A Labour of Love and Legacy – Meet the People Behind Burtown House
Burtown House & Gardens in Kildare is postcard pretty. The Georgian villa was originally built for the Quaker Robert Power back in 1710 and has been passed down to the Fennel family. More recently it has been lived in by three generations of the Fennel family. Lesley Fennel has lived at Burtown House for 40 years and oversees the planting and running of the gardens.
Surrounded by picturesque gardens, lush woodland and scenic walks, as well as a walled organic vegetable garden it is a little oasis of calm.
Today Lesley’s son James is heavily involved in Burtown House and when James met his wife Joanna, she too joined in to run the historic house, where they now live with their three children Bella, Mimi and William.
James’ grandmother Wendy Walsh, was one of Ireland’s most prominent botanical artists. She has illustrated numerous botanical books and worked with Dr.E.Charles Nelson who formerly worked at the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin.
Talking to James he tells me about his and Joanna’s efforts in making Burtown House the venue it is today saying, “it’s been very much a ‘we’ project”. The accommodation, for example, took the pair two years to decorate, which they both played a crucial role in.
The Stable Yard, as it is called, originally facilitated families living in the house, as well as the carriages and horses. The guest house has a unique homely feel that is full of character, and personalised touches from James and Joanna themselves. In fact, the Fennel family love the home so much they even holiday in it.
Guests at the Stable Yard have 24/7 access to the gardens, where it feels like a home away from home, where you can wander through the beautiful grounds and unwind in your own private space.
James is a photographer by trade and has produced 25 books mostly on interiors as well as lifestyle, food and hotels. He has worked with major names such as Elle Décor and House & Garden. In between photography trips, James was regularly returning to Burtown House to help with the day to day running. About three years ago he decided to give up the frequent flyer lifestyle and take a step back from photography and reside at Burtown House full time.
They began to offer food in a small café, with Joanna at the helm, making culinary delights for guests, using her natural sense of flavours to guide her. This then became what is now known as The Green Barn.
Although she’s not a trained chef she is a natural genius at flavour combinations and just a brilliant cook”
As time went on James installed the idea that they would not buy any outside produce for the kitchen and instead, would use everything from the garden and that it would be completely seasonal.
They started off by omitting any produce that wasn’t in season from the menu until they were harvesting it themselves from their garden. They then pushed it further and committed to not buying in any outside produce at all, and the current chefs at The Green Barn have to work purely from the kitchen garden
If there’s a shortage of broccoli and that happens to be on the dish they just have to improvise and use an alternative from the garden”
The ethos here is to work with the nature around them, letting the seasons influence the menu. The Green Barn is 98% self-sufficient, “we’re spoilt with produce”, James tells me. Items like potatoes are bought in purely because the quantity grown at Burtown House couldn’t feed the 500 or so people they cater for each week.
When it comes to Burtown House’s knowledge of home-grown and organic, it’s evident that they are au fait with fresh, with James ensuring me they “can tell the difference”.
I grew up with an organic kitchen garden and eating directly from there”
It’s no easy feat to be so self-sufficient, and James tells me that although some restaurants are working seasonally, most restaurants are not. He cites Ballymaloe and Chapter One as two kitchens, who like Burtown House, are working with the seasons and fresh produce.
The ethos at Burtown House is to work with fresh seasonal produce that is mostly used the same day it is picked from the gardens. “The chefs let the produce be the strength in what they’re doing”, James tells me. ” It’s all about flavour combinations, it’s not about doing vast amounts of food”.
Head Chef Phil Coyle works closely with Head Gardener and Grower Dermot Casey when creating the menus. Coyle has previously worked in some of the countries finest kitchen including L’Ecrivain, The Cliff House in Ardmore and The K Club. James tells me they spent a long time looking for a chef that wouldn’t have a giant ego, which is understandable, to work at Burton House you need to be passionate about respecting the nature surrounding you, as well as the people.
“No egos in our kitchen, everybody has to be mellow” James explains. It seems the great level of care put into the produce at Burtown House mirrors how they treat their staff, James and Joanna don’t like to overwork people.
A recent addition to Burtown House is a new shop, aptly named ‘Jojo’s Corner’. This culinary corner sells fresh cheese, pesto and dips, infused oils, homemade granola made by Jo herself, freshly baked bread and next year all of the produce grown in the garden will be on sale also. Working closely with Toonsbridge Dairy and The Real Olive Co they are passionate about Irish produce and suppliers, and they source their beef from Wild Atlantic Food.
Considering Burtown House is almost completely self-sufficient it’s no wonder that they are very careful about which producers they work with. For example, the suppliers for the poultry tend to change as it’s not always so easy to get organic, but will only choose those producing free-range and organic poultry.
So much effort has been put into using the produce in various ways, showcasing its natural beauty, “The produce is used at every different stage of its life”, James informs me. While you’re nibbling away on tender asparagus it may also be garnishing the tables. All the flowers decorating the house are directly from the kitchen garden.
Lately, James is stepping away from the restaurant and letting manager Chris hold the reins. James is focusing more on Burtown House’s YouTube channel and producing video content about daily life at this historic house. Creating videos highlighting the food production and the kitchen garden, he is currently working on a new filmed based around the people working at Burtown House. “I’ve always wanted to make films,” James admits.
We’re not trained restaurateurs but we got ourselves into the deep end, we purposely did that so we would understand how to run a restaurant”
Burtown House hosts a wide range of events such as private parties and weddings, and with such a stunning backdrop it’s easy to see why. This October, chef and author, Gill Meller, will be launching his new book ‘Time’ at the restaurant. Previously Gill has been a guest chef to The Green Barn and returns for his fourth feast to cook seven dishes from the new book.
Art also plays a huge part at Burtown House, which has been influenced greatly by Wendy Walsh and Lesley Fennel. James praises his grandmother saying she was “a bit of a legacy in botanical painting”, as well as his mother who he tells me “is a fantastic artist with oils”.
This coming September, an exhibition called Art in the Garden will take place in Burtown House. This project was started by Seamus O’Brien who runs Kilmacurragh, whom James describes as a “phenomenal gardener and writer”. The exhibition moves around every two years and has now come to Burtown House bringing with it paintings, sculptures and photography.
Speaking to James and hearing him talk about Burtown House it is clear that he, Joanna and the entire team are passionate about the whole experience offered at Burtown House.
Recently they have created a walkway through the kitchen garden where guests are encouraged to view the beautiful produce themselves, inviting guests to see the farm to fork way of life. I think this shows the transparency and wonderful uniqueness of Burtown House, they have created something truly special which they want to share with their guests.
When I ask James what the future holds for Burtown House, it seems the sky is the limit. They have plans to create log cabins on the grounds and ultimately create a sort of nature reserve, a place where you can leave the hustle and bustle behind and savour a slower more grounded lifestyle. It’s clear to me that if Burtown House stays true to their ethos and values they will have a little corner of Kildare that is simply magical.
Sinéad is a Culinary Arts graduate from DIT. She is a passionate cook with a love of fine dining and modern Irish cuisine. A gin lover, Sinéad loves seeking out cosy new pubs and sampling a variety of craft beers.
If she’s not dining out, Sinéad loves travelling the world exploring new cultures and cuisines. Working with TheTaste allows Sinéad to fully immerse herself in the Irish food industry.