Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Staycation in East Cork: A Night in Ballymaloe House

Disclaimer: This is an independent review - I paid for my accommodation, food and drinks at Ballymaloe House.

I first visited Ballymaloe House when I did the 12 week certificate course in Ballymaloe Cookery School back in 2015. Darina Allen always brings the students for a full visit of the house which ends with afternoon tea. I've only returned once since the course for the brilliant Ballymaloe Litfest (sadly discontinued) and I've always told myself I'd go back with Mr. FFID to stay and eat in this Irish food institution, to celebrate a special occasion...

Well, a sunny weekend in Ireland counts as a special event in my book so I booked a one night stay in Ballymaloe House on an impulse back in June. I went for their ' Lazy Sundays at Ballymaloe House' package which came up to €420 for a night in a superior room, buffet dinner and breakfast for two people. Of course it wasn't cheap but I can honestly tell you that I have no regrets and will cherish memories of that stay forever.

I'm well familiar with the story of Ballymaloe House because I tell it to every single guest of my food tours. They learn about this incredibly inspiring lady called Myrtle Allen who opened a restaurant in her own dining room in Shanagarry, Co. Cork in 1964. I tell them how she pioneered 'farm to fork', became the first woman in Ireland to receive a Michelin star and built an incredible legacy. Sadly just nine days after I had stayed in Ballymaloe House Mrs Allen passed away, I was really saddened to hear the news and so I held off on publishing this article for a few weeks.

All I can say is that Mrs Allen really created a special place that feels like a completely different world from my familiar surroundings of North inner city Dublin, it's like another country even.

Mr. FFID and I don't drive so we took the train to Midleton (via Cork) followed by a taxi ride to outside Shanagarry where stunning Ballymaloe House is located. At that time of the year it looked even more picturesque with the pretty wisteria on the facade.

We checked in the 'yellow room', a bright spacious room with a cosy retro feel (no TV in the bedroom which I thought was brilliant!). There was a little door at the back which opened to a little private terrace overlooking the back of the house.

Ballymaloe House is a beautiful country house with many rooms in which you can sit on a comfy armchair with a good book or a drink (preferably an Irish spirit). The drawing room with the fire place is warm and inviting and the conservatory is a lovely space filled with light and ideal to hang around too.

We were blessed with the weather and while we could have dipped in the outdoor swimming pool we chose to avail of their bikes (no charge) and went for a cycle to Garryvoe Beach... maybe because I knew they had 99s. While cycling through East Cork's countryside I felt somehow transported back to my memories of summers in the Dordogne Valley with the smell of warm grass and the narrow countryside roads. After the cycle we enjoyed walking in the surroundings of the house, the gardens and strolling around the shop as well as buying some cake to take away from the busy tiny café and then sipping a G&T on the terrace.

Our package included the traditional Sunday buffet dinner (€75) which felt like we went back to the 70s, but in a good way. I'd say nothing has really changed since the time Mrs Allen opened the restaurant. The meal starts with a soup and homemade breads and then you go up to the cold buffet where members of the Allen family and some staff serve an array of starters, mains and sides. The wine list features one of the largest selection of organic wines I've ever seen in an Irish restaurant. Foodwise, it's very old school and all about wholesome Irish cooking with items like deviled eggs, homemade terrines, local seafood, roast beef, ox tongue, salads... Later comes the legendary dessert trolley with treats like homemade house ice-cream, tarts, cakes and puddings such as the famous Carrageen Moss pudding (sadly gone by the time the trolley reached me). I've had more creative and sophisticated meals in Dublin restaurants for sure but the experience was certainly unique and memorable. I approached the meal from the perspective that Mrs Allen was ahead of her time serving this kind of food in rural Ireland back in the 60s, so for me it was like experiencing a piece of Irish food history.

Being full to the brim after our meal we had a nightcap by the fire in the drawing room before retiring to our bedroom. Breakfast the next morning was a real highlight and the best breakfast I've had in an Irish hotel with a perfect Irish breakfast and other choices of hot dishes, homemade butter, granola, yoghurt, breads, the best scones in Ireland and more delicious things.

I was sad to leave that little bubble of tranquillity but felt somehow rejuvenated after just 22 hours in the Irish countryside. I wonder if Ballymaloe House appeals more to American tourists than the domestic market nowadays but in my personal experience it made a splendid destination for a speedy staycation.

Ballymaloe House
Co. Cork
Ballymaloe House's website