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Ireland’s Leading Independent Food & Hospitality Guide
‘Seasonal and local’ have become bywords for good food in Ireland - but what about our flowers? Most hotels and restaurants depend on imports for their floral decorations, yet simpler home grown and local flowers used in season have so much more charm - and can save a lot of money. There must be business opportunities for growers (like many in the UK) to tune in to the public demand for locally grown produce of all kinds, edible and otherwise, and offer alternatives to imported shop flowers. These are a few of the examples we’ve been enjoying on our travels - some are country houses making the most of their large gardens, but in smaller places beauty can come in a couple of blooms in a jam jar, or a bunch of wild flowers picked on a woodland walk.
Mount Falcon Estate
Ballina, Co Mayo
Once a romantic family home - previous owner, Major Robert Aldridge, was a keen archaeologist who helped to discover the nearby Céidhe Fields - Mount Falcon is now a luxury hotel, owned by the Maloney brothers, with private salmon fishing on the River Moy and fine dining in an atmospheric room that was once the old kitchen and pantry of this historic house. The extensive grounds have been redeveloped and landscaped to incorporate lakeside and woodland walks, and also impressive kitchen gardens where guests are welcome by appointment. Alex Lavarde is Head Gardener and his brief was not only to supply the Kitchen Restaurant with organically grown vegetables but also to assist their in-house florist, Grace, to cut down on imported flowers and other flower arranging components. Now in their third year, the kitchen gardens are expanding each season - a source of pleasure to returning guests who can see them from the driveway on arrival - and Alex plans with Grace what to grow for the following year. This year’s harvest includes daffodils, marigolds, poppies, sweat peas, roses, lavender, bergamot, ferns and pines, which Grace uses not only for floral displays but also for pot pourris in the bedrooms. Alex also grows the various herbal teas offered on tea menus - and, aside from the satisfaction of using homegrown seasonal flowers and tisanes, and the pleasure for guests, reducing bought-in/imported flowers produces huge financial savings for the hotel - and the amount saved is increasing every year.
The Mustard Seed
Ballingarry, Co Limerick
Having been established in Adare by the original owner, Dan Mullane, in 1985, The Mustard Seed later moved just ten minutes drive away to this welcoming Victorian country house, and is now in the very safe hands of the former manager, John Edward Joyce. The house is set on seven acres of lovely gardens, including the organic kitchen garden and orchard that supply seasonal produce to an outstanding kitchen. It’s a one-off place, offering exceptional warmth and personal service - and one of the ways that this outstanding hospitality is expressed is through the use of flowers from the garden, which are carefully selected to complement the local seasonal food that the restaurant is famous for, and as a living extension to the décor throughout the house, including the accommodation. And, while flowers on the dinner table are very much a part of the evening, coming down to breakfast is also a special experience at The Mustard Seed, to see what fresh visual treat is awaiting on your table.
Fermoy Co Cork
Ballyovolane is one of Ireland’s best loved country houses and the current custodians of this gracious mansion, Justin and Jenny Green, have a deep rooted respect for its traditions - yet also a strong creative streak which has seen the development of some very interesting ideas, including one of the country’s most atmospheric wedding venues and the introduction of stylish glamping accommodation in bell tents and arcs (posh pig arcs!) dotted around the gardens. And then, of course, there’s Bertha’s Revenge - Ireland’s first whey-based gin… The house is surrounded by its own farmland, magnificent wooded grounds, a trout lake and salmon beats on the River Blackwater. Justin's father, Jeremy, cares for the gardens and woodland and, although terraced gardens and a walled kitchen garden give formal structure, the overall feeling is of informality - and that’s the tone that is brought in from the garden with the flowers and greenery in season that are so much apart of the house. Used naturally, without being arranged too much, they’re a quiet reminder of the family’s genuine and unshowy style.
Burtown House, Gallery Café & Gardens
Athy Co Kildare
A visit to the Fennell family's early Georgian property is one of the most rewarding days out to be found anywhere in Ireland; the beautiful gardens, woodland and artworks feed the soul - and, thanks to fresh seasonal produce from the organic walled garden, a holistic local food policy and very good, simple cooking, the body will be exceptionally well fed too. Not surprisingly, considering the simple deliciousness of the food and the natural charm with which everything at Burtown is done, it quickly became a food destination. It still offers the original teas, delicious home bakes and moreish salads that first delighted garden visitors, and the offering is very seasonal, but the choice is now much wider, with sourdough pizzas and flatbreads, and the Burtown organic beef burger now established favourites. But there is even more to Burtown House than wonderful gardens and great food. The Gallery features work by talented family members including the late Wendy Walsh, one of Ireland’s foremost botanical artists, and her photographer son James Fennell (think Vanishing Ireland), among others; the love of flowers that they all share spills out everywhere, especially in the café and surroundings areas where the scent of sweet peas and geraniums mingles hauntingly with the aroma of good food.
Dungarvan, Co Waterford
For nearly two decades, discerning diners from all over Ireland (and beyond) have been making a beeline for Paul and Maire Flynn's stylish contemporary restaurant in Dungarvan. Paul is a talented chef with a gift for understatement and TV fame in recent years has not changed him or his cooking: his menus are wonderfully simple yet, paradoxically, the food tastes very exciting. ‘Local and seasonal’ were bywords here long before it became the focus of national attention and The Tannery has always been known for using the best local ingredients to produce delicious eclectic fare with a strong Irish slant. Yet, while it is mainly the exceptional cooking that makes it a place of pilgrimage for many, it’s not all about the food - the setting, with its many visual cues to back up the food philosophy, contributes enormously to making this a standout experience. The building itself, and its artworks, recall Dungarvan’s commercial and social history - and the generous use of beautiful, seasonal flowers underlines the value of simplicity that is so central to the Flynns’ ethos.
