Ballymaloe bliss

Last night, I got to check a major culinary goal off my bucket list. I got to eat and stay at Ballymaloe House.

Ballymaloe House inn

For those of you who’ve never heard of it, Ballymaloe is owned and operated by a woman named Darina Allen, who has created something of a culinary empire in Ireland. She runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School, has authored a whole slew of highly regarded cookbooks, and is pretty much the localvore food authority around these parts. Think Martha Stewart without the snooty attitude or jail time. Darina is a huge proponent of the Slow Food movement, and every ingredient she works with is either grown on the Ballymaloe grounds or comes from a local purveyor. Her daughter Rachel is something of a foodie celebrity in her own right as well with a set of cookbooks of her own.

Knowing my culinary aspirations and affinities, several of my in-laws have gifted me with Ballymaloe vouchers for Christmases and birthdays within the past few years, and they’ve been burning a hole in my pocket. I was thrilled when my mother-in-law said she’d mind the toddler overnight so hubby and I could sneak off for a stay at the Ballymaloe House inn. We arrived around 2 p.m. to make as much use of our baby-free time as possible.

Ballymaloe House is simply beautiful, a majestic 15th century ivy-covered stone structure in the middle of wheat and barley fields waving in the sea breezes. Although the place is plenty busy and there are more than a few small children running around, there’s still a zen aura of tranquility about the place.

For such an upscale inn, the staff is totally laid back. When we checked in, I asked if I needed to present my gift vouchers or even ID, but they just waved me off like “Pshaw! Bring it down whenever.” Still completely professional and helpful, but extremely easy-going and friendly about answering our requests and questions.

For being so off the beaten path, Ballymaloe offers a number of on-site recreational activities — walking trails, a bird sanctuary, a pool, tennis courts, a five-hole golf course, and croquet in addition to inviting sitting rooms, a solarium and porches where you can simply take a load off and bask in the glorious sunshine. A nice touch — there are free bikes you can borrow to take a spin around the property, which we did. Hubby was so excited, he even used his to explore the surrounding area. Since I’m more a social biker, I instead spent a wonderful hour or so wading around in the heated pool. This is a perfect time of year to be here; everywhere you look, there are lush blooming flowers and herbs.

Inside, there’s a small bar and a tiny tv room. Because there are no televisions in the guest rooms, you’re forced to get out and make use of the property. This is actually pretty smart. Otherwise, we probably would have just camped out in front of some stupid movie we’ve both already seen a million times and wasted a beautiful day.

The rooms aren’t numbered; instead, each has its own specific name and personality — the Rose Room, the Blue Room, the East Room, the Bamboo Room and so on. We stayed in the River Room, which was absolutely lovely, with period furnishings, a door that opened out onto the green lawn and a bathtub long enough to lie down in. Everything was cozy and spotlessly clean.

With a couple of hours to kill before dinnertime, we decided to take a leisurely drive out to nearby Ballycotton, where we spent a very pleasant hour wandering around the spectacularly scenic cliffs, taking in the sea views of ocean waves breaking on the rocks.

The bike ride, pool time and fresh sea air served to whet our appetites and by the time 7:30 rolled around, we were starving. The standard Sunday night dinner at Ballymaloe is a buffet of cold seafood dishes, cold salads and roast meats. Normally, I’m not an all-you-can-eat fan, but I figured if you were ever going to get a good one, this had to be the place.

This was no Golden Corral, food-standing-around-sweating-all-day-under-heat-lamps kind of buffet. It was one long table laden with homey earthenware bowls and platters, each containing food that was prepared that very minute and brought out from the kitchen still cold or hot as the case might have been. It was like having Sunday dinner at your grandma’s house, provided your grandma is a certified kick-ass culinary rockstar.

The meal started with a bowl of soup for each of us – the choices being onion thyme and cabbage. You can imagine hubby’s reaction when they were recited to us. He ordered the cabbage soup just to be polite, but refused to eat any of it, filling up on bread instead. I actually found the creamy onion soup to be very mild and tasty. Sort of like garlic gets all sweet and mild when it’s roasted, the same thing was going on here.

The seafood section was kinda wasted on us, but still beautiful even just to look at. Oysters, deliciously sweet tiny steamed shrimp, langostines, smoked fish of all sorts, a whole smoked salmon, crab mayonnaise, mussels — you name it, it was here.

sumptuous seafood

The salads really showcased what Ballymaloe is all about – ingredients picked from the on-site gardens at the height of their freshness, served simply to highlight their true flavors. Gorgeous red ripe tomato salad with chopped basil; julienned cucumber, peppers and onions; herb salad with edible flowers; roasted eggplant slices; mushrooms; beets; and an intriguingly pickled shaved carrot salad that my hubby couldn’t get enough of. The only nod to Ireland’s signature item was a nicely done potato salad.

