Allan started a restaurant in the 60’s to highlight the best of Irish country house cooking, using fresh produce from their own farm, fish from nearby Ballycotton Bay and meat from local butchers. Their children and their families joined in and over the years the hotel developed and a cookery school flourished. Many other businesses emerged – a brand of relishes and preserves; cook books, cooking columns and TV cooking series; the shop and cafes; an entertainment and exhibition space; eco-tourism. The newest enterprise is an annual LitFest which centres on writing about, talking about and demonstrating cooking – and lots of eating the cooking too! We arrived the day after it ended and the place was still buzzing from the energy of it all.
Dinner was, simply, delicious! It is a 5 course set menu, with choices at each stage. But this is not mannered food – nothing had been forced through a sieve and nothing was decorated with parsnip crisps. The emphasis was on fresh food expertly prepared and on letting the taste speak for itself without overloading it with spices or fiddly bits. My main course was lamb and it was served with turnip, cabbage and new potatoes. Hardly a Master Chef plate – but the lamb melted in the mouth and the vegetables were flavourful and satisfying. Soup, fish course, main, cheese and dessert – with our waitress asking if we wanted a second helping, or anything else, or anything different…well, we waddled out eventually to enjoy coffee (and petit fours for goodness sake) in the drawing room and to reflect on how spoiled we felt to be staying, and eating, in this remarkable place.
Next morning, after an equally scrumptious breakfast, we drove over to the cooking school and toured the gardens – there are several different kinds – the second shop, the shell house, the greenhouses, and the only henhouse in Ireland lit by a chandelier. We had to tear ourselves away finally to head back to West Cork, but vowing we would be back again to sample the delights of Ballymaloe.