Mallow, Co Cork
The river, farm and garden supply virtually all the fresh produce for William O'Callaghan's kitchen at this handsome 18th century house, and also the ingredients for the artisan products he makes for sale, including delicious Longueville House Cider and Longueville House Apple Brandy, both of which are totally natural products made only with the heirloom apples grown in their own orchards. The wonderfully productive estate, the beautiful, traditionally furnished house and its romantic history (“the history of Ireland in miniature’) makes for a pretty potent package yet this luxurious destination is a surprisingly relaxing place to stay. A wander around the grounds explains all, however, as you will find an unpretentious work in progress, with surprises around every corner - ducks tucked away behind the vines down near the canal walk perhaps, and who knows you may also come across the pigs. Then there is the large walled garden, where polytunnels are bursting with tomatoes and other tender produce, trees and bushes are weighed down with various fruits and berries - and, tellingly, rows of vegetables alternate with cutting flowers for the house and restaurant. A very hands-on place, where seasonality for all produce, whether edible ornamental, is a matter of course.
Nenagh, Co Tipperary
Food lovers plan their journeys across Ireland with care to take in a light meal of simple, seasonal, home-cooked food and a little serious shopping at Country Choice, Peter and Mary Ward’s treasure trove of the very best foods from Ireland and abroad. Local, seasonal fresh foods reflect the agricultural economy of Tipperary, and Peter's cheeses are legendary. Mary, an exceptional cook, quietly produces magnificent terrines from the family's saddleback pigs, thousands of jars of jam in season and untold numbers of handmade Christmas puddings - and Peter is one of the most energetic and dedicated movers and shakers in the wonderful world of artisan foods. Daughters Eliza and Evie now have their own complementary businesses and also take Country Choice ‘on tour’ in summer, attending events and festivals, notably Electric Picnic, selling 'seriously good food in hand, cooked to order straight off the grill'. The Wards are also very involved in 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. So, it will come as no surprise to find that there are no fancy out of season flowers in the café at Country Choice - far from it, a couple of lovely summer-scented sweet peas from the garden do the job perfectly. Definitely worth a detour.
Durrow, Co Laois
Peter and Shelley Stokes’s handsome country house was built on the edge of Durrow village by the Flowers family, later Viscounts Ashbrook, in 1716. Three centuries years later, it retains magnificent period features and is now one of Ireland’s most sought-after hotels, offering comfort and relaxation with style. The large marbled reception area is especially imposing, yet it is not the marble columns or glistening chandelier that linger in the memory, but the ever-present arrangement of fresh flowers that gives such a warmly welcoming impression on arrival. They come from the gardens that supply fresh seasonal produce for the kitchens, and they give enormous pleasure to guests, bringing the house to life and creating a unique atmosphere, especially at the many weddings celebrated at this wonderful venue. On summer evenings, doors open onto the gardens and the scent of roses fills the air - there is a whole garden room filled with hundreds of David Austin roses, famed for their scent. Candles are lit in the foyer and restaurant at dusk, giving the whole area a lovely romantic feeling. Castle Durrow gardens are a labour of love undertaken by the Stokes family in 2000 and, although now mature, they remain a work in progress.
Rathnew Co Wicklow
Set in lovely gardens alongside the River Vartry, this much-loved hotel is one of Ireland’s oldest coaching inns. It's run by fifth generation brothers, Richard and Tom Gelletlie, who offer old-fashioned comfort and food based on local and home-grown produce. There’s a proper little bar and a traditional dining room overlooking the beautiful garden where their famous afternoon tea is served in summer. The planting is mixed, with a stunning herbaceous border the high point in mid summer - famous for its poppies, it borders lawns that run down to the river and makes a wonderful backdrop for anything from the full afternoon tea to a post-prandial drink. The cottage garden atmosphere permeates throughout the old building and its immaculately maintained yard (the car park) and outbuildings. There is also a large kitchen garden, complete with a scarecrow or two, that produces a significant amount of seasonal fruit and vegetables for the kitchen - including some unusual ones, such as blueberries and dozens of huge orange pumpkins come October - and fresh flowers too. The flowers find their way onto every available surface - the dining room tables, of course, also mantle pieces, side tables and even the tops of individual cisterns in the ladies. It is totally charming and there’s nowhere else in Ireland like it.
Shanagarry, Co Cork
Summing up everything that is naturally stylish about an Irish country house, Ballymaloe has evolved organically over the years, as most homes do. There’s always something being done up, and some new project in the making, but basically it doesn’t change too much - and that is especially true of the gardening philosophy and the way that flowers are used around the house. Guests strolling around the huge walled garden will be struck by the way that fruit, vegetables and flowers grow artlessly together in the section nearer the house, giving way to a more business like productive area at the far end where visitors are less likely to venture. This casual mixture is very charming and there is no shortage of flowers for house florist Iona Murray and her assistants to arrange with varying degrees of formality for use all around the house and restaurants. Iona gives flower arranging courses (mid summer and spring), mainly using wild and garden flowers, and she is one of several experts on the staff who get together in early September for The Ballymaloe Garden Festival. And, should there be any doubt about the importance of flowers at Ballymaloe, there was a reminder on top of the delicious birthday cake made by pastry chef JR Ryall to mark Euro-Toques Ireland’s 30th Birthday: it was decorated with 'Sweet Ballymaloe' roses - the rose named after and presented to Mrs Allen in 1996 to thank her for her efforts in strengthening the Euro-Toques organisation during her presidency from 1993 to 1996.