I am sitting at my dining room table and my daughter has just burst into song, “I’m a sentimental sap that’s all” These words ring in my ears, as I was remembering that just yesterday, I left my sisters and home in Ireland for where I am living now; the United States. I have been away since January (read previous blogs about Ireland and Italy) and my return is something I am trying to be happy about. Being sentimental is a burden right at this moment, but writing about one of my last days before I left will hopefully heal my pathetic heart.
This day was not especially planned, and, isn’t that usually the case when a day works out perfectly? I suppose when you start out with no expectations, there is little to be disappointed about.
This past Sunday (my last Sunday) I was awake earlier than everyone in the house, which was actually not that unusual since I rise way earlier than most normal people. I was quietly drinking a strong cup of coffee and relishing the fact that I could read in peace, when the thought crossed my mind that it was nearly my last day at home in Ireland, with my two lovely sisters, and we had no special plan for the day?
By the time everyone was up, bathed, had breakfast, and the three sisters finished their crossword puzzle (my sister June had been printing three of the Irish Times puzzles everyday, and we have literally raced to see who can finish first; you know, to find out who is the smartest!), it was well into late morning. Then that dreaded question was posed to me, “what do you want to do today?” It has been up to me to figure this out (as well as to make dinner in the evening) because it is my precious time I have chosen to spend here, and so I should be the one making the plans.
I hate this! I want someone else to plan something amazing and then tag along! I suggested some sort of castle or other and then perhaps a walk on a blustery beach. Miriam and June haggled over which castle, and when they couldn’t decide suggested two castles, well, a Cistercian Abbey and a castle to be precise. I said “great!” Miriam then groaned when she remembered she had to go to a 5 year old’s birthday party with her boyfriend, while we jumped into the car shouting “have fun, see you later!”
The first stop was Tintern Abbey; absolutely beautiful. The weather couldn’t have been better (by Irish standards, that is) and when we stepped into the abbey yard I was filled with breezy sun and the prospect of a perfect day. Tintern Abbey is located on Hook Head peninsula in county Wexford, Ireland. It was built at the very beginning of the 13th century. The Cistercian monks from the abbey known as Tintern in Wales colonized the abbey, and Tintern Abbey in Ireland became it’s sister abbey.
The abbey is now in ruins with a partially restored section, but it was impressive, irregardless of it’s condition. We walked around it’s substantial grounds, including a beautiful dilapidated old cemetery, and marvelled at the stone bridge that crossed the river running through it all.
I caught myself trying to be mindful of taking it all in, and, what a hard thing to do? It was like trying to take in big gulps of air without feeling a heady rush. It is virtually impossible for me to completely appreciate what I am doing until just after the moment. I need time to comprehend and take it all in.
We wound our way through little paths in a wooded area where Spring was secretly rearing it’s beautiful head in the form of masses of bluebells covering the grassy floor. My kids got no end of pleasure disappearing down windy paths to see where they would end up; pure heaven.
The ruin at Dunbrody
Then it was back into the car and either take the ferry to Waterford, see a hillfort in Ballyhacket or the lighthouse at Hook Head!
We ended up doing none of the three, as on our way, June wanted me to have a look at a place called Dunbrody House. She said it was run by the famous Irish chef Kevin Dundon, who headed up a Cookery School, a fabulous restaurant and bar, a spa, and a farm that supplied the kitchens on the 200 acre estate. As we were all getting peckish for lunch, there were no objections to indulging my obsession with all things food-related.
As June drove around the grounds trying to find the main entrance to the house and restaurant it was apparent that she was a little unsure (I’m being nice). On our third go-around she stopped at what looked like the front door. It had no big sign directing us in, so out jumped June with the car running and disappeared inside. Within a second she peeked out and beckoned me in, and then I left also, leaving everyone in the back with the still-running car!
This 1830’s Manor House built in the Georgian style felt warm and pleasant the moment I entered the spacious hall. The walls were painted in rich hues which complimented the equally vivid curtains. The furniture was Queen Anne style and ornate chandeliers hung from molded ceiling mounts. The big windows flooded the place with light, and on this particular day the sun was unmasked by clouds, allowing the whole house to be awash with comforting heat; all very affable.
There was a little more getting lost (I’m blaming June of course) until we found the dining room. It looked way too fancy for a bunch of people dressed in attire more suitable for a walk in the woods than a formal lunch, but before we could discreetly leave, we were greeted by Olive, the extremely charming restaurant manager.
She chatted away about what was available by way of lunch, and took us into the elegant bar area which was also set up with bistro-style tables in front of large french glass doors into which the sun streamed. After glancing at the menu, I looked at my sister and said “why not!” We decided to throw caution to our wallets and splurge on a fabulous lunch, and raced off to find the rest of the gang. Dave had already decided that sitting around in a running car that blocked the entrance was a bad idea and had moved the car and he and the kids were already on their way in.
Places like this tend to be stuffy, but this was not the case at Dunbrody House. Olive talked and joked with my children as we settled in with menus, and a wine list. She told them about the gardens, chickens and their pot-bellied pig. She insisted that we take a tour of the grounds when we left. Well of course we would!
The majority of us choose lightly battered fish and chips and when I told one of the staff I wanted to take some pictures Olive was summoned. She told me that Mr. Dundon had an “open kitchen policy” and that not only could we roam the whole manor to snap some pictures, but we could also invade the kitchen and watch our food being prepared.
All five of us jumped straight out of our seats and headed for the kitchen. At that moment the chef was cutting our flaky cod pieces in preparation for battering and frying. The place was open, cheery and spotlessly clean. There is something a little voyeuristic about being able to see the inner workings of a restaurant.
Sometimes when food just appears in a dining room that is devoid of the aroma of cooking onions and garlic, it is hard to imagine that it came from anywhere. This kitchen was full of starchly clad young men and women keeping busy at the various prep stations. I wanted to grab a knife and make my own lunch (they may even have let me if I had the nerve to ask!).
I was expecting the food to be good, considering our surroundings and the prices, and my expectations were met in abundance. The presentation was very fun, with the chips coming in a wire cone wrapped in newspaper, and the salad in little copper saucepans.
However, the very best thing was the fish, with the batter being my absolute favorite part. It was so light and had a delicate crispy-ness when I bit into it. Olive went to the kitchen to find out what was in the batter and came back with an exact recipe. The secret to the lightness was a combination of cornflour (corn starch in the States) and all-purpose flour. I will post a recipe when I test it out.
After lunch we headed out to explore the grounds and to work off the sticky toffee pudding we had devoured for dessert. The grounds next to the house had pathways shooting off in all directions. One of these tree-lined paths led to the vegetable garden and greenhouses, while another took us to the herb garden and chicken coop. We also managed to find the pot-bellied pig and a path that led to the bay, and what I assumed was Mr. Dundon’s residence tucked behind a myriad of trees and bluebells. Yes, it was idyllic, and yes, I was very jealous indeed.
Not as jealous however as my sister Miriam will be when she reads this post. When we got home she had just arrived back from the birthday party. We said we had a nice time, and hoped she had too. Don’t worry Miriam, next time, we will go for dinner, and you can sit in the kitchen with your glass of wine and enjoy the clamour. Olive will arrange everything!