21 big houses with big flavours: gourmet getaways where the produce has been freshly plucked from the ground outside
Big Houses and even bigger flavours - plan a gourmet getaway where the produce has been freshly plucked from the ground outside, writes Jillian Bolger
In the 1700s and 1800s, Ireland's Big Houses and country estates were built with kitchen gardens to keep the residents self-sufficient. While many were subsequently abandoned and left unloved, a new-found focus on sustainability and a thriving country house hotel scene has seen many of these fine properties rediscovering the joys and benefits of their historic walled gardens. Most have undergone extensive restoration work, creating beautiful spaces for guests to visit, while providing an abundance of organic, in-season crops to the kitchen. It's a lovely way for country houses and hotels to showcase the best of homegrown produce - and nothing beats a stroll in a burgeoning walled garden before tucking into a menu of seasonal vegetables, salads, fruit and herbs with zero food miles and that irresistible just-picked flavour.
1 Hilton Park, Monaghan
Set the scene: A fabulous country house with serious grounds, Hilton Park's kitchen gardens were built in front of the lake in the 1740s, before being moved in 1870 to a new 1.3-acre walled site. Tended by food writer and cook Lucy Madden, expect to find joyful displays, both growing and on your plate at dinner in the sumptuous pile. Courgette flower, anyone?
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Top of the crops: Lucy has added sea kale to a line-up that includes such colourful beauties as purple sprouting broccoli, rainbow chard, wild rocket, curly kale, rhubarb, huckleberries and white currants.
Garden gossip: Clay from the estate was used to make the lovely red bricks of the old garden walls. These were fired on site in three specially made kilns.
Signature summer dish: Courgette flowers, salmon mousseline, tomato and basil oil.
The details: hiltonpark.ie
2 Ballynahinch Castle, Galway
Set the scene: An iconic Connemara hideaway, the welcoming four-star castle hotel only began restoring its 19th-century kitchen gardens in 2016. Head gardener Cian Cunniffe tends 2.5 acres, a mix of lawns, wildflowers, herbaceous perennials, fruit and veg.
Top of the crops: 2018 was the first year the garden was planted, so 2019 is the first true year of proper production in the garden. A striking new greenhouse grows all the vegetables from seed.
Garden gossip: The old stone walls were rebuilt by local stonemasons using the original stone. Drainage work uncovered original-stone French drains too, which, after a little TLC, are still draining the garden 200 years later.
Signature summer dish: Locally caught black sole on the bone served with Killary mussels and carrots from the walled garden.
The details: ballynahinch-castle.com
3 Longueville House, Cork
Set the scene: A 300-year-old Georgian house in the lush Blackwater Valley, William O'Callaghan's impressive ancestral home is celebrated for the delicious seasonal cooking and hospitality, overseen by his wife, Aisling. The wonderful organic kitchen garden dates back to 1829 and grows every manner of crop, with gardeners using seaweed, compost and animal manures in place of weedkillers, pesticides and artificial manure. Top of the crops: Growing everything imaginable, except exotics, they added purple mangetout and Colleen potatoes this year.
Garden gossip: An apple orchard in the walled garden is filled with old heritage apple trees. Additionally, there are 30 acres of apple orchards used to produce Longueville House's excellent cider and apple brandy.
Signature summer dish: Walled garden summer salad: pea, broad bean, smoked beetroot purée, pickled radish, lovage oil and toffee strawberry.
The details: longuevillehouse.ie
4 Dunbrody House, Wexford
Set the scene: Kevin and Catherine Dundon's handsome country house on Hook Head has been a dining destination for 20 years. Luxurious and relaxing, the boutique hideaway came with an overgrown kitchen garden that has been developed with polytunnels and raised beds. Totally organic, gardener Seamus works with Kevin to deliver year-round seasonal fare.
Top of the crops: Kalettes and rainbow carrots were added this year to an impressive line-up of asparagus, cabbages, spring onions, peas, beans, onions, leeks, courgettes, squash, tomatoes, beetroot, rhubarb, herbs and fruits.
Garden gossip: Guests are welcome to explore, but beware the colony of bees who have set up home at the end of the garden.
Signature summer dish: Raspberry and tarragon tart using 'Autumn Bliss' variety raspberries from the kitchen garden.
