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GO STAY: Ballymaloe House Hotel

GO STAY: Ballymaloe House Hotel

Recently, we had the chance to stay at Ballymaloe House Hotel as part of a small family holiday. We stayed overnight with our six-year-old and almost two-year-old in tow. Now, as school has started back again, we have had a moment to look back and reflect on our short visit there.  Once a ground breaking hotel, and recognised by many as the birthplace of Modern Irish Cuisine, what is the role of Ballymaloe House Hotel today?

 

 

If you have lived in Ireland for an amount of time and have an interest in Irish food culture, chances are you probably already know about Ballymaloe House and the Ballymaloe Cookery School .

But, for those of you who are unfamiliar with all things Ballymaloe, here’s a quick potted history to catch you up... Ballymaloe House is a family-run Country House Hotel and restaurant on 300 acres of farmland in East Cork,Ireland.

Ballymaloe House and Farm has been in the Allen family since1948. Initially, the farm was a success producing milk, butter, cream, eggs, home-raised pork and veal as well as fruit and vegetables and Myrtle and Ivan Allen raised their children at the house. Over time Myrtle became highly knowledgeable about cooking their produce and began writing a cookery column in the Irish Farmers Journal.

In 1964, Myrtle decided to open Ballymaloe as a restaurant. "On a winter's day I sat by the fire alone and wondered what I would do in this big house when they were all grown up - Then I thought about a restaurant.”

 

 

“On a winter’s day I sat by the fire alone and wondered what I would do in this big house when they were all grown up? Then I thought about a restaurant.”

— Myrtle Allen

 

From the outset, Myrtle’s aim was to emulate the best Irish Country House cookery, and with the help of two local women, she began. They cooked using their own produce- unpasteurized milk and cream, veal, pork, homemade sausages, and black puddings, herbs, fruit, and vegetables. Fresh catch was brought each day from Ballycotton and meats came from the local butcher

 

 

 

“Today the ethos of Ballymaloe remains a simple farm-to-fork philosophy. ”

 

The Ballymaloe Menu is based on the food from their own farms or producers in the locality. Local farms supply them with poultry, ducks, geese, guinea fowl, chickens and turkeys. They keep their own free-range hens for fresh eggs and have their our own free-range pigs on the farm. All of their lamb and beef is grass-fed, and reared on neighbouring farms. Their pork and poultry is locally produced, non-intensive, free range, or organic.t

Today all of this sounds quite familiar and maybe even expected. But when writing about Ballymaloe it is important to emphasise that at the time Ballymaloe House was first opened, there really was no “Irish restaurant scene”. There was a handful of French-inspired restaurants and a very low level of self-confidence in Irish produce.

Darina Allen (daughter-in-law of Myrtle Allen and founder of the celebrated Ballymaloe Cookery School) recalls her first visit to Ballymaloe House Hotel

“I had heard that there was a farmer’s wife running a restaurant in her house, serving Irish food and writing the menu every day depending on what was in the garden, and you can’t imagine how revolutionary all of that was at the time”.

 

 

“I had heard that there was a farmer’s wife running a restaurant in her house, serving Irish food and writing the menu every day depending on what was in the garden, and you can’t imagine how revolutionary all of that was at the time”.

— Darina Allen

 

Today Ballymaloe is recognised most of all for what it has achieved in all those years of hospitality, in creating a richer deeper culture of food in Ireland and for helping people in Ireland appreciate the quality and traditions of what is produced on this island. 

 

 

“I am also reminded of the long legacy of Ballymaloe as an insitution in Irish life, and for how long Ballymaloe has been an original “influencer” in Irish culture.”

 

In late August we had spent a few days in Waterford and Cork and decided to complete our little family adventure, and the summer holidays, with a treat, a stay in Ballymaloe House Hotel.

As we drive towards the hotel I chat with my cousin by phone (I’m not driving!). We are chatting about back to school preparations. Before we conclude I mention excitedly that we are all on our way to stay in Ballymaloe House for the night. “Oh lovely!”, she texts back immediately. “I’ve never been but I want to go” Then she follows up... “Whenever I think of Ballymaloe it always reminded me of [our} granny”. 

I smile at the happy memories of our shared grandmother. I realise it is now almost 20 years since she has died. I am also reminded of the long legacy of Ballymaloe as an insitution in Irish life, and for how long Ballymaloe has been an original “influencer” in Irish culture.    

 

 

 

We arrive and check in at Ballymaloe. We take up the offer of scones and cake on the patio off our room. Then, we decide to go exploring. Relaxing and playing together in the outdoor heated pool before our dinner I realise that this is the perfect way to end the summer holidays. 

 

 

At this point I should say something about staying in ‘fancy hotels’ with children. While this is not a country house hotel specifically geared towards young children there are gentle indicators that children are welcome - there is a slide, a sandpit, a tennis court and an outdoor swimming pool. But most of all we get the feeling that this is a place that very much accepts you as you are. 

