I don’t think there is anyone out there that hasn’t heard of Ballymaloe, it is most famously know for it’s cookery school and it’s two leading ladies Darina and Rachel. I have to say I’m not a huge fan of Rachel but do admire Darina for all the work she had done for Slow Food in Ireland and for her focus on locally produced food. We originally planned to stay the weekend there but quickly changed our minds on seeing the prices, I was a bit suprised to be honest as it is not a 5 star hotel but a country house so we decided to stay at the neighbouring 5 star Castlemartyr Hotel instead for nearly half the price. We decided to visit Ballymaloe for lunch instead as dinner is €70 p.p and we had the princess with us so lunch at €40 p.p seemed like a better idea.
We were booked for 1pm and were late of course, mainly due to a lack of signage. I know they are well known and everything but I don’t think they need to keep their location a secret. We arrived at the Cookery School first which is actually in a separate location, it seems to have a really nice buzz there with very enthusiastic and energetic staff, ironically it was pizza day and I think you can eat there for lunch too but I just got directions for the main house.
At this stage it was about 1.20pm and last orders were at 1.30. Lunch only runs from 1 – 1.30pm, I want their job! We were met by a pleasant lady at the desk and shown to our table. The room itself is traditional with blue and white check tablecloths with very pretty flowers from the garden I presume. I wasn’t too fond of the dark blue walls and would think that on a wet winter day it would be a bit dark and gloomy but luckily the sun was streaming in our window seat. The menu was short containing 4 starters and 4 main courses, nothing fancy, just simple home-cooked food. They also have a menu with light bites but to my surprise they had no children’s menu. I had told the princess who has a chip addiction on the way that “there would be no chips at Ballymaloe”presuming for once she might eat something decent at a restaurant instead of the usual sausages or chicken nuggets with chips! On asking the waitress about a children’s menu and being told there was none but they could do sausages and chips(the dreaded words) the princess turned to me and politely informed me “see mammy, I told you they had chips in Ballymaloe”, she’s 3 in November…..
mussels in their shells with a breadcrumb topping. I really like this dish anyway and is quite common in Italian cooking, the mussels were good quality and the breadcrumbs were nicely flavoured so we were off to a good start.
haddock goujons served with tarter sauce. Bru had this and enjoyed it, the breadcrumbs were really light and had a good flavour. The accompanying home-made tarter sauce was really good and probably the best I’ve tasted.
The choice for mains was limited to chicken, cod, bacon and a vegetarian dish. Bru went for the free-range chicken which I presume comes from the chicken coup out the back. The chicken itself was lovely, moist and really tasty but the cream sauce was bland and tasteless. With such high quality chicken a simple sauce that didn’t compete or overpower the chicken would have been better.
I chose the cod with lovage pesto. I was a bit put off by the pesto when reading the menu as I personally only like pesto with pasta and I’ve never had lovage but I didn’t want bacon so I went with this. This dish just didn’t work for me, it was very bland with very little flavour, I actually left the majority of it. The simple side order of veg was really good, the baby carrots were bursting with flavour and were so sweet.
The funny thing about the main courses was that the princess’s sausages were the nicest dish on the table. They were probably the nicest sausages I’ve ever tasted and they were served with freshly cut chips so I had a little nibble.
We were beginning to lose faith at this stage until we saw the arrival of the dessert trolley, so 80’s but such a wonderful concept. There is just something about a trolley full of desserts being placed in front of you, it’s rather exciting and the best part being you can have a little bit of everything so we did. This was their saving grace, we oooed and ahhhhed the whole way through. The warm lemon pudding was to die for, the meringues with strawberries were delicious, the strawberries were so sweet, the little gooseberry tart was Divine , bitter and sweet at the same time and the chocolate ice-cream was one of the nicest home-made ice-creams we’ve had in Ireland, we haven’t tried Murhpy’s yet.
We finished off with a couple of good coffees.
So what did I think of the overall experience? I think the main problem with a place like Ballymaloe is the expectation, which will always be difficult to live up to. I think the price plays a major part too, at €40 per person you are expecting something very special and exciting and although it was good home cooked food using local good quality ingredients it just didn’t blow me away but maybe they are not trying to! My main gripe throughout the meal was the service, the staff were pleasant but far from friendly. There was absolutely no personality in the room, nobody asked us did we enjoy our meal, my unfinished cod wasn’t even questioned, there seemed an attitude of not really caring as most people were probably just like us visiting on a one off and probably won’t return. It was basically hi, here’s your table, here’s your bill, thanks and goodbye! I think most people go for the “Ballymaloe experience” but to me there was very little atmosphere in the restaurant or personal interaction which is a shame as it’s such a lovely place.
I’m glad I visited Ballymaloe and to be honest there should be country house restaurants like these with it’s own chicken coup, vegetables etc all over the country but like everything else in Ireland this is impossible with all the red tape and expense we have. My main problem is the fact that as a country we have become so far removed from natural eating and at the end of the day Ballymaloe is providing simple home-cooked food using good ingredients which is the way it should be. In Italy there is a concept called ” Agriturismo” where a family can open a restaurant adjacent to their house where they produce everything themselves on their land including the meat and wine. They are provided with government grants to help with the establishment and running of the business, they are very cheap, about €20 p.p including wine and you eat what you are given but it is the most fantastic eating experience. In Ireland it seems the only food business that can survive and thrive is the franchise model as there is absolutely no support whatsoever for food businesses and I’m hoping if one thing comes out of this recession is the return to simple food using produce from our local environment and we might see a few more Ballymaloe type places that we can afford to eat at on a regular basis. I can dream I suppose……
p.s. I’ve abandoned the blog a bit for facebook recently but the novelty will wear off I’m sure but if you’re not a friend just click here and add us http://www.facebook.com/lacucina