The details: dunbrodyhouse.com
5 Hunter's Hotel, Wicklow
Set the scene: The oldest coaching inn in Ireland, chocolate box-pretty Hunter's Hotel dates back 200 years and overlooks the River Vartry. Spread across an acre, the country gardens are a joy to explore. They are tended by Brian O'Rorke and Joe Carton, who produce an impressive haul each year.
Top of the crops: Sweetcorn, kale and beetroot were added this year, alongside red cabbage, purple sprouting broccoli, Jerusalem and globe artichokes, and pumpkins. Garden gossip: Hunter's berry game is impressive, with raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, bed currants, wineberries and blueberries in season alongside an abundance of orchard fruits.
Signature summer dish: Salmon mayonnaise featuring leaves, vegetables and herbs from the kitchen garden.
The details: hunters.ie
6 Newforge House, Armagh
Set the scene: The handsome family home of chef John Mathers and his pastry chef wife, Lou, Newforge House is one of Ireland's best-kept gourmet secrets. John's outstanding cooking features local ingredients, including meats from Peter Hannan, while, in summer, the garden provides all the veg, herbs and soft fruits John needs.
Top of the crops: Steve, the gardener, planted broccoli raab this year to join a huge list of vegetables, including red kale, rainbow carrots, cavolo nero, herbs, soft fruits and tomatoes.
Garden gossip: After breakfast, guests often take down leftover toast to feed the rare-breed chickens in the orchard.
Signature summer dish: Cream of spring greens and garden herb soup with chive flowers.
The details: newforgehouse.com
7 Enniscoe House, Mayo
Set the scene: With a stand-out kitchen garden, Enniscoe House has been in the Kellett family since the 1650s, with the present layout of its kitchen garden dating from 1870. At the foot of Mount Nephin in north Mayo, the welcoming country house hotel's kitchen has had Organic Trust certification for 24 years and enjoys an incredible bounty that draws garden enthusiasts annually. Top of the crops: From jalapeños to striped beets, white aubergines to yellow cucumbers, the selection of vegetables grown here is a kaleidoscopic joy.
Garden gossip: The garden produces so much over the season that a big order goes out each week to the Ice House Hotel in Ballina.
Signature summer dish: Early in the season, a salad plate of four types of lettuce, rocket and wild garlic leaves.
The details: enniscoe.com
8 Kilmokea Manor & Gardens, Wexford
Set the scene: Set among leafy loveliness, Kilmokea Manor's gardens stretch to seven acres and include woodland, an Italian loggia, trout lake and a kitchen garden that was planted 17 years ago. Tended by Ciaran Fitzgerald alongside the Hewlett family who live here, guests can expect treats like beetroot and orange salad with greens from the garden on the summer menu.
Top of the crops: Look out for calabrese, squash, spinach, kale and nasturtiums amongst the usual favourites.
Garden gossip: A potager of 1,250 boxus makes a favourite maze where younger visitors can explore the fruit and vegetables growing there.
Signature summer dish: Roast beetroot and organic orange salad with Kilmokea greens with a honey, balsamic and olive oil dressing.
The details: kilmokea.com
9 Tankardstown House, Meath
Set the scene: A beautiful country house in rolling countryside, Tankardstown House is something of a luxury destination, with gardens that are both immense and impressive. The 18th-century kitchen garden was restored in 2010, giving chefs enviable access to 200 square metres of seasonal homegrown delights.
Top of the crops: Over 70 varieties of fruit and veg from the garden are used in the kitchens here and at sister property the Conyngham Arms. More unusual items include wasabi, Highland Red potatoes, black Tuscan kale, tayberries and Cape gooseberries.
Garden gossip: An annual 'Taste of the Estate' event menu is designed around seasonal produce from the garden.
Signature summer dish: The menus change throughout the year and they say they're fortunate enough to be able to use produce from the garden 12 months a year.
The details: tankardstown.ie
10 Viewmount House, Longford
Set the scene: Chef Gary O'Hanlon helped put the Kearneys' Viewmount House on the map and the carefully run country house is still a dining destination, helped in no small part by chef Marcio Laan's access to the restored kitchen garden. Three-quarters of an acre, the once derelict site is now a cornerstone of the hideaway's appeal.
Top of the crops: Jerusalem artichoke, rhubarb, onions, carrots, peas, herbs, apples and berries all thrive here.
