Fab food leaves you Hungary for more
An enterprising couple run a welcoming farmhouse that offers a taste of Eastern Europe, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
WE have been hearing an awful lot about the Hungarian toxic sludge disaster lately, and Hungary is not a country we normally hear an awful lot about. However, I recently came across Patrick and Miriam Mulcahy, in Mitchelstown, Co Cork, for whom the news from Hungary will have had a major impact.
Mulcahys' Ballinwillin House is an oasis for lovers of artisan food and wine.
The house is set on 80 acres in the heart of the Golden Vale and here they raise deer, as well as rare-breed pigs and geese. They also own a vineyard in Hungary and have built at Ballinwillin a wonderful wine cellar, and an Austro-Hungarian-style wine barn where they cater for groups and events.
Patrick and Miriam bought Ballinwillin House in 1985, take guests for bed and breakfast for which they charge €35 pps and €40 single. They have recently developed a stable block into a beautiful courtyard lodge. They also have two bedrooms in the main house for bed and breakfast. In the evenings you can partake of what Miriam calls her "One-Pot Wonders" for €15 at her kitchen table.
Patrick, originally from west Limerick, met Miriam, when he was a young garda in Dublin and she was in the civil service. He worked nights as a garda and during the day worked as a greenkeeper at the Royal Dublin Golf Club. After a few years Patrick was transferred to Mitchelstown.
In the mid-Eighties Patrick bought a 1,000-acre farm in Hungary in partnership with the Hungarian Meat Marketing Board where they did deer farming. They used to catch wild deer in the forests and take them for breeding.
After the Chernobyl disaster all the venison was wiped out, particularly in Russia, so "it was perceived that there was a shortage". Patrick went all over the world researching the venison market. Hungary, he found, was the place with the biggest and most efficient deer and so he went into the venison business exporting all over the world for 13 years before it was bought by an American firm.
He loves Hungary, has great friends there, and is involved with the Hungarian community in Ireland. It took time to establish himself with the Hungarians as "in the beginning they did tend to see everyone coming in to the country as trying to take advantage of them".
He built up a very good relationship and understands their way of doing business. "You have to work with the families, socialise with the families, get to know them."
He also adores the traditional Hungarian food. "All of these farms in Hungary will all still have their own charcuterie, salamis and sausages -- it is wonderful."
We walked out to look at the animals and were bowled over by the beautiful young deer who came up to the feeding troughs. We then moved out, passing raucous squawking geese, and some well-behaved hens, to a field sectioned into long runs for the pigs. They specialise in Iron Age pigs and Old Irish Grazers, which have a gorgeous bronze sheen. "They get very domesticated," said Patrick.
They sell the animals for breeding purposes and the rest go for meat. About 70 per cent of everything they produce they sell from their farm shop or it is used for banquet-style catering in the wine barn.
"We don't export now. Supermarkets draw the blood out of you. We started 15 years ago but we found that 10 years later we were getting less than when we started. Doing what we do now was the only way we could see of staying in farming, selling direct, and cooking for people.
"We do cookery demos showing people how we make butter, sausages, salami, and so on. It is very simple. We say 'this is what we produce, this is what we do with it.' We also do a lot of wine-tastings and I really enjoy it."
Again there is nothing pretentious about Pat. He simply says "you are very welcome, I'm your waiter for the evening you are the experts".
He doesn't lecture like many wine buffs.
Pat is an expert when it comes to deer. Charles Haughey once called on his help when other experts had failed -- Pat managed to round up his 33 deer at Abbeville within two hours. Indeed the 'Boss' travelled to the forests of Hungary with Pat and "couldn't get over the way of life there."
After our farm tour we retired to the wine cellar. We tasted the most amazing wines before rejoining Miriam in the kitchen for lunch.
Miriam fed us lavishly, with smoked salmon stuffed with prawns, followed by the most divine venison and red wine casserole served with rice and gratin Dauphinoise -- and superb Hungarian wine including a Chateau Mulcahy Clos du John Patrick Cabernet Franc and a divine Chateau Mulcahy Kethelyi Semillon Ausbruch 2001.
I think this couple are extraordinary -- but Pat gently corrects me. "Everybody has it within themselves to do something themselves. Good guys are always busy."