Farm Ireland

Monday 22 January 2018

If you go down to Woodfield today, you're sure of a big surprise...

Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

TODAY, I bring you a story of two cafés.

They are of similar size, based in country towns and they both opened in the past number of months. They are well located and have pleasant staff. There the similarities end.

One is Woodfield Café and Garden Centre, on the outskirts of Birr, Co Offaly.

The other located elsewhere I'm not going to name, so I will just call it 'Cafe X'.

Whether or not it's due to the endless stream of cookery books and food-related TV shows, many of us can now produce delicious meals - at least on special occasions.

So when we go out to eat, we expect that what we will be offered will be at least as good.

While haute cuisine has its place, what we usually want is what we make at home: food that is fresh, simply prepared and high quality - a revolution started by Ballymaloe's Myrtle Allen over 50 years ago, which has transformed the Irish culinary landscape.

So to Cafe X. On our first visit, I ordered a scone. Scones are one of the few things I do well myself. They are not hard to make. But they have to be served fresh. These weren't. Though my daughter Sarah's pancakes with maple syrup were good.

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I was so disappointed: for the owners, because presumably they want to make a success of the business; for myself, as I'm always happy to find a new gem; and for the town, which could do with another good eatery.

A week later, we returned, for lunch. We were greeted by several empty tables needing clearing. One of us ordered a burger. It was mass-produced and rubbery. But perhaps it was the leaves in my salad which best illustrated the contrast between the two venues.

Those at Cafe X were tired and flat. Whereas, just as I sat down to my window table at Woodfield, a waitress passed by outside, carrying a bowl of leaves she had obviously just picked in their own glasshouse.

Walking through the gate at Woodfield made me feel like I was entering an old country garden. The walls around the crunchy gravelled courtyard are highlighted by sweet-scented rambling roses while the lush garden centre beyond warmly beckoned.

The café is newly built and doesn't try to pretend otherwise. It is everyday, homely, welcoming.

Like their food, which is all made from scratch. They use the best of raw materials, with the minimum air miles: fresh as possible, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Elements of traditional country fare with a 21st-century twist.

They use real butter and organic flour. What vegetables they don't grow themselves, they source from Lough Boora Organic Farm and Birr Community Growery. Rashers and sausages are free-range from Pigs on the Green, Tullamore. The list goes on. It's a fine example of 'farm to fork'.

Signs on, as my mother used to say: the place was buzzing.

There were new mothers with babies, couples, a few larger groups: younger, smartly dressed ones on lunch break and retired well-heeled women, wearing lots of linen and bearing big-label handbags.

The servings are not massive so they mightn't satisfy a hungry farmer but that didn't seem to be the kind of clientele they were trying to attract.

I ordered a red pepper quiche. As it happens, quiche is one of the other things that I make. It's a lot of work. It's also always eaten. But this quiche was light-years ahead of mine. It was light and fluffy, bursting with flavour.

They do a lot of things with eggs. In the garden centre, I bumped into their own flock of hens, led by a Peking cockerel.

Run by members of the Ward family, the garden centre has been on the go for some time, but this new café has added a whole new dimension to the enterprise.

Woodfield oozes class and charm. It's a taste of paradise in the midlands.

Indo Farming