Growing up in the archetypal Irish family home in the 1970s, I despised most food that wasn’t from our favourite fish and chip shop (Fridays only, of course). Back at our house, meats were incinerated, Brussels sprouts were put on to simmer before we left for Sunday mass and colcannon was a spoonful of cabbage-and-mash misery on the side of everything. Irish cooking has come a long way since then. When I visited the south east of the country recently, I found dining that is gaining ground on the best of Europe, and a hunger from the locals to get hands-on in the kitchen for pleasure, not obligation.
“I get my herbs from McDonald’s,” he says, mid-stir of crème brulee mix
Most foodies have heard of the Michelin starred Cliff House on the Waterford coast, but more interesting (and with infinitely less tortured food) is the multi-award winning Tannery in a pretty little seaside town half an hour to the north. Run by celebrity chef Paul Flynn and his wife Máire, this extraordinarily charming couple have taken the kind of food that the Irish eat every day – meat and potatoes – and elevated it to perfection. Flynn’s slow cooked beef rib in smoked Bourguignon sells out nightly, and the crab crème brulee has been on the menu since they opened in 1997 (“we daren’t take it off!” says Máire). The latter is also a dish you can learn to make at one of the classes in the state-of-the-art kitchen at the Tannery Cookery School – a high-tech annex to their restaurant, right across the street, along with the Tannery Townhouse.
“We’re going to make a risotto today,” says Paul, chopping onions as I settle down in the front row of an audience of around 30 people. “But not an Irish risotto. It won’t be a mound of sticky rise with a piece of chicken on top. And I’m not going to tell you that you need a €12 bottle of olive oil to cook with. I like to show people how to cook with what you have, or want to spend.”
Paul is the perfect raconteur as well as cook: “I get my herbs from McDonald’s,” he says, mid-stir of crème brulee mix. “I go in for a coffee every week, read the paper, then plunder the rosemary bush they have growing wild out the back.”
A day at the Tannery Cookery School is as social as educational. There are practical and advanced masterclasses, where you don your apron and get messy. There are breadmaking days, and others devoted to seafood, French and Italian cooking. On the largely demo-style “Cooking for Friends” course that I took, everything was a one-pot dish, and it culminated in everyone gathering at the table to eat what was cooked, with plenty of wine. We swapped our favourite tips of the day: “use a teaspoon to peel ginger”; “use the stalk of coriander and basil as it has the most flavour”; “add honey to tomato dishes to give roundness and depth”, and “never, ever used dried bay leaves”.
The Flynns are cheerleaders for the local food scene – they take part in the annual West Waterford Festival of Food that takes place in town, and after a couple of days at the Tannery I left with a list of key recommendations: Try the Black Rock Irish South by local craft beer makers the Dungarven Brewing Company was one, and “go to Ballyvolane House!” was the other.
If the Tannery townhouse feels like it could be a boutique hotel in any European city – with pale paintwork, beach-house wooden shutters on the windows, perfect white linen and wall mounted televisions to maximise space – then Ballyvolane House in Cork, less than an hour away, is as rural as can be.
Two of the Flynns best friends, Justin & Jenny Green, run this vast Georgian country pile, originally Justin’s family residence and now one of Ireland’s most in-demand wedding venues and weekend escapes. It’s grand, but not too “done”. There might be a cobweb here and there on a chandelier or behind a stag’s head. It still feels homely, with antique bathtubs en suite (no shower heads – you use a jug), a wireless in every bedroom, and drawing rooms with sofas that you could spend an eternity on, or at least the best part of a long weekend, while staring into a variety of open fires or reading the Irish cookbooks from the library. There’s a ton of richly ornate and weathered rugs, pianos, candles and crystal. There’s also the option to “glamp” from May to September in bell tents behind the house, with luxe mattresses and proper bed linen.
“We’re working on some of the outside buildings,” explains Justin, showing me around the rambling, pretty gardens and crumbling outhouses. “We’re expanding our distillery.”
The pre-dinner martini at Ballyvolane is a lovely thing: made with elderflower cordial, lemon juice, frozen blackberries and sloe and regular gin, both from Ballyvolane’s own still, recently branded “Bertha’s Revenge”. It’s made using whey from local dairy farmers, and a mix of locally foraged and grown botanicals. It’s literally a taste of the Irish countryside and one of the most delicious gins I’ve ever come across. And when we finally sat down for dinner – family style – I was thrilled to see another crab crème brulee appear as a starter. Just like the one I’d had the night before. Of course, I was especially happy, because I was going home with the recipe. C
The Tannery, 10 Quay Street, Dungarven, Ireland
00 353 58 45420; tannery.ie
Ballyvolane House, Castleyons, Near Femroy
00 353 25 36349; ballyvolanehouse.ie