Every year it happens. School finishes for the summer, and lacking any desire to tackle early morning departures over the holidays, I take the executive decision that summer camp is not for us. While I fantasize about cafe excursions, museum visits, the odd doubles match, I soon fall down to earth with a bang. Unstructured days with four boys over a 10 year age gap are filled less with magical moments and more with questions, complaining and bickering about the next activity.
Luckily this year, after a full week of no scheduled school life, all six of us, accompanied by my mother and sister, set off for the natural beauty of Southern Ireland, and a long weekend at Ballymaloe. And it turned out this was exactly the distraction we all needed. The boys roamed free, swam outside (despite the lack of sun), we all walked for miles and of course, ate ourselves silly.
This was not my first visit to this magical destination (see here), but it was our first trip en masse. Ballymaloe has been owned by the Allen family for almost 70 years. Starting as the family home and farm, it was in the 60’s when Myrtle Allen put it on the culinary map, opening up her kitchen and dining room as a restaurant serving dishes whose main ingredients were grown on their land. Ballymaloe was an early pioneer of the farm-to-table dining movement shared by the likes of Alice Waters at Chez Panisse and more recently Dan Barber at Blue Hill Farm.
The Allen family still run the hotel, holiday cottages, a full working farm, and over the years have grown the business to include the world famous cookery school, an annual literary food festival and numerous condiments and food products for sale.
The gardens at both the main house and the cookery school yield some of the most exquisite flowers, fruit and vegetables which we consumed during our visit, and we also managed to inhale vast quantities of their irresistible home churned butter from their Jersey cows on absolutely everything. Some of us woke up at the crack of dawn to bake breads and scones for breakfast in the kitchens with the pastry team, while the other boys tagged along for the morning egg collection, and were impressed to learn that at the main house alone they consume 1200 eggs a week from their hens.
Obviously, despite the clean air and exquisite scenery, the main reason for our extended family excursion to East Cork was the food. I insisted the group try every single item available for consumption in the main house, the cafe, the cookery school and their food truck, including an impromptu take away from Saturdays Pizza’s (from the cookery school’s wood fired ovens and only available on the weekend) which were gobbled up around the swimming pool during a brief moment of glorious sunshine. And no weekend is complete without a visit to a farmers market. The market in the local town of Midleton has a wonderful selection of local produce and producers, highlighted by my first ever raw milk flat white, which was nothing short of incredible.
We all had space and time to take in the air, the incredibly green landscape and partake in any activities. Every member of our group recharged their batteries, and holiday mode officially began over the course of the weekend. We found our vacation groove, and somehow the calm spirit of Ballymaloe remained with us on our return. I survived this without summer camp, channeling the spirit of my happy place and vastly increased amounts of coffee.
Whenever I feel nostalgic for my time at Ballymaloe, I make a batch of Myrtle’s scones. They are served in the main house for breakfast and tea daily and to this day the chefs still make Mrs Allen’s original recipe.