The roast meats were no slouch, either, all carved to order by an attentive young server. This was like a maximum-strength carvery. The selection included roast pork, roast beef, leg of lamb, some kind of tongue, glazed ham and turkey – with enough complementary sauces to make your head swim. The only tongue I want making its way down my throat is my husband’s, so I opted to try the roast pork with applesauce and the roast lamb with mint sauce. I also ended up bogarting hubby’s glazed ham slice. He said the turkey was very moist and yummy as well. All the meats were expertly prepared, extremely tender and full of rich flavor in spite of their simple preparations. I was somewhat put off by the fatty crunchy roast pork crackling, but once I tasted it, I was totally hooked. Turns out Emeril was right all along. Pork fat rules.

the selection of roasts

Dessert was served tableside from a traveling cart of selections, and what selections they were. The choices included a flourless chocolate cake/tart, gooseberry fool (pudding), fresh strawberries and peaches, lemon meringue, housemade strawberry ice cream, whipped cream and shortbread cookies. Mercy. My tummy was reaching its limit by this point, so I figured the lemon meringue would be the lightest option, although I did taste hubby’s chocolate cake and strawberry ice cream. Every bite was heavenly.

the decadent dessert trolley

I washed down my meal with a nice gerwurztraminer – half bottles were a nice option from the extensive wine list. Hubby enjoyed a cup of coffee at the end of his dinner and pronounced it good.

I was impressed with the table next to us, populated with a couple around our age, an older couple (grandparents?) and four small kids, the youngest of which couldn’t have been more than 3 or 4 sporting a head of wild curly blond hair and a South Africa football jersey. I can only hope my son will grow to eat as well as these kids did, cleaning their plates soup and all using grown-up cutlery and everything. I made hubby hang around just so I could see their reactions when the dessert trolley rolled up.

An added thrill, we got to meet Darina Allen herself, who was in the house supervising the buffet line, bringing in fresh herbs and greenery to garnish the table, and personally greeting each group in the dining room and urging everyone to enjoy more of everything. It says a lot that this woman has created such a reputation for herself throughout Ireland and beyond, yet still manages to be so hands-on and down-to-earth. I was delighted to see her in the flesh and actually get to speak with her briefly.

All in all, for us, I’m not sure the buffet was worth the 70 euro per person price tag, but for someone who loves seafood, it would definitely be of more value. Still, it was a lovely dining experience. More than anything else, I suppose you’re paying for the Ballymaloe name and the ingredients, which were of superior quality for sure. Hubby and I agreed we’d love to return for lunch next time.

Breakfast was another high point. Our Sunday special 80-euro-per-person rate covered both bed and breakfast, which was more than fair. We slept in and arrived toward the tail end of the service, but everything looked as if it had just been brought out moments earlier. When we walked in, we were encouraged to help ourselves to the continental items: a table laden with muesli, porridge, fruit, yogurt and fresh juice; then another full of breads, butter and jams. The items included a few offbeat, grown-on-the-premises fruits such as gooseberries, rhubarb and blackberries. As expected, everything was top quality and uber fresh.

When we sat down, an older waitress came over to get our hot drink order and present us with a menu of hot items. Featured, of course, was the quintessential Irish fry plus a fish choice. Hubby went whole hog with the full Irish minus the mushrooms. Still somewhat full from last night, I modestly selected just the scrambled eggs, sausages and bacon (or rashers as they’re called here). In retrospect, not quite the picture of restraint.

the standard Irish fry at Ballymaloe

The coffee was served in a French press, which I always love, and the cream on the table was still cold in its tiny pitcher. The farm-fresh eggs were delicious. I daresay they rivaled those we’ve had in France, and those go down in my memory as the best I’ve ever tasted. Hubby didn’t eat his because they were slightly runny. I thought the waitress was going to cry when he politely told her he didn’t like them that way; she fell all over herself offering to bring him a new plateful. No matter, we were full of yummy, salty fried breakfast meat by that point. The sausage and rashers were delicious, as was the biscuity scone I enjoyed. For someone who wasn’t hungry when we came in, I still managed to clean my plate.

To sum up, Ballymaloe was excellent. If you are anywhere near the southeastern part of Ireland, I highly recommend paying a visit for as long as you can manage it.

