Breaking bread with Vanessa Feltz’s family in Cork
In Ballycotton the aroma of dough announces Feltz’s daughter’s colourful Jewish-style baking
Love. Love. Love. The words embroidered on the three satin scatter cushions stretched across the massive bed in Vanessa Feltz’s bedroom in her holiday home neatly sum up how she and her family feel about the modern, five-bedroom house in the east Cork village of Ballycotton.
The BBC radio and TV presenter, and former Celebrity Big Brother housemate, bought the property in July last year, viewing it on the way to Cork airport to fly to London after one of many trips to nearby Ballymaloe House, where she has been visiting for more than 25 years.
She is now a regular in the village, flying in from London at least every second weekend with her fiance, Ben Ofoedu, and spending holidays there with her daughters, Allegra and Saskia, and her grandchildren Zeke (4) and Neroli (2).
The family have been regular visitors to east Cork ever since a magazine feature about Ballymaloe House first attracted Feltz to the area 27 years ago
Perched high above the village, the two-storey house has stunning views across grassland and down to Baltrasna beach and the Atlantic beyond. There is no locked gate to keep curious onlookers at bay, no security cameras, just an open driveway and a sign welcoming visitors to Ballykneidal, the name she has given the house, a mash-up of its rural Irish location and her Jewish heritage.
There is a lingering aroma of sweet dough baking when Allegra Benitah, the older of Vanessa’s two daughters, opens the door. She has been spending the summer here with her two children, and her husband flies in from London at weekends. Vanessa is also in residence, on a week’s holiday with Ofoedu, the 6ft 4in Nigerian British music producer and singer songwriter she became engaged to in Dublin’s Clarence Hotel in 2006.
The family have been regular visitors to east Cork ever since a magazine feature about Ballymaloe House first attracted Feltz to the area 27 years ago. “We just basically fell in love. It became the place we dreamed of. And so we started to come at least once a year, at Easter, and sometimes also in the summer,” Feltz says, showing me around the home that she has been enjoying redecorating and furnishing.
“That’s me! Do you like it, really?” She says, delighted, when I ask who is responsible for the pretty pastel wallpapers, jewel-like soft furnishings and eclectic collection of modern and antique artworks and accessories that are dotted around the bright and airy home. She has been scouring auctions in the locality, and stamping her personality on the space.
The house was a blank canvas when the family moved in, and the bare white walls were replaced by soft washes of colour and pattern. It’s all finished now, but a child-sized shell house – inspired by Darina Allen’s at Ballymaloe – is taking shape outside the sittingroom window, with many hands making light work of the blanket of shells, sea glass and beach treasures collected on family walks.
Buying the house last summer happened quickly, but it was something Feltz had been considering for some time. “Every time we came, the property supplements would be in the papers, and I’d look at these properties and I’d just think, oh gosh, oh wow, I’d love to, but I shouldn’t. Gosh it’s gorgeous, but I can’t. Because, first of all, it was a big financial step for me. I don’t come from the type of family that has two homes.”
But the spur to buy came “courtesy of a medieval rabbi called Hillel”, she says, quoting him: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me; if I am for myself alone what am I; and if not now, when?” Deciding that the moment was absolutely now, she “looked in the usual supplements, and there it was”, and very quickly the house was hers.
The locals seem unfazed by their famous neighbour. “They don’t seem to notice or care, and why should they?” Feltz says, recounting with delight how they were presented with a freshly caught John Dory as a house-warming present. “And our neighbour Tadgh has taught Allegra’s husband how to fish, and he has caught six mackerel and is absolutely ecstatic.”
It is clear that she loves the place, and Feltz is a welcoming and friendly hostess, who has dressed up for the cameras and obligingly put her work face on. But it is her daughter, Allegra Benitah, who has invited The Irish Times to interrupt the family holiday time with notebooks, microphones and cameras, to learn more about her Challah Mummy baking project, which is responsible for those tantalising aromas wafting around the house.
