Food-lovers from all over the country plan journeys around a visit to Peter and Mary Ward’s unique shop in Nenagh.
Old hands head for the little café at the back first, fortifying themselves with simple home-cooked food that reflects a policy of seasonality - if the range is small at a particular time of year, so be it.
Meats, milk, cream, eggs, butter and flour: “The economy of Tipperary is agricultural and we intend to demonstrate this with a finished product of tantalising smells and tastes.” Specialities developed over the years include Cashel Blue and broccoli soup served with their magnificent breads savoury and sweet pastry dishes and tender, gently-cooked meat dishes like Irish stew and Hereford beef (from their own farm) and Guinness casserole.
The shop carries a very wide range of the finest Irish artisan produce, plus a smaller selection of specialist products from further afield, such as olive oil and a range of superb dried and glacé fruits that are in great demand for Christmas baking.
Specialities that make this place so special include a great terrine, made from the family’s saddleback pigs; the preserves - jam (Mary Ward makes 12,000 pots a year!) and home-made marmalade, based on oranges left to caramelise in the Aga overnight, producing a runny but richly flavoured preserve; then there is Peter’s passion for cheese.
He is one of the country’s best suppliers of Irish farmhouse cheeses, which he minds like babies as they ripen and, unlike most shops, only puts on display when they are mature: do not leave without buying cheese. As well as all this, they run regular art exhibitions in the shop, as well as wine courses and poetry readings. By arrangement, groups visiting Country Choice can even experience a full Tipperary artisan food lunch, accompanied by a talk by Peter on the history of Irish food.
Peter and Mary Ward's iconic food business is much more than the sum of this delightful shop and café's parts. In addition to Mary being one of Ireland's most prolific cooks, Peter is one of the most energetic and dedicated movers and shakers in the wonderful world of artisan foods.
In recent years, their daughters Eliza and Evie have been involved in the business and running offshoots - Evie's NutShed at Limerick Milk Market and taking Country Choice ‘on Tour’ for the summer months, which they do jointly, attending regional and national events and festivals, notably Electric Picnic. Their flash fried Tipperary Hereford grass fed beef on Ciabatta has become legendary at events and, since 2013, Eliza has teamed up with the sustainable collective Cultivate, aiming "to creatively bring glut vegetables and the lesser loved grown ingredients to the forefront of the Irish festival food circuit".
The Wards are also keen supporters of A Taste of Lough Derg (www.atasteofloughderg.ie), a series of over 30 food events taking place in villages and towns along the shores of Lough Derg in counties Clare, Galway and Tipperary, from May until late September each year.
The shop is a treasure trove of the very best foods from Ireland and abroad, so food lovers in the know plan their itineraries with care to take in a light meal and a little serious shopping here.
Definitely worth an extensive detour.