June 2013

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Ballyfin carriage

A carriage pulls up before Ballyfin to give us a tour of the 640-acre estate. Photo by David Lansing.

Late in the afternoon we went for a carriage ride around the estate ending up at a five-story medieval-style stone tower perched on a hill with views of the Slieve Bloom mountains. The tower is a folly, which means there was no practical purpose to it; it was built solely for decoration.

Actually, that’s not completely true in the case of the Ballyfin Tower. It was built by the original owner, Sir Charles Coote, in the 1860s in a bid to give jobs to the local population during the potato famine. So it at least served some purpose.

Ballyfin Tower

The Ballyfin Tower, built as a folly in the 1860s. Photo by David Lansing.

When we got to the top of the tower, there was a young Irish couple up there. We’d noticed them earlier having tea in the library. The young woman’s face was mottled and she was dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. Seeing our concerned look, she smiled and cried at the same time. “He’s just proposed!” she blurted.

The young man told us the story: He’d lured the young girl out to Ballyfin to have tea, which appeared to be quite the coup since the hotel is only open to those staying there (no lookyloos). After tea, he’d suggested they climb up the tower for a quick peek before leaving. Then he’d dropped to one knee and presented the ring. All very dramatic. Imagine telling that story to your children one day.

Of course, he’d lied about not staying at Ballyfin as well. “It’s costing a bloody fortune,” said the young man, “but I think it’s worth it.”

No doubt he’s right. I have a feeling we won’t see them at dinner.

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Gobsmacked at Ballyfin


Our arrival at Ballyfin. All photos by David Lansing.

Pulling up in front of Ballyfin I am gobsmacked. The size of the estate. The size of the house. The staff—all lined up in front of the stairs waiting for our arrival. We’re so intimidated that for the longest time, we refuse to get out of our vehicle. As if we’ve just intruded on a G8 conference and the staff here thinks the Obamas have arrived instead of us.

Mouths open, we follow behind a bellman who has a piece of luggage in each hand and is hustling up the steps. A pretty lass with strawberry blond hair says, “Cead mile failte.” A thousand welcomes. Her name is Carolina. We shake her hand. Next to her is Sorcha. “You’re most WEL-come,” she says, in that Irish way. “Please come in.”

I haven’t been outside of our vehicle since early this morning yet still I feel the need to wipe my feet before going inside. But there’s nothing to wipe them on. Sorcha leads us down the entrance hall with its antique Italian mosaic floor, through a doorway topped with giant elk horns, through the Whispering Room, and to the robin’s-egg-blue stair hallway where half-a-dozen grand portraits fill the walls.

“Are those real?” I stupidly ask.

Sorcha smiles but does not laugh. “Yes,” she says. “They’re original 19th century Coote family portraits. Some are quite good.”

The Cootes, you see, once owned Ballyfin which was built in the 1820s.

The Mountrath Room at Ballyfin.

Up the stairs, still gobsmacked, down a long corridor or two we get to the Mountrath Room. “Here we are,” says Sorcha, pulling back the heavy drapes to reveal views of the conservatory and, perfectly framed by our window, a watery stair case cascading down to a pond where Neptune appears to be sunning.

“Cocktails are at six in the Gold Room,” she says. And with that, she quietly closes the door behind her, leaving us to ponder several things: How come we didn’t have to register? And why have we no room key? And, most importantly, how have we ended up in this enchanted manor house?

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Casey and the fireman’s hat

Casey Hatfield at Waterford

Casey with the fireman’s hat at the Waterford Crystal factory in Ireland. Photo by David Lansing.

We have just started the tour at the Waterford Crystal factory when Casey spots a crystal fireman’s helmet. She lifts it, surprised at how heavy it is. I ask her if she can hold it over her head, like she’s going to put it on, while I take a photo, but she’s afraid she’ll drop it. And, you know, owe Waterford twenty thousand dollars or something.

Of all the crystal pieces we see at Waterford—a Viking’s ship, a piano, even a scene of the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11–Casey is drawn to the fireman’s helmet because her husband, Justin, is a firefighter. I tell her she should buy it for him, as a souvenir.

“Oh, sure,” she says.

Jan and I met Casey three or four days ago but we have already decided to adopt her. Not that she needs (or wants) to be adopted. She has adoring parents back in Oregon, but we don’t care. We want her to be our “other daughter.” When we tell Casey this, she smiles and says, “I’m not sure how your real daughter would feel about that.”

We met Casey when we were standing in front of Ballymaloe with about 20 other people waiting for a photographer to set up a group shot. While the photographer’s assistant moved the tall people in the back and the short people in the front, Jan made small-talk with Casey. In about two minutes, she discovered that 1) her dad not only went to college with us but was in the dorm next door 2) that her mom was in Jan’s sorority house and 3) that her aunt was Jan’s roommate for a year.