“I used to be a tax lawyer for a big firm in the City, and I did that 24 hours a day, nearly, for five years. Then I had my little boy and I just thought, if I carry on doing this, I will never see my child. It was difficult because I loved my job with the firm. So I stepped away. Then I had my little girl, and I am a full-time mum to them.”
Each week the family experiment with their baking, and post images on the Challah Mummy Instagram account, which has a fast-growing following
What started out as a rainy-day amusement has taken the former lawyer in a new direction. “We’d run out of things to do, we’d read every book and sung every song, so I was thinking of something nice to do with them.” The answer was to make a batch of challah bread, the traditional Jewish plaited loaf eaten in celebration of the Sabbath. But not content with making a plain, three-strand braid, Benitah coloured the dough and they made a rainbow challah.
She has since been taking the brioche-like dough, made entirely by hand – fingers in the bowl – with flour, yeast, eggs, oil and salt, in all sorts of new directions, adding colours and flavours and designing fantastically elaborate loaves. “We started with a rainbow and it was great fun and the kids loved it,” she says. Each week the family experiment with their baking, and post images on the Challah Mummy Instagram account, which has a fast-growing following.
“My thinking was, well we’re going to have this, we hope, every week, so why don’t we make it delicious, why don’t we add flavour, why don’t we do it differently, do something that has a wow factor?”
Baking and eating challah bread is a significant element of Jewish observation of the Sabbath, so were there any restraints on Benitah’s exploration of its potential? “Not at all. As long as it’s in a spirit of celebration and enjoyment and bringing people together. I’ve had a wonderful response from the Jewish community, but also from the non-Jewish community, because people are realising that it is a bread that can be enjoyed by anyone, and it is delicious.”
By now, the smell of a savoury, homemade-pesto-stuffed tear-and-share challah loaf baking in the oven has mingled with the sugary fug of the salted caramel-stuffed loaf, the rosehip jelly studded one (both fillings, again, made by Benitah), and peach and raspberry fruit versions that she made earlier in the day. As we wait for the golden, glossy savoury loaf to come out of the oven, Feltz sets the table for tea, and Ofoedu makes a mean cuppa to go with the challah, which turns out to be a delicious, rich cakey bread, with a distinctive texture and crumb, and delicious crisp edges.
Benitah is clearly a talented cook, something she says she inherited from her grandmother, and her mother, who was always home to cook family dinner, and baked cakes for their birthday parties when she was growing up.
“I come from a generation where you sort of felt you ought to,” Feltz says. “And also, you kind of wanted to, otherwise when were you going to see the kids, talk to them, find out what they were worried about, what they were enjoying? “ But she plays down her abilities in the kitchen. “I’m an okay cook, although having said that, I did seduce Ben with my chicken soup.”
Ofoedu, who is 10 years Feltz’s junior and counts Boyzone’s Shane Lynch among his closest friends, is quick to agree. “Ah, it’s amazing. You can definitely feel it has healing qualities,” he says.
Benitah now teaches challah design workshops from her home in London, as well as doing classes for schoolchildren. In November she will participate in the Ballymaloe Craft Fair. “They have asked me to come and lead some sessions for children and their parents, so I will provide the dough and teach them how to braid it and make something lovely, and they get to take it home and bake it.”
The craft fair takes place on November 17th and 18th in the Grainstore at Ballymaloe House. Don’t be surprised, if you visit, to see a proud mother in the wings as Benitah takes the stage.
Tea is over and it’s time for the family to get back to their holiday. They’re planning on heading to the Pepperstack in Aghada, near Midleton, for a tasting-menu dinner. But first Feltz wants to “get this dress off and stick my face in the sun”.
Her plans for the week include “having loads of fun”, and catching up on the action from the Celerity Big Brother House, which she says she has been “glued to”, not missing an episode.
“If James Joyce were alive today he would be mesmerised too, fascinated by the microcosm and recruiting new candidates for his latest novel,” she says, adding that she will never regret being part of the first ever Celebrity Big Brother because it has given her “a hardy perennial conversation to enjoy at dinner parties and bus stops ever since”.
Allegra Benitah’s recipe for pesto-stuffed challah bread is at irishtimes.com/food