The past few hours have been brought to us by Almost Forgotten Ireland. There’s been a tramp through a mossy forest, guesses at what the mystery canisters are (they’re feed bins for pheasants), then inside and feet up for a wallow in Trish Deseine’s love letter to Irish food. Her beautiful book, Home, could put the kind of hunger on you that a long day’s manual labour might do. It’s the perfect preparation for dinner in the dining room of Ballyvolane House.
I had always pegged the Cork country house as a place for hunting, shooting and marrying types. But we’re here just to rest and eat. Jenny and Justin Green took over the reins from Justin’s parents and added glamping, a wedding shed and gin to the guesthouse with its mahogany tabled dining room.
The gin, Bertha’s Revenge, is made from distilled whey and the name comes from a legendary and long-lived cow. Two baby stills have been joined by a larger one as Bertha grows her reputation.
The original plan was to flavour it with botanicals from the wildness around them but spicier curry flavours were needed to hold their own with the buttery heft of whey, Justin explains. A sloe gin, the colour and glint of melted rubies, is the latest addition to the stable and it will feature in a memorable dessert later.
The dining room at Ballyvolane is posh but in a relaxed, friendly way. Stormy, one of the family terriers, will Roomba around at our feet as dinner progresses and stare gimlet-eyed at the plate with the best potential for lamb-bone action. Tonight, there are three generations of a family celebrating a big wedding anniversary at the main long table. We get a square table to the side and settle into the cosy candles and fire-lit scene.
You take what the kitchen cooks in a dining room like Ballyvolane’s. There’s a vegetarian option which I’ll try, as it’s always a good test of a kitchen. A set menu makes sense and gives you a sense of place, of what’s growing and grazing outside these old walls.
It takes confidence to serve very simple dishes like mushrooms on toast, confidence and stellar ingredients like the Garryhinch Wood organic mushrooms grown in Laois and teamed with a cider cream and fronds of tarragon lacing a liquorice loveliness through, all of it on crispy, toasted Arbutus sourdough bread. It’s exactly the kind of dish cooked up on an old timer pan I’ve been set to thinking about by leafing through Home. Monkey read, monkey eat. Happy monkey.
Likewise the Jerusalem artichoke soup, a cup-sized portion because, let’s face it, most larger bowls of soup are too much. This one has thyme, sprigs of fresh woody herb from the walled garden and a scattering of bacon crumb.
The main events are also full of ideas done well at home but rarely served brilliantly in restaurants. Liam has the rack of Fitzgerald’s lamb, one soft buttery chop, the other chewy and gnarly like it had done more work in its day. There’s a redcurrant gravy to notch up the sweetness of the meat and beautifully cooked purple sprouting broccoli. Roast potatoes are just like they would be at home, if your home was a place where Sunday lunch was taken properly seriously.
The vegetarian main course is more good ingredients and more restaurant-level ambition with a Savoy cabbage leaf folded like a shell over luscious slices of golden beet layered with Macroom feta. There are salt, sweet and flinty mineral flavours, finished with a nutty sprinkling of hazelnut dukkah. I’d be delighted to find this level of vegetarian cooking in city restaurants where “lash on the gnocchi and be done with it” is the order of the day.
Dessert is a perfect panna cotta that is just background to the real star of the plate, blousy, boozy plums stewed in Bertha’s sloe gin, like the last of the winter stores scooped out of preserving jars and doled out carefully until the new sweet flavours arrive.
You don’t have to stay here to eat here. The dining room opens at weekends in the winter months, with more extended service in the summer. A set menu in a big house could be nostalgic rather than forward looking. Ballyvolane is no dusty relic. It’s a lovely way to experience the food of home.
Dinner for two with a gin and tonic, two glasses of wine and an apple port came to €168.20
The verdict: A big house showcasing how home-cooked food can be done
Food provenance: Excellent. Fitzgerald's lamb, those Garryhinch mushrooms and Macroom buffalo cheese among the names
Wheelchair access: The room is accessible and there is a ground-floor toilet
Vegetarian options: Excellent