Ballymaloe is famous for its focus on local ingredients, classic preps, and gracious service. It did not disappoint, but captivated us completely. The bedrooms are comfortable and it is a country house hotel in the best sense: you immediately feel at home, but you aren’t shadowed by obsequious staff. You can settle in for tea, or wander about and be active, and everyone is perfectly friendly and helpful. And the food really is all that is promised.
Breakfast in Ireland is a big deal, and appropriately so – a full Irish breakfast can really set you up well for the day. We had several on our trip, but everything paled in comparison to Ballymaloe. I don’t know that any write up can do justice to this breakfast so I’ll offer this list. These are the offerings set up for self-service:
Fresh squeezed – and it is the real deal – OJ and pink grapefruit juice
Several different kinds of stewed fruit, including divine rhubarb, “breakfast fruits” (prunes and apricots), and apples with sweet geranium
Some mueslis, which I don’t like the one with fresh apple delighted our friends the next morning
Yogurt from a local dairy
A discreet jar of cornflakes
A great vat of deliciously salty porridge, flanked by a pitcher of milk (pfft!) and one of yellow cream (yeah!), and a dish of dark dark brown sugar
Various home-baked breads – brown, raisin, soda, etc.
Tubs of jewel-like jams incl. marmalade, black currant, and rhubarb ginger, all homemade, natch
A great Mizen Head of yellow butter
Once you’ve loaded up from there a few times, the nice lady hands you a menu of cooked items – eggs, sausages, rashers, black and white puddings, kippers, fresh fish of the day, broiled mushroom and tomahto – and says, “now, what would you like for breakfast?” After which you are brought yet more toast, and eggs with practically orange yolks and the freshest fish ever, and tasty sausages and rashers of bacon. Did I mention the gallons of tea that you can have to wash all of this down? All in a beautiful high-ceilinged dining room. I wanted to stay all dy.
Dinner at Ballymaloe is hideously expensive, but if you like a leisurely, delicious, well-executed, beautifully served dining experience, worth every penny once in your life. We ate in twice, our first evening enjoying a delicious five-course dinner consisting of salad, baked oysters and house-smoked salmon, then roast duck and lamb and local hake and kassler (you can do two courses, for less euro, which worked for our smaller-stomached kids), and a sample of lovely local cheeses and our children’s introduction to that glory of the UK dinner event: the dessert trolley. I swoon in particular over a rhubarb and custard tart, and blood oranges in caramel sauce.
But if you are smart, you will go on Friday evening, when they have the seafood buffet to replace the hors d’oeuvre course. If you can bear with another list, here’s what the buffet held on our night (all homemade, homesmoked, etc.):
Two kinds of beetroot salad
Dressed eggs (we’d call them deviled)
Various relishes and pickles of cucumbers, carrots, and some homemade mayo
Oysters on the half shell
Head-on shrimp just like our Maine shrimp
Steamed teeny clams and mussels
Picked crab salad with fennel seed
Vol-au-vents filled with creamed smoked haddock
Two kinds of smoked mackerel – hot-smoked and cold-smoked
Cod with a green sauce
Smoked mackerel pate on little rounds of cucumber
Smoked mussels in a mustard vinaigrette
Country pate (pork)
Pork and chicken pate
Chicken and bacon galantine
Chicken liver pate
The nice girl working the table encourages you to come back a second time, which is really necessary because the plates can't hold all of this!
After this you might have a bit of onion and thyme soup, and then perhaps some lamb that appears completely well-done but is perhaps the tastiest and tenderest lamb you’ve ever eaten. And let’s not forget the cheese, and the dessert trolley which tonight features a banana-toffee roulade that my husband so loved, he has requested it for his next birthday, and a passion fruit posset and a prune and Armagnac tart, and some stewed rhubarb. And did I mention the beautiful bowl of ice with flowers frozen into it that contains ice cream balls?
I think that Ballymaloe is like Brigadoon. It exists in a parallel universe where everything is gracious and delicious and beautiful, and you drop in on it and experience this for a while and then you return to your modern, industrial, less-locavore, faster-paced and vaguely less congenial life while at Ballymaloe they just carry on serving stewed apples with sweet geranium and smoked salmon and tea in the conservatory.