Inch House has stood proudly in Nenagh, Co. Tipperary since the early 18th century when John Ryan built it. His lands then were considerably larger than the 300 acre plot that John and Nora Egan purchased in 1985 but after nearly 300 years in the same family, it’s probably not surprising that the Ryans sold off bits and pieces along the way.
The centre of it all is the Georgian mansion where the Egan family run a modest guesthouse with five bedrooms, an award winning restaurant and is also the base for their Inch House Pudding production. It’s all hands on deck for the family as father and son John and Joe farm the land while daughter Máirín looks after front of house and mother Nora keeps a ‘watchful eye’ over it all. There are currently four generations of Egans living in the magnificent house.
The building that you see today is a world away from the house that the Egans initially bought in 1985. The renovation and refurbishment was a huge project, it took a long time before they could move in with their eight children and it wasn’t fully completed for nearly ten years. Máirín says friends and family had concerns about the project from the start. “They thought my parents were crackers in the head for actually buying this big old wreck of a house but they fell in love with it and they couldn’t possibly not live in it.”
The timing of their decision couldn’t have been better as the house would have fallen into irreversible ruin within a short space of time without their tlc. John and Nora saw more potential in the building than a family home and wanted to open it up to others. Because of her nursing background, the Egans flirted with the idea of a nursing home before a HSE representative put paid to that idea when he mentioned covering up the beautiful ceilings and installing a mechanical chair lift on the old Irish oak staircase.
The establishment of Inch House as a B&B in 1989 happened ‘accidentally’ Máirín claims; raising and feeding eight children gave Nora all the experience she needed. When they added the restaurant in 1994, the local trade gave the Egans the cash flow required to finish the extensive work on the house. The restaurant now brings in most of their regular business and is headed up by chef John Barry who has been at Inch House for eleven years. “He started as a commi chef and moved up. He’s been head chef for nearly four years now. He’s a great guy and he works hard but he enjoys what he does and is very proud of it and what he has achieved so far.”
John is certainly kept busy as, on top of his restaurant duties, he looks after the weddings at Inch House too. Their limited size provides an intimate atmosphere, they can only accommodate 50 guests, and the authentic Georgian house lends an old Irish romance to proceedings. According to Máirín, they are inundated with weddings throughout the season but especially around Christmas time.
Outside of weddings, Inch House relies on local custom in the restaurant and weekend visits from the rest of the country. Besides the great food, guests can enjoy the peaceful tranquility of the Tipperary countryside. “There’s a 10K looped walk on the farm, it’s quite relaxing. It’s just so quiet and peaceful and people love it, they just love getting away from the city. Even for 24 hours a change is everything.”
Nora always ‘had a grá’ for baking and was selling baked goods to local shops before moving to Inch House and supplying the restaurant instead with fresh bread, scones and cakes, which she has been doing now for nearly 30 years. Her Traditional Black Pudding was another culinary offering on the restaurant menu and Máirín says it was Nora’s idea to take it to a wider market in 2009 when the recession hit.
I suppose with the recession things changed so much that we had to just change with it. Mum came up with the idea that we would try it out locally and it just started to grow, slowly but surely. Now, not that we’re ever going to be a nationwide product because we make it with fresh blood, we have grown to a very comfortable amount of production every week that it’s nearly standing on its own two feet. It’s amazing, this specialty product is a business in itself!
The success of the black pudding is undeniably down to the unique family recipe that has been handed down for four generations now. The traditional purpose of making pudding, as it was in Máirín’s great-grandmother’s time, was to use up all parts of a pig; firstly, because the meat would spoil due to a lack of refrigeration and secondly, because people in rural communities couldn’t afford to be throwing away anything that was edible. “That’s just the way country life was, as granny will tell you, they’d use as much as they could and they’d pass some on to neighbours and friends that would then, in turn, give their piece back down the road. They would have used every piece of the pig, there was no waste and that’s how they survived, they used everything they had because they were really isolated and rural.”
The zero waste concept has now come full circle as the Egans make their renowned pudding with the pigs blood from Crowe’s Farm that used to be disposed of as a waste product. Now the families work together to reduce waste and make the most of the animals, Máirín says it makes practical and economic sense to practice this kind of philosophy.
Here I am using a product that was seen to be “waste” and it is now actually making a business for me. It’s amazing when you think about it, how the recession has brought business back around to thinking about waste, managing energy costs. It’s made us rethink our whole business structure here and I’m glad to say it is under control in our premises between waste and energy and production.
Máirín and Nora are restricted though in the amount of pudding they can make by the amount of blood that comes in each week from Crowe’s. This lends their pudding an exclusive kind of reputation. “Whatever I have, I have and I make it and when that’s, it’s gone. We make it two days a week and usually by the end of every week I could count maybe 25 units left in my cold room. Everything is sold, gone, out of the place until next week.”
The success of the Traditional Black Pudding has led to an expansion of the range with a white pudding, a mix of both and a gluten free option available too. All of the Inch House puddings are available in selected SuperValu stores and independent retailers across Ireland and in local shops in Tipperary. Nora also makes a porter cake that retails locally and chef John does a range of seasonal chutneys, dressings and sauces too that sell particularly well at Christmas time wrapped up in gift boxes and hampers. Máirín is evidently proud of the whole range of products and stands over them, “all the stuff we make comes from the kitchen and they’re all things that would be on the menus so they’re very practical, tasty things that match with things on our menu.”
The Egans have been busy lately promoting their range with the Tipperary Food Producers network, a group of local businesses who have come together to promote food in Tipperary and make the county a culinary destination.
Tipperary has so much to offer and so much really good food and people don’t even see it. What we’re trying to do is put Tipperary on the map, that’s what we’re trying to do and it will help everybody, across all business sectors, not just food. It works, like we’re all involved in it together, it’s not so much I against you as you’re my competitor, there are a number of people in the group that are actually on a level with myself and selling the same kind of products but we don’t give a hoot you know.
The group’s efforts are certainly making an impact now that the Local Enterprise Office and County Council are on board. Having recognised the great strides the group was making, vital funding was awarded last year that has allowed the network to arrange events and create marketing strategies with PR agencies. Máirín says there is more power acting as a team and now people are starting to listen to their message.
Besides her work with the Tipperary Food Producers, Máirín and her family will be focusing on growing the events and wedding aspect of Inch House but they have no plans to expand. Their focus for the future will be on their passion, their pudding. “We definitely hope to grow the black pudding side of things over the next 6-12 months, we do have plans to try and push on with that. To be honest with you, it’s not about doing it for money, if I was doing it for money I would have been gone out of it a long time ago. It’s one of these things that you have a passion for. We may be small but we are big at heart.”
Alison has been writing since she could hold a pen, which came in handy for her degree in English, Media and Cultural Studies. She has been working in media since graduating and is the latest features writer for TheTaste.
Writing for TheTaste allows her to combine her passion for the written word with her love of food and drink. Find her on Twitter @AliDalyo