Not only that, but her dad is none other than Tinker Hatfield. THE Tinker Hatfield. If you don’t know who Tinker Hatfield is, just Google his name. I don’t want to spoil it for you. You’ll be amazed you didn’t know who he was.

But we don’t want to adopt Casey because she’s Tinker Hatfield’s daughter; we want to adopt her because she is just one of the sweetest, most sincere people we’ve ever met. Just like our real daughter. And I think the two would really like each other. Although, now that I think of it, she’d also be a perfect match for our son who is about the same age. If it wasn’t for the fact that she’s already married to the fireman. Damn.

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St. Declan and the Cliff Walk

Jan in her wellies. Photo by David Lansing.

Before we head out on the Cliff Walk, Honor suggests that we put on a pair of wellies provided by the hotel. “It’ll be a bit slippery out there,” she says.

I might put on some wellies but just glancing at the stacks of green boots in the wet room, it’s clear nothing will fit my rather large feet. Just as well. They’d probably make me look like a potato farmer. Jan’s wellies, however, make her look quite stylish.

It’s gray out. And drizzling. (When is it not gray and wet in Ireland?) Honor leads us down a gravel path lined with wild garlic. The scent is overpowering. A few minutes later we’re standing beside some old stone ruins. St. Declan’s oratory—a little church originally built around the 8th century on the site of Declan’s monastery.

St. Declan, Honor tells us, was one of the first Irish saints. “He came before St. Patrick.” What they say about Declan is that he established a firm toe-hold for Christianity in the southern parts of Ireland back in the 5th century but it was Patrick that sowed the seeds across the land.

Near the oratory are more stone ruins. The site of a sacred well. The well is far older than Christianity in Ireland, going back to the days of the pagan goddesses who guarded and oversaw the proper use of things like water and food. Then Declan and the Christians came along and co-opted the well and its pagan ceremonies, replacing them with what’s called a “Pattern.”

A Pattern is a series of ritualistic events (like how we celebrate Christmas). The Pattern in Ardmore is held on St. Declan’s feast day, July 24, when thousands of people gather to circle this well while reciting a specific sequence and number of prayers before being allowed to take water from the well. Which is then either drank to cure what ails you or taken home where you might dip your fingers in it every morning before saying your prayers. Or anoint a sick child.

It’s all a little crazy, of course, but then so are most of the strange little rituals of all religions. That, however, doesn’t stop some in our group from reverently dipping a hand in to the well and drinking the mossy green water. Including me. Just in case.

The ruins of an oratory built on the site of St. Declan’s monastery on the clifftops of Ardmore (Ard Mor means Great Height). Photo by David Lansing.

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Starters at the Cliff House restaurant in Ardmore included beet macaroons and salmon marshmallows. Photo by David Lansing.

Here’s what it says on the menu at the Cliff House restaurant in Ardmore, called The House: “Martijn Kajuiter, our Executive Chef, has sourced as many of our supplies as possible from as local an area as possible, even going so far as to grow our own vegetable garden…From Tadgh O’Foghlu’s honey in nearby Ring, David Brown’s fresh fish from Helvick and Ardmore Bay, to Sean Twomey and Michael McGrath, our butchers in Youghal and Lismore, the quality of the produce has given Martijn the inspiration to cook dishes that can rely on the seasonality of the ingredients.”

Well, you have to love that. I mean at home, my own cooking revolves around whatever I’m currently harvesting in my garden, whether it be peaches or heirloom tomatoes, arugula or Italian Roma beans. But I have to admit that I’m not a big fan of the Ferran Adrià-style of molecular gastronomy. So I was a little taken-aback when the starters arrived at the table.

A box of beet macaroons. Photo by David Lansing

First off, we got a plank of alder with a salmon marshmallow on it, a big gooey square of orange with overtones of fishiness. That was followed by a square rock garden topped with Easter egg-colored beet macaroons.

Really? This is what we do with the gorgeous salmon caught by David Brown in Helvick and Ardmore Bay? We turn it in to marshmallows? And the lovely beets Martijn grows in Youghal are transformed into puffy macaroons?

This may be great fun for chefs who have perfected the art of perfectly-poached Irish salmon and want to do something out-of-the-box to show their skills, but I think the only people at the table who professed a love of Kajuiter’s fishy marshmallows were infected with a bit of “emperor’s new clothes syndrome.”

That said, once Kajuiter was done showing off, the rest of the dishes were outstanding, from the plump West Cork scallops that were lightly seared, just for a minute or two, and served in a puddle of green peas, bacon, and garden herbs, to the moist Helvick cod, baked with its skin on, and seated on a light sauce of brown crab and saffron sauce.

Now if only Kajuiter (and other chefs) would get back to truly bringing out the essence of all the ingredients they work with and get over proving that they can make marshmallows that taste like salmon.

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