Garden gossip: The circular garden has a seating pavilion in the centre overlooked by statues of the four seasons.
Signature summer dish: Jerusalem artichoke purée, pickle, crisp, egg and langoustine.
The details: viewmounthouse.com
11 Coopershill House, Sligo
Set the scene: A relaxed retreat set in a 500-acre estate, Coopershill House boasts an organic kitchen garden that is 245 years old. With eight bedrooms, it's an intimate country house hotel serving exceptional food, much of which grows metres from the dining room. Head gardener Helen McCauley, with help from owners Simon and Christina O'Hara, looks after the 700-square-metre plot.
Top of the crops: Rhubarb, wintering leeks, broccoli and beets are usually the first crops of the year, with the space delivering 80pc of the produce for the house from June to October.
Garden gossip: Homemade spicy rhubarb chutney served with the cheese board is a Coopershill staple.
Signature summer dish: The above served with a vegetable side dish of chard, baby beetroot and spinach.
The details: coopershill.com
12 Mount Falcon, Mayo
Set the scene: A romantic Gothic hideaway, built by a lovestruck man for his bride, Mount Falcon is now a luxury hotel in Mayo with a reputation for fine dining. The organic kitchen garden has been a six-year project, managed and maintained by head gardener Paul Halbard. There are formally laid-out beds, and other areas of fruits, herbs, a tea garden, edible flowers and an orchard. The garden also has three large polytunnels.
Top of the crops: The garden specialises in baby vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, micro leaves and items which are either difficult for the chefs to source or expensive to buy. Purple asparagus is currently being harvested along with speciality salad leaves and courgette flowers.
Garden gossip: Guided tasting tours are available to guests during summer by appointment through reception.
Signature summer dish: Seared king scallop, fermented cabbage, oyster emulsion.
The details: mountfalcon.com
13 Marlfield House, Wexford
Set the scene: Fabled for the Bowe family's hospitality, Marlfield House offers a luxurious country house experience with the option of formal dining or more relaxed fare in The Duck restaurant. The grounds are a real draw, with the burgeoning kitchen gardens developed over 40 years ago. Top of the crops: Supplying many vegetables for both restaurants, including all the salad and herbs for the cocktail bars, the first crop each year is usually rhubarb for breakfast and delicious rhubarb Eton Mess.
Garden gossip: Resident peacock George has been joined this year by a visiting woodpecker, whose red head makes him easy to spot.
Signature summer dish: Bruschetta of roasted pumpkin, red onion, baby beets, crumbled feta, hazelnuts and za'atar yoghurt dressing.
The details: marlfieldhouse.com
14 Rathmullan House, Donegal
Set the scene: Rathmullan House was built by the Batt Family, founders of the Northern Bank, with the gardens dating back to the 1890s. Set in wooded grounds overlooking Lough Swilly, the award-winning country house is known for its warm hospitality and creature comforts. A more plant-based menu was introduced this year, which changes depending on what's available in their gardens.
Top of the crops: The half-acre site enjoys a warmer and drier microclimate, allowing everything from chicory to runner beans, loganberries and damsons to thrive.
Garden gossip: When Bob and Robin Wheeler bought the hotel in the 1960s, they inherited Seamus the donkey. One of his jobs was to plough the walled garden, and you can find the remains of the plough in the garden today.
Signature summer dish: During the summer months a favourite would be loganberry or gooseberry fool with homemade shortbread and Donegal cream.
The details: rathmullanhouse.com
15 Dromoland Castle, clare
Set the scene: Parts of Dromoland Castle's beautiful brick walled garden date back to the early 1700s. Head gardener Dorothea Madden has been tending and helping restore them for over 20 years, creating a restful space within the huge estate that guests love to visit.
Top of the crops: Executive chef David McCann has his pick of herbs, tomatoes, pears, apples, courgettes, peppers and Jerusalem artichokes from across the gardens.
Garden gossip: Nelson Mandela and Hillary Clinton are two notable guests to have enjoyed Dromoland's walled gardens.
Signature summer dish: In summer, tomato consommé; in autumn, Jerusalem artichoke and hazelnut soup.
The details: dromoland.ie
16 Ashley Park, Tipperary
Set the scene: With its distinctive white and green façade, the elegant 18th-century Ashley Park sits on 76 acres of woodland and formal gardens. It's a tranquil Nenagh hideaway epitomising old-fashioned charm, and enjoys a wonderful new kitchen garden with a smartly restored greenhouse.