All you can eat

My husband hails from Europe and is constantly pointing out the cultural differences between his homelands and mine. (Really, he’s always bragging about how much better Europe is than America, but that’s another blog entry entirely…) One item we often discuss is the general weight and health of Americans as compared to Europeans. If you’ve ever read “French Women Don’t Get Fat,” you know what I’m talking about. The puzzling conundrum that allows these svelte ladies to regularly consume wine, cheese, cream sauces, foie gras, croissants and creme brulee in bulk, yet still manage to look like they just stepped off a fashion runway. 

The keys, my fellow foodies, are all things in moderation and building more physical activity into our lifestyles. It’s simple advice and we’ve all heard it before, but how many of us really adhere faithfully? The American foodscape makes it difficult, to say the least.

My dad, bless his heart, is old school in his thoughts on food. When he goes out to eat, it’s all about getting the most bang for his buck, and anything over $10 a head or so is stretching his tolerance. For him, that means quantity, not quality. We almost dread his invitations to go out to eat when we visit because this invitation will mean one of two establishments – Golden Corral or the local Chinese buffet. If it’s really a special occasion, possibly a place called Welliver’s that offers a more upscale buffet including endless peel-and-eat shrimp, but it’s got to be something fairly extraordinary to merit such an upgrade (I’ve been to Welliver’s two or three times in my entire life that I can recall). My dad also hits KFC every Tuesday without fail because it offers a $2.99 country-fried steak dinner special. He considers this a healthy meal. Sadly, I’d venture to say my dad is in the majority of most Hoosiers, if not Americans, when it comes to his views on food.

It must run in the family – my brother will always groan and roll his eyes whenever my dad suggests Golden Corral, but he will always go along and eat like it’s his job, coming home saying “never again.” Until the next time. For my crazy uncle Dave (my dad’s brother), eating is barely short of an extreme sport. He dines out constantly, can put away an alarming amount of food in an alarmingly short amount of time and make it all seem funny. And no matter how much he’s had to eat at a restaurant, he will come home and polish off a pint of ice cream. When I was living in Los Angeles, Dave decided to introduce me to sushi. I knew this was going to be a mistake of monumental proportions when we pulled up to a sushi buffet. We sped through the line with Dave throwing things on my plate right and left – “try this! Ooh, you’ve gotta have a couple of these!” By the time I sat down and unwrapped my silverware, Dave had already finished his fish and was up for round two. I have no idea what I ate that night, but it didn’t taste terribly fresh or good, and I haven’t been for sushi since. 

At the risk of sounding like food snobs, hubby and I cannot for the life of us understand the fascination with all-you-can-eat smorgasbords. What’s the point in loading up your plate with a bite or two of a dozen different foods (half of which will be mediocre at best); forcing yourself to eat two or three such plates to get your money’s worth; then go home complaining about how sick and stuffed you feel? Personally, I’d rather pay more for one decently portioned plate of one good-quality item I know I will enjoy. Anyone who takes me to an all-you-can-eat buffet is going to lose money if they’re expecting me to make two or three trips to the trough. Every time, I will select one salad, one entree, a couple sides and possibly a small bite of dessert. That’s it and I refuse to apologize.

Several years ago, hubby and I completed a 12,000 mile road trip around the U.S. on a target budget of $100 a day. During this trip, I must mention that on several occasions, we actually sought out Golden Corrals because we knew that a) we could at least get a salad there and b) it was relatively cheap and offered plenty of choices. It was on one of these visits that hubby coined the phrase “salad dodgers.” Looking around, we observed that the majority of diners in these establishments are overweight, if not obese. We also observed that even though there are healthy items available on the line, these items are often avoided entirely in lieu of the bad-for-you stuff. No joke, on one of these visits as Patrick and I ate our salads, we glanced over at the rather robust couple at the next table over. Not a veggie in sight, they were each working their way through plates filled to nearly overflowing with chicken wings and unrecognizable greasy deep-fried badness. As an appetizer. For the sake of research, we subtly kept an eye on our fellow diners throughout our meal, and hardly any ventured anywhere near the salad bar the entire night. Take a look around next time you’re at one of these places, and you know you will be. You’ll see what I mean.

My question is this: Why is it so difficult to get healthy food at a competitive price in America? Why is it so much cheaper and easier to swing through a McDonald’s drive-through than it is to hit up somewhere you can get a fresh salad or grilled meat and two veg? And don’t tell me that McDonald’s sells salads and such – when’s the last time you thought about ordering anything at McDonald’s without fries? And what does it say about our collective mentality that we think all-you-can-eat buffets are the be-all, end-all of dining out? 

Ok. I’ll get off my soapbox now. On this point, I must admit, hubby’s got a point. Score: Europe 1. America 0.