Ballymaloe House has been occupying a space on our bucket-list culinary map for quite some time now. Having travelled to so many of Ireland’s gastronomic destinations it was high time we included this gourmet getaway to our repertoire.
We are all very familiar with the dynasty of Allen women that have brought Ballymaloe House to where it is today. Myrtle, Darina and Rachel Allen. Powerhouses of creativity, strength and culinary class.
Of course there have been and continues to be, an arsenal of men and women working tirelessly to support these ladies in their quest to provide the best and must sustainable food and accommodation to the many patrons that come through the doors year in, year out. Rory O’Connell co-founded Ballymaloe Cookery School with Darina and has been teaching there for over thirty years now. Our next visit will include a cookery school demonstration for sure, it was remiss of us not to schedule one into our stay.
Navigating our way through the narrow, winding roads of East Cork was an experience in itself. Lush green fields and hedgerows for miles, a very welcome sight after a couple of hours on the motorway. Arriving at the entrance to Ballymaloe House is quite a sight. The golden corn fields are packed to full capacity with their lustrous bounty, gleaming in the glorious sunshine.
Parking the car opposite The Ballymaloe Shop only heightens our excitement further, there is something about homewares and kitchen gadgets that ignites the impulse shopper in us. We steady ourselves and decide it is best to check in and get the formalities out of the way first. Walking up to the entrance of this ivy clad country house, it is impossible not to be in awe of the immense natural beauty that we are surrounded by. This truly is a magical place. We approach the charming little reception desk and receive a warm welcome from the even more charming David. With his dancing blue eyes and constantly smiling face, David gave us all the information we needed to set us on our way to our room for the night. We didn’t catch the name of the lovely lady that led the way for us but we can say without any hesitation that the staff engagement with customers is at the highest level here. Every staff member you meet is friendly, helpful and courteous.
Our room for the night was the Lily of the Valley Room. Decorated to elegantly encompass the cool botanical tones of the gardens. A Queen size bed on one end and a deep sofa on the other. A perfectly placed table and chairs infront of the glass door leading directly into the garden. No television in sight but reception can arrange one to be placed in the room should you wish. We chose not to have one and to fully immerse ourselves in the beauty of our room and the adjoining garden filled with the sounds of nature that are in themselves a relaxant.
With our bedroom door open we could see an outdoor wedding was underway just across the garden from us. What a special place to get married. We can only imagine the lengths the staff go to to make such a special occasion seamless. The Grainstore was being used for the indoor reception and it looked absolutely stunning. After our little bout of wedding watching, (who doesn’t love to see the sheer joy of a newly married couple) we decide to get back outside and enjoy the fabulous grounds.
As nature lovers that adore walking, Ballymaloe could not be more suited to us. We spent far longer than we had intended meandering around the gardens. The gentle hum of the bees nestled in among the various flowers and planted herbs was music to our ears. The amount of food that is grown and harvested at Ballymaloe and the surrounding areas really is astounding. Pork and Lamb are reared close by specifically for the restaurant. Vegetables, herbs, even edible flowers are all grown on site. And speaking of flowers! The gardens are filled with the most wonderful variety. Everything from Allium, to Lavender to the most heavenly Roses. These flowers are used to create the most amazing, bespoke floral arrangements throughout the house by Iona Allen, the very talented resident florist. In our bedroom we had a little vase of beautifully fragrant Sweetpea, such a lovely touch.
Before heading back to get ready for dinner we finally got to pop into The Ballymaloe Shop. This is a treasure chest for any food lover. The small farmhouse style shelves are heaving with all manner of gadgets and gifts. We spotted Nicholas Moss Pottery, Max Benjamin Candles and even handmade soaps created by a member of the Allen Family among the vast array of goods on offer.
After a quick change we were ready to feast. We took a seat in the drawing room and ordered a little aperitif to enjoy while we perused the hearty menu on offer. We were informed that Friday night dinner in Ballymaloe House is a little different in that starters are served buffet style. The perfect opportunity to sample many of the homegrown vegetables as well as cured fish and house-made pâtés. Our orders were taken in the drawing room and shortly after we were led through a myriad of dining rooms to our table for the evening.
The menu as you would probably have guessed by now is filled with local, seasonal produce. From the soups we chose Chilled Spinach Soup with Farm Yoghurt & Dill. A refreshing start to the meal but definitely not for everyone. Our second soup of Potage Bonne Femme (Leek & Potato) was the traditional soup lovers dream. Flavourful and warming, a lovely start to the evening.
This was followed by a trip to the Hors d’Oeuvres Buffet. Not surprisingly we didn’t hold back here! Rotund bowls and portly platters of everything from Smoked Salmon to Cauliflower, Chickpea & Pomegranate Salad. The homemade Pâté with the addition of Pistachios was a particular favourite. We happily snacked on our haul with a glass of our chosen wine for the night, Rustenberg, Stellenbosch, Chardonnay 2016, South Africa. Sometimes it’s just so nice to have a slightly less formal course and getting the opportunity to sample so many different foods was very nice indeed.
