Carton House takes pride of place at the centre of 1,100 acre fully-walled country parkland estate in Maynooth, County Kildare which also tips over the county border into Meath. Conveniently located within easy reach of the capital city, Carton House was originally owned by the FitzGerald family who were part of Strongbow’s invasion into Ireland. The estate has a fascinating history and has seen many changes during its 800 years.
In 1739, Earl FitzGerald commissioned Richard Castles, one of the pre-eminent architects of the day to design and build Carton House. Castles was also responsible for building many of the great Irish houses including Westport House, Powerscourt House and Leinster House which is now home to the Dáil.
Over the years Carton has welcomed many famous guests including Queen Victoria, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace. Early in the 21st century, the house and estate were redeveloped into a modern hotel complex with grounds containing two golf courses. Guests now have the opportunity to experience the unrivalled opulence and luxury of Carton House for themselves.
I have wanted to try the afternoon tea in Carton House for quite a while and was delighted to get the opportunity recently. As I drove through the grounds along the driveway in the approach up to Carton House, I stopped a couple of times to take in the estate’s beautifully maintained grounds. The house itself is stunning and literally takes your breath away when it comes into view. Having built up an appetite, I was really looking forward to my afternoon tea and having the chance to sit down and relax in the hotel’s elegant surroundings.
Afternoon tea is served daily from 12.30pm to 5.00pm in the Original Kitchen and Steward’s Room of the house. This magnificent high ceilinged kitchen retains many of its original features and is a lovely spot from where to enjoy afternoon tea. Old cast-iron teapots sit happily on the large stove and the overall feeling is evocative of a bygone era. Expansive couches provide comfortable seating and the afternoon tea is served on tiered stands at the low but nicely positioned tables.
The afternoon tea menu includes a good selection of loose leaf teas which are supplied by Suki Teas, a boutique master tea blender from Belfast who only use ethically-sourced, Fair-trade teas. The teas are flavoursome with bold, assertive notes and there is something to suit most tastes. If you like you can also order a glass of Champagne or a cocktail to enjoy with your afternoon tea. As I was driving this was a pleasure I had to forego but on this occasion I was more than happy with just my tea.
Although usually of fan of assam teas, I decided to ring the changes and go for the Green Tea Luponde which is sourced from the Livingstone Mountains in Tanzania. A single estate, hand-picked tea, this was fresh on the palate with a lovely crisp finish. It was a particularly successful pairing with the savoury elements of the afternoon tea.
By way of contrast Finbarr, my guest for the day, decided to go for the Earl Grey Blue Flower tea which, with its floral notes had a delicate and sophisticated flavour. The defining characteristic of Earl Grey teas is provided by the addition of bergamot, usually by the use of essential oils which can sometimes overpower the gentle flavour of the leaf but I thought this was a wonderfully balanced offering. Both teas were served in individual teapots with strainers provided on the side.
I love the moment during an afternoon tea when the tiered cake-stand is delivered to the table and how, in the moments immediately after you try to visually absorb all the treats that are being served. It is this moment which brings out a certain child-like glee from deep within me and is why I don’t think I could ever tire of taking afternoon tea.
Here the cake stand had three layers; one for the sandwiches, one for the scones and preserves and one for the cakes and pastries. Everything looked mouth-wateringly good and we couldn’t wait to tuck in.
The tempting selection of sandwiches included an Open Prawn Cocktail on Rye Bread and a Smoked Salmon & Chive Cream Cheese Roulade which were both generously filled and delicious to eat. Similarly, the Turkey, Cranberry & Stuffing had been well-made and included a crowd-pleasing filling of succulent turkey and a flavoursome herb stuffing served between thin slices of white bread.
Next up was a sandwich containing Honey Baked Irish Ham on Wholegrain Bread. I have eaten many disappointing ham sandwiches in my life but this one was truly great, packed full of delicious, tender meat. I loved the flavour of the ham and could detect the subtle hint of the cloves which had obviously been used to prepare it.
All the sandwiches were fabulous but my favourite was definitely the Tomato, Basil and Cherry Tomato Brioche. Although it looked like a simple bread roll filled with cheese and tomato, every element was outstanding. The mini-brioche roll was superbly made with a delicate crumb that accentuated the flavour of the ingredients that were used to fill it.
We then moved on to the cakes and pastries which were beautiful to look at. At their simplest, macarons contain only three ingredients but they can be tricky to get right. Both the Lemon and Raspberry Macarons were flawless in their execution and with their intensely fruity flavours were heavenly to eat. The Sticky Ginger Cake was exactly as described, sticky and full of complex spicing which included cinnamon, a hint of nutmeg and the aforementioned ginger.
Santiago Cake is an almond confection which originally hails from Spain. Here hazelnuts had been included along with the almonds and in my opinion, the cake was all the better for it, delivering an intriguing flavour profile. Beautifully light, the cake was topped with a with a five spice cream which made it seem even more indulgent. The Choux Pastry with Chocolate & Orange Ganache was rich with a lovely citrus kick due to the inclusion of orange-flavoured liqueur in the ganache.
After a brief hiatus during which our teas were replenished we concluded our leisurely afternoon tea with the Selection of Scones served with Raspberry Jam & Clotted Cream. The mini, bite-sized scones were full of plump dried fruit including sultanas and dried cranberries which I thought was a nice variation on a classic scone. Sweet with a lovely short texture we loaded them with the clotted cream and raspberry jam and slowly savoured every mouthful, not wanting our idyllic afternoon tea to come to an end.
At €24.50 per person (Monday to Friday) and €29.50 (on Saturdays and Sundays) I think that the afternoon tea is well-priced. I loved the relaxed ambiance in Carton House and would have no hesitation in recommending the afternoon tea as the whole experience was wonderful. The food was well-presented and delicious to eat. Service was friendly, attentive and delivered in a professional manner. This was an afternoon tea to remember.
I’m simply someone who loves cooking and experimenting with food and different ingredients. From my early childhood spent in Zambia and Australia before returning home to Ireland I was fascinated with cookbooks and reading recipes. I would spend many hours reading my grandmother’s cookbooks and watching her preparing food in the kitchen.
Although I studied to become a graphic designer and spent a few years working in advertising before then becoming a civil servant, the one thing I always wanted to be was a food writer – sharing my enthusiasm for cooking with others, but I lacked the confidence to do the thing I wanted to do most in case I failed. I finally decided to take a risk and applied for MasterChef Ireland 2014 and was one of the three finalists.
For me, food and cooking is about family, friendship, sharing and conviviality. As a mother of three, I want my children to grow up with a love and appreciation of how lucky we are to live in a country like Ireland with such great produce and so many wonderful food producers. I continue to write and share my enthusiasm for food on my food and recipe blog The Game Bird Food Chronicles.