Later in the dining room we share the space with a retired couple, a family gathering to celebrate a grandparents wedding anniversary, there are also guests arriving in advance of a wedding the next day, a young couple and a group of old school friends on a night away. 


Knowing that the children would be tired we made the earliest booking for the restaurant (a five course dinner!) and were never made to feel apologetic and awkward for having such young children with us in the dining room.  At our own request we have our desserts in an adjoining sitting room (to spare the diners from the increasingly happy but demanding toddler) and the staff kindly obliged. And… the dessert trolley at Ballymaloe is a highlight of any dinner there. It is not to be missed. Much fabled, it did not disappoint.

 

 

 

The following morning, with a rested toddler in tow, we enjoy the most delicious breakfast - there is the option of a cooked breakfast, and best of all is the buffet. There are bowls of homemade granola, freshly baked breads, poached plums, delicately spiced pears, fresh blackberry and apple compote - flavours of the last days of Summer, which we are still dreaming about and trying to recreate now at home.

 

 

After breakfast, and of course another swim, we take a long, slow, family stroll around the wider grounds of Ballymaloe taking some time to put together all the many pieces of this place. We see walls of pears and damson plugs growing - the same pears and plums we had the just enjoyed in our breakfast buffet.  We visit the hens, sheep and pigs. We nibble on herbs and gathered some windfallen apples to crunch into before setting off home. 

 

 

 

“This is still a place that has a message to share, inspiration to offer and something to teach. ”

 

A few days later, back at home in Mayo, we are discussing our mini holiday with a friend who is very familiar with Ballymaloe and has stayed there previously. “Oh”  he commented - “Ballymaloe - yes it’s lovely, but one of the things I think is that there is all this fuss (and price) and then you sit down and the dinner is not that different to something that you might have at home”. “Hmm yes”, I respond “it is a bit I suppose”. 

And I have been thinking about his comment for some time now. Turning it over and back in my head. Is this observation an insult to the food or a compliment- ‘like something that you would have at home”. Why is that we “dine out”? What is that we wanted from a hotel break? 

And my mind comes back to that very early, then revolutionary, starting point of Myrtle Allen. Her aim was to emulate the best Irish Country House cookery and to cook using their own farm produce. Perhaps to serve you an elevated version of what you might have at home is exactly the point of Ballymaloe I pondered.  Particularly at a time when there was such low levels of confidence in Irish food - this idea was revolutionary.

There is no showmanship, instead, there is a relaxed, quiet, atmosphere and a focus on good, simple local ingredients. Yes, this is not somewhere that is cutting edge today. But it is still a place that very much has a message to share, inspiration to offer and something to teach. 

 

 

“Everything, all of it”

 

This morning over breakfast, I asked our 6year old what was her favourite thing about Ballymaloe. (I fully expected her to say ‘the outdoor heated swimming pool!”) Her answer? “Everything, all of it”, while throwing her hands in the air. And, I think she is right. 

The best thing about a stay at Ballymaloe is the sum of its parts and the chance to experience how all these parts play into one another, the gesamtkunstwerk… The warm hospitality, the kind and helpful, but never in your face manner of all the staff (a big deal when you are the parents with the happy but rowdy toddler), the dessert trolley, the gardens, the farm, the animals, the swimming pool, the cosy room with traditional Irish musicians playing and telling stories in the drawing room at sunset, seeing vegetables growing in the grounds and later enjoying those vegetables as part of your dinner in the dining room, absorbing their simple “farm to table” celebration of local food as it is played out before your eyes. 

And perhaps one of the big successes of the founders of Ballymaloe, and all the successive generations that have worked here, is that none of this feels as remarkable as it once did. 

We came home inspired. 

 

 

Last weekend we went blackberry picking with our children and a friend. We picked from the hedgerows by our house and gathered fallen apples from our old tree. In my childhood, my father had always made a family tradition of making blackberry jam and I am always eager to maintain the tradition. But this time we tried a new recipe - Blackberry and Apple Jam with Sweet Geranium Leaves - a Ballymaloe recipe.

As I stir the boiling jam a delicious waft rises in the room. The addition of sweet geranium leaves has added something unexpected and elevates the flavour. In that moment I recall that my grandmother (the original blackberry jam maker in the family) always had a pot of sweet geraniums in her front porch. I think that perhaps she knew and cooked this Ballymaloe recipe too.

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Next up on our inspiration board? Our six-year-old and I now are wondering now if our dessert making will vastly improve if we invest in a trolley to serve them on. We’ll keep you updated.

 

NOTES:

Ballymaloe House Hotel

Ballymaloe Cookery School

On the influence of Ballymaloe on younger generations in Ireland’s food culture: https://www.neighbourfood.ie/podcast

These reviewers stayed in the same room as we did: https://www.thetaste.ie/beguiled-beauty-nourished-bounty-ballymaloe-house-review/

The Ballymaloe Lit Fest: https://www.davidlebovitz.com/kerrygold-ballymaloe-literary-festival-of-food-wine-cork-ireland/

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