Excitedly awaiting our main courses, we noted how relaxed this whole evening was. The lack of phones is obviously a good thing. We had our camera but that wasn’t a distraction as such. The atmosphere when dining in Ballymaloe lulls you into a serene and wonderfully calm state. There is no rushing, no noise as such apart from the chatter and laughter of our fellow diners. This is one major plus that these larger venues with hidden kitchens have. After a nice amount of time to digest our first two courses it was time to begin the main event.
Panfried Ballycotton Hake with Lobster Beurre Blanc & Cauliflower Purée on one side of the table and Traditional Roast Duck with Sage & Onion Stuffing, Bramley Apple Sauce served with Garden Navets on the other. This is food that has to be tasted to be appreciated. The roast duck was tantalisingly succulent and moreish. We never had duck served with apple sauce before but we would certainly order it again. This food emulates the ultimate comfort of genuine home cooking and the use of powerfully good produce. Buttered new season potatoes may have been fought over at one point!
Our Hake dish arrived in a pool of bright and beautiful Lobster Beurre Blanc. Sides of lightly cooked cabbage and those new season potatoes previously mentioned added all of the texture needed and married perfectly with the moist, flakey flesh of our generous hunk of Hake. Both main courses were incredibly satisfying, packed full of all the good nutritious ingredients we were reared on. This made us question why we don’t make more of an effort when we are cooking at home. Food for thought if you will!
In no way hungry but also in no way inclined to refuse a cheese board and the chance to drool over a sumptuous dessert trolley. The Farmhouse Cheese Board with Ballymaloe Cheese Biscuits was shown a swift end. Indulgent Cheese on crumbly homemade cheese biscuits is always a winner.
A delectable wedge of Chocolate Mousse Cake along with a plate of Pistachio Meringue, Brown Bread Ice Cream and Sugared Strawberries were our dessert trolley picks. These desserts were sublime. The rich, gooey chocolate mousse cake is ever chocoholics dream, an uber intense hit of cocoa in every mouthful.
As for the crunchy on the outside, perfectly chewy on the inside Pistachio Meringue, this is just the most perfect combination of flavours. Brown Bread Ice Cream was also a winning combination for us and Wow, we still can’t stop talking about how good that was. Do Sugared Strawberries even need a moment of their own in this review? Well, yes they do! We sometimes get so lost in trying new things that when we are presented with something this simple and good it pulls on our heartstrings and brings us right back to summer evenings with our families when we were children.
The food in Ballymaloe House evoked a lot of lovely childhood memories for us and the lack of phones at the table encouraged us to actually chat about them.
Myrtle Allen’s signature remains in abundance throughout. A trailblazer for sustainability long before it became a talking point.
A nightcap in the drawing room was too alluring to pass. An Espresso Martini and a Gin & Tonic proved the consummate end to a magical evening. We headed off to our beautiful room for the night at a very respectable hour. Therelaxation that washed over us throughout the evening had hit a new level, the sleepy kind.
Waking early and swinging our terrace door open allowing the fresh air to fill our room only made us want to get back outside. After walking the legs off of ourselves it was breakfast time. This is an event all of its own. Tables filled with the finest of house-made goods from granola to the most perfect little scones we have ever tasted. Lashings of butter and jam with pots of Barry’s Tea, bliss.
When our gorgeous cooked to order hot breakfast arrived we dug straight in and completely forgot to take a photo. Now that is probably the greatest indicator of how relaxed we were.
Saturday’s are for exploring. Having packed our bags and loaded the car we hit the road to take on the short drive to Ballymaloe Cookery School. There are no Saturday demonstrations but the mention of a Food Truck whetted our appetite for the last piece of foodie heaven before our journey home.
The Noisy Table food truck is located just in front of Ballymaloe Cookery School. Serving a range of the most wonderful homemade cakes, biscuits & lemonades. We heard a fellow customer requesting toasted sandwiches so there are some savoury offerings to be enjoyed too. We were here for the cake. Ordering in a place like this often poses more of a problem than than it should for us sweet toothed souls! Finally deciding on a slice of Chocolate & Blackcurrrant Cake and a slice of Walnut Cake, one homemade lemonade and one sparkling water. Taking our seats in the sunshine for a spot of people watching while we waited, it became very evident that this is a spot where people can totally relax and enjoy some of life’s simple pleasures.
Ballymaloe House is a destination that delivers a phenomenal sensory experience. From the sights, sounds, smells, taste and indeed the ability to get hands on in the many demonstrations that take place Monday to Friday, this really is a food lovers dream. You will leave feeling refreshed in mind, body and soul.
Myrtle Allen very confidently expressed many years ago ‘Don’t cook just for restaurant critics. Don’t use your imagination just for the sake of seeming imaginative. Keep hoping that you can continue to ignore all those wretched customers that look for swanky food and hope that the critics are good enough to distinguish the difference between trendy, pretentious menus and the quality of the food on the plate.’
Every business has its brand values but they are not always as easily identified as they are in Ballymaloe. Every single bite of food is ‘Simply Delicious’.
A visit to Ballymaloe House is, in our opinion is one of the most wonderful experiences you can have here in Ireland.
Phone: (021) 465 2531
REVIEW BY KEITH MAHON