Top of the crops: Organically growing more than 30 vegetables, herbs and fruits, there are exceptionally old apple trees bearing fruit too.
Garden gossip: As a bird sanctuary, Ashley Park hosts geese, swans and buzzards, along with a number of resident peacocks.
Signature summer dish: Pear and almond tart made with pears grown in the Ashley Park orchard.
The details: ashleypark.com
17 BrookLodge & Macreddin Village, wicklow
Set the scene: Boasting Ireland's first certified organic restaurant, The Strawberry Tree, BrookLodge has always had nature at its heart. Offering add-ons like foraging workshops, lively food markets and wild food masterclasses, this leafy four-star hotel and spa is a serious destination for food and nature lovers.
Top of the crops: Along with the organic herb garden, orchards and vineyard, foraging is big here. Menus feature wild foods harvested locally from the hedgerows and woodlands.
Garden gossip: A tiny vineyard delivers 220 litres of wine each year alongside grappa and vinegar, while the orchard apples produce cider, vinegar and fresh apple juice.
Signature summer dish: Woodruff panna cotta in the pastry section. (However, the BrookLodge culinary team is also a fan of woodruff hollandaise.)
The details: brooklodge.com
18 Ballyfin Demesne, Laois
Set the scene: Arguably Ireland's most impressive hotel, the 18th-century kitchen gardens at breathtaking Ballyfin are as grand as you'd expect. Tended by eight gardeners, the nine-acre space is a riot of colour in summer, with an impressive harvest informing chef Sam Moody's menus.
Top of the crops: Ballyfin's orchards provide cherries, plums, damsons, greengages and figs, with some apple trees over 150 years old. (The apple juice here is divine!)
Garden gossip: All of the flowers used in the house have been grown in the beautiful gardens.
Signature summer dish: Confit stone bass with sea kale, potato, chestnut mushrooms and butter sauce.
The details: ballyfin.com
19 Beech Hill Country House, Derry
Set the scene: For years, Beech Hill's walled garden lay idle until an old cookbook from a previous owner was discovered, inspiring a new era of kitchen-garden farming under the care of Bob Peaker, Beech Hill's gardener. Dating back 400 years, with the original manor house, it was only fully restored 30 years ago upon the opening of the hotel.
Top of the crops: Asparagus has been planted for the first time this year, joining a long line-up of successful crops.
Garden gossip: Robert the gardener takes such tender, loving care of the vegetables he tends, he has been known to shed a tear upon picking them to hand over to chef Leigh.
Signature summer dish: Garden salad with crisp egg, asparagus, radish, pickled cauliflower, roast garlic and aioli.
The details: beech-hill.com
20 Lough Rynn Castle, Leitrim
Set the scene: The ancestral home of the legendary Lord Leitrim, today Lough Rynn Castle is a luxury hotel in a beautiful 300-acre estate with especially attractive gardens.
Top of the crops: Summer fruits produce the biggest harvest, which is used for preserves and afternoon tea service. The vegetable garden provides a very small amount of produce, just enough to give a sense of place on the menus.
Garden gossip: Three terraces make up the formal gardens: one a kitchen garden; one a sculpted garden of herbaceous perennials and pergolas, and the third a water fountain feature with 1867 summer house leading down to the private lakeshore.
Signature summer dish: Rhubarb parfait with rhubarb compote and a rhubarb jelly.
The details: loughrynn.ie
21 The Mustard Seed, Limerick
Set the scene: Housed in a fabulous Victorian building with a colourful history (built by a priest to annoy his Protestant counterpart, then turned into a convent), this Ballingarry institution became the Mustard Seed in 1995 - a relaxed country house hotel with gardens that were planted a year later by the then owner's sister, Josephine Madden.
Top of the crops: The lesser-spotted medlar, yacon root, figs, horseradish, marrow and polytunnel-grown kiwis join a traditional line-up of classic fruit, herbs and vegetables. Protected from the northwest winds and at the foot of a hill, the warm conditions offer great growing conditions.
Garden gossip: A number of meditating Buddha statues in the garden are found in spots left vacant by the religious statues that were there.
Signature summer dish: The salad course in the classic menu always features their salad leaves when in season.
The details: mustardseed.ie