So many Irish gardens to share, so little time left in March when we're still in an Irish frame of mind. We're still on the gardening tour in 1998 and still in County Cork, southern Ireland. After leaving Brian Cross' Lakemount, we headed into the country to check out the Ballymaloe Cookery School and Gardens near the picturesque seaside fishing village of Ballycotton.
Before going to Ireland I knew about Darina Allen--chef, cookbook author, gardener and director of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. I had seen her on television and read articles about her efforts to get people to eat seasonally, locally, and organically. What I remembered mostly was her enthusiasm for the simple foods of Ireland--starting with home gardens, local farms and farmer's markets and fresh seafood from the waters near Ballycotton. In her cookery school students first go to the gardens and orchards on the school grounds and to local farms for dairy and meats before even getting in the kitchen.
I'm having a hard time organizing this post because there are the school and the gardens and Darina to discuss, so I'll just let you follow the tour that we took. Darina was waiting for us outside the cookery school student quarters on a rainy Irish morning when the tour bus pulled up. Thankfully, it wasn't raining hard enough to keep us out of the garden. I loved the rosy red brick of the student quarters and the bright primary colors of the room where students gathered to watch demonstrations of specific cooking techniques and recipes. Note the overhead mirror so everyone had a great view of the prep area.
Next, Darina led our small group of gardening enthusiasts(about 15 ppl from all over the U.S.) through a series of garden rooms--vegetable, herb, flower borders, soft fruits, orchards. Each "room" was enclosed by tall, precisely trimmed beech hedges.
The first "room" that we entered was this formal herb garden. The garden was planted with all manner of culinary and medicinal plants. The herbs were enclosed by low box-edged beds laid out in geometric shapes. Gravel paths allowed you to get close enough to savor the fragrant scents and textures of the herbs. Each plant was identified to make it easier for the cookery students to find the exact herb that they needed for a particular dish:
Next stop on the tour was the vegetable garden, planted as a potager or French style garden on a strict geometric pattern. This garden contained many exotic vegetables that I had never seen growing--globe artichoke, fennel and all manner of salad greens like arugula and rocket. The vegetables were arranged as precisely as a bed of tulips--and just as beautiful. The vegetable garden had several structures, a gazebo seating area and the tower for growing climbing plants like the purple hyacinth bean. Darina is in the red coat in these photos:
Everything at Ballymaloe is grown organically which is why you see netting protecting many of the beds. And I can't believe we're this far along on the tour without giving you a glimpse of the resident garden pooch. Meet Buddy sitting in a bed of rocket salad greens. I hate to nitpick, but if you look closely the rocket has some damaged leaves. Buddy must not be trained in insect control. . .
After leaving the vegetable garden we went outside the hedge walls to enjoy the long flower border. One end of the border was anchored by the Shell House, a fantastic work of art by artist Blot Kerr-Wilson in 1995. The Shell House is special because the work was commissioned by Darina's husband Tim Allen for Darina using sea shells collected on the Celtic Sea beaches near their home. The floor of the house features traditional Celtic symbols created with the shells:
And now we get to the high point of the tour. After seeing the gardens and orchards we followed Darina back to the cookery school kitchen where she showed us how to make some traditional Irish dishes using the fresh ingredients from the estate gardens. First Darina made Irish Soda Bread which is simplicity in a loaf: flour, buttermilk, butter leavened with baking soda. The soft dough is turned out on a floured board
and shaped into loaves with the traditional X cut in the top of the loaf. I also got a first lesson in making scones. Herbs were added to the same dough and then the dough was cut out in diamond shaped rolls, brushed with butter and sprinkled with more herbs before baking. We had these warm with a knob of yellow Irish butter--heavenly! Darina also made a sweet version of the bread by adding raisins and currants. Aptly named Spotted Dog:
Next we got to the main course--Irish Colcannon. Darina boiled Irish potatoes, called"red roosters" and then lightly steamed some fresh shredded cabbage. Next she mashed the potatoes with some Irish cream and butter. The mashed potatoes and cabbage were gently combined and then spooned out in individual bowls, topped with another knob of butter and a sprinkle of fresh chives. Darina also prepared Irish bacon to eat with the colcannon. Irish bacon is meatier--more like our ham or Canadian bacon--because it comes from the back of the pig, not the belly.
Since learning to make colcannon, I enjoy it regularly, not just on St. Patrick's Day. It's comfort food at its best. Perhaps the Irish equivalent of mac 'n cheese?
We ate this delicious meal in the Ballymaloe student kitchen. Then back on the bus for a rainy drive--and maybe a wee nap--around part of the Ring of Kerry to our next stop Bantry Bay and Illnacullin, a magnificent Italian garden that could only be reached only by a boat ride across the choppy Bantry Bay. Come back in a few days for yet another unique kind of Irish gardening.