What’s your idea of heaven? How being greeted on a watercoloured morning by local wildlife in the form of some self-assured deer, before walking an avenue of birdsong towards heavy Castle gates under a halo of golden springtime foliage. And knowing that behind those doors lies a breakfast of Sally Barnes’s plump kippers or O’Flynn’s sweet juicy bacon (or both, as I insisted on having).
Or maybe your idea of heaven is getting lost in the middle of the most beautiful nowhere, on a country boreen twisting through scratchy hedgerows and shining green fields, shading through cool forests and past whispering streams, and finally ending up in a 60-acre farm where a young third-generation farmer metamorphs the cream of his dairy herd’s yield into delicious farmhouse ice-cream?
Thomas Baldwin reckons he could get his cream “from cow to cone in an hour”. We didn’t see him milking his cows but we did see the green green grass they were eating, and in the time it took Thomas to talk us through the process, his co-worker Sarah had whipped up a fresh batch of Bailey’s Ice Cream for us to try. Well, as they say in Waterford. Well. Let’s just say the pairing did the country doubly proud. Gorgeous stuff, as you’d expect from an ice-cream producer who emulsifies fresh raw milk with egg yolk and flavours it with natural quality ingredients such as Madagascan vanilla pods or fresh Irish strawberries in season.
Thomas’s story is a common one for many artisan producers. By the time the farm was coming into his hands, it had gone from the self-sufficient family farm set-up of his grandparents to a modern dairy verging on unsustainability, and it was time to “sink or swim” – or rather to diversify and invest. A scholarship trip to visit Dutch cheese-makers and ice-cream makers introduced Thomas to ways he might add value to his milk, and a Leader grant allowed him to invest in the necessary infrastructure at the farm.
He decided not to go the cheese route – a wise move as his neighbour Eamonn Lonergan has been one of Ireland’s leading farmhouse cheesemakers since the late 1980s. Indeed, Eamonn has insured that the little remote village of Knockanore is a household name for many Irish foodies. It helps that the farms are “in the middle of nowhere but the middle of everywhere”, as Thomas puts it, pointing out that they are just 30 minutes from Cork’s Jack Lynch tunnel, from Dungarvan and from Waterford too.
Thomas keeps his supplies of Baldwin Farmhouse Ice Cream fairly localised, but Knockanore Cheese is widely available in various flavourings. I’m most familiar with their delicious smoked version (which Eamonn points out is the result of a genuine smokehouse and not liquid smoke and painted-on paprika, as some are), but the plain version is worth checking out for a cheddar-style cheese with a point of difference. This comes from the facts that the cheese is produced from raw milk, and allowed to mature for up to a year, as well as the fact that they use a special maturing culture to cultivate a sweetness in the cheese. Other flavoured versions include garlic and herbs or black pepper and chives, all of which are added in at the start of the process to layer flavour and not at the end to mask inferior flavours, as some competitors do.
Loaded up with cheese, we skipped on to many blaa-lovers idea of heaven: the 125-year-old Barron’s Bakery in Cappoquin where Esther Barron proudly showed us her impressive 100-year-old ovens, still yielding magnificent bread after all these years – at least to those who have mastered how to use it. As fifth-generation bakers, the Barron’s story is entwined with Cappoquin’s story, so no wonder that some 700 local supporters turned up for the launch of their recent book, Our Daily Bread (which came second in the Gourmand World Cookbook Awards – ahead of a book by the Culinary Institute of America, as Esther proudly announced).
They fed us with tea and ham blaas and nettle soup and sent us on our merry way to Dungarvan, where Claire Dalton and Cormac O’Flynn were waiting to show us their Dungarvan Brewing Company headquarters, aka beer-lover’s heaven. The craft beer produced here (Black Rock Irish Stout, Copper Coast Red Ale and Helvick Gold Blonde Ale) stand out from the growing number of Irish craft beers because they are bottle conditioned. This means that the beer is unfiltered and undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle, which makes them naturally lightly sparkling. They’ve also begun to stock a few places with casks (as opposed to kegs) and are part of what seems to be something of an Irish revival of the old art of keeping casks. If you’re looking to try a refreshing lemony blonde alternative to lager, a smooth and complex red ale or a surprisingly light mocha-edged stout, this trio are well worth seeking out.
We sadly didn’t have time to take a peek into bagel heaven aka Rosie’s Broadway Bagels run by a native New-Yorker whose bagel production is still a hand-crafted process. We had a date at the gate to another food-lovers heaven, and it wouldn’t do to be late.
Paul Flynn is a legend, both locally and nationally. Returning to Ireland some years ago from a stint running a Michelin-starred kitchen in London (Paul was head chef when they secured their second star), Paul won over Irish fans at La Stampa before setting up shop in his native Dungarvan, a lovely little port town in West Waterford. The food Paul now cooks at The Tannery Restaurant and adjacent Cookery School is very like the man himself: disarmingly down-to-earth, deceptively straightforward while backed with a treasure-chest of knowledge and impossible not to like. He talked us through the mis-en-place (that’s ‘prep’ in chef-talk) for what was going to be that night’s tasting menu of ‘one-pot cooking’ – a typically understated description for what was a masterclass in producing refined versions of classic rustic cooking.
One of the most memorable for me was the bouillabaise of John Dory and mussels, with elegant flavours built up from the gently coaxed onion and fennel base to the orange and saffron middle to the top notes of cardamom, star anise and Pernod. The art of one-pot cooking is in knowing just how long to give each stage so that every element is spot on, so that the bite of a carrot can give as much pleasure as the juicy chew of a mussel, and so that the parts come together in an integrated whole. Other highlights included braised shoulder of lamb which had the most incredible texture, served with a saucy tomato-based ribollita with pockets of flavour-soaked bread; an elegant bowl of rabbit, turnip, wild garlic and barley stew which had a gastric base that played off the natural sweet-sour of the turnip; and a dessert of rich chocolate with Blackrock Stout textured with honeycomb and cut through with a goat’s cheese cream. All of this was served to us by staff who shared Paul’s sense that food should be enjoyable above all else, and that it shouldn’t be taken too seriously – just gotten effortlessly right.
What’s your idea of heaven? Maybe, like me, your idea of heaven is writing up these kinds of experiences while being driven in a mini-bus through some of Ireland’s secret beauty spots such as Inistioge – where I happen to have some of my happpiest memories. We spent childhood holidays in a converted forge owned by the proprietor of the town’s tearooms who we used to ‘help’ pick redcurrants and raspberries before washing off the sticky juices in the stream that ran into the tea-coloured River Nore.
As far as we’re concerned (‘we’ being me and the five Euro-toques Young Chefs I’m travelling with on the Irish Food Trip) we found a little piece of heaven yesterday: it is in the middle of nowhere and the heart of everywhere. We found ours in the sunny South East but the truth is that Ireland is full of places in which to get lost and find your own little piece of heaven. What’s stopping you?