Ireland's award-winning garlic growers take us on a tour of their self-designed home
'Peter was adamant, there was to be no coving and no range," Marita Varley explains with a big smile, as she points out the coving on the ceiling in her kitchen and the Waterford Stanley range, against which she is warming her bum.
As she speaks, the same Peter Collier, farmer and architect, is sitting at the kitchen table, laughing quietly to himself. Marita got her way, just as she got her way with the laundry chute and the eye-level washer and dryer, and probably a million other things in their lovely home in Baltray, Co Louth, which Peter designed. Marita has a tendency to get her way, and Peter knows only too well that life is much more interesting for the couple - who have won several awards for their groundbreaking Drummond House garlic and asparagus - when Marita sets her mind to something.
It was, after all, the pretty blonde's determination that got this genial couple together in the first place, 14 years ago. Marita, who is from Drogheda town, had decided, after years in Dublin, working in sales and marketing, to come back home to live, as Dublin at the height of the Celtic Tiger was a very expensive city. All her childhood friends were married, and so she started to socialise a bit at County Louth Golf Club - Baltray - where her late father was captain at the time, and where she also played. "We were late out of the traps," Marita says with a laugh, adding that she was 34 and Peter was 45 when they met in the golf club. "My friends were all coupled up, so I had to construct my own social life," she explains.
"I remember being in the golf club on the June bank holiday, 14 years ago, and I saw this guy, and asked my father who he was," Marita recalls. "He said, 'That's Peter Collier, he's a lovely guy'. I said, 'That's remarkable - he's under 60 and single and I've never seen him before'. So I put my eye on him. My father was great. I said, 'If Peter Collier is in the golf club, ring me'. It was June 2004. I said to everyone in the bar, 'See that guy, he's my boyfriend, he just doesn't know it yet. They'd be saying, 'He's not even looking at you'. My father used to say, 'He has no interest in you', but he did ring me if Peter was in the golf club."
Even though both frequented the golf club, they hadn't met prior to 2004 because of the 10-year age gap. Also, Marita is from the town, and while Peter is from Baltray, he was living in Donabate at the time. After school, Peter had studied at Bolton Street and became an architect. Once qualified, he had gone to work as projects manager in Dublin Airport, where he still works - he has been involved in every major construction there in the last 26 years. He's also a farmer, having been left, by a bachelor uncle, a 100-acre farm in the late 1990s, though he didn't take it over until 2008.
Peter finally got around to noticing Marita when she had dealings with him with regard to concrete pipes for the Irish Open, which was held that year in Baltray. Their first date was the Bellewstown Races in July, and, by the end of August, they were engaged. "Peter, the second youngest of seven and known as the rock-steady brother, had to call up all his family one by one and tell them he'd got engaged. And they all said, 'To who? You don't even have a girlfriend'," Marita notes with a laugh, adding, "When we got engaged, I had to tell him, 'I've something I've got to tell you. I've been talking about you for a few months; all my family know about you'." Her family couldn't believe that she had managed to get this fabulous guy. "But you know what, I just knew from the first time I met Peter and looked into his eyes - and Peter says the same. The connection was there," Marita says.
The couple got married a year later in a marquee on one of Peter's fields, with 302 of their closest friends and family. "The amount of friends Peter had and who had never met me. They wanted to come and meet me and make sure this great guy was minded; it was lovely," says Marita. "And they were all delighted."
Some years later, their daughter Nora, (now 11) arrived, followed by Peter (now eight). When it came to having babies, Marita was very proactive, too. "There was a blip in conceiving. We said, 'We're in love, we've found each other, we'd rather have 20 years of nice times together and nice holidays, so let's not chase the rainbows, but we'll give IVF one go'. And Miss Nora comes along. It worked first time," Marita explains, adding that she actually had a miscarriage four months after Nora's birth, but two years later, young Peter was born, also by IVF on the first attempt.
After the arrival of the two babies, the couple decided to go on a pilgrimage to India to give thanks for all their good fortune; here, their journey took a new twist, and garlic entered their lives.
"I wanted to get a blessing on the steps of the Ganges river, to say thanks for my beautiful husband, my home, my beautiful kids. How many people do you hear of and their IVF attempts don't succeed - it tears people apart; let's give thanks. I got my lovely blessing; it was great," she says.
They went as part of a group with Master Shashi Dubey, and part of the trip took in Ranikhet, a place 18,000 feet above sea level. They were having lunch there and noticed what they thought were scallions growing on the side of the road. "Master Shashi said, 'They aren't scallions, that's Himalyan garlic'," Marita recalls, adding, "I thought you had to have a Mediterranean climate to grow garlic, but it was cold, wet, damp and windy in this place, just like Baltray. And Peter said, 'Will we grow a bit of garlic?'"
It was a lightbulb moment. When they came back, they did 12 months research and discovered no one was growing and selling garlic commercially at the time, so they set about learning everything about it, and, very soon, started their own crop. They're at it five years now, and already they've become the biggest growers of garlic in Ireland, and particularly elephant garlic - with this type, the individual cloves are nearly as big as a normal bulb. They have eight acres planted, and every year they have to plant in a different place, as they can only replant the same land again with garlic after seven years. The land is also farmed by a parsnip farmer who is happy to rotate his crop and move into the acres they vacate.
In just five short years, they have captured the imagination and the taste buds of all the top chefs in the country - they are sole suppliers of garlic and scapes (the flowers of garlic, quite like asparagus, which come to fruition before the garlic itself) to the Merrion. JP McMahon of Aniar; Wade Murphy; Alberto Rossi of the InterContinental Hotel; Mike Tweedie of Adare Manor, and Neven Maguire of MacNeans all use their garlic. Awards keep coming their way, including the Euro-Toques Award 2017 and the Georgina Campbell awards for 2017 and 2018. They also grow top-class asparagus.
They are quick to say they had phenomenal help from all the State agencies - Teagasc, Bord Bia, Failte Ireland, Enterprise Ireland, and the Department of Agriculture, but it's obvious their own drive and determination were essential. It's not a simple crop to grow, and, indeed, everyone thought they were crazy at the beginning, including their own families. Marita and Peter spare a thought for her father and Peter's brother - who, while they thought the duo were mad, still helped to plant the garlic by hand. To their great sadness, both died last year.
The garlic had to be hand planted until last year, when Peter invented a machine for doing it mechanically, and that has been a huge help.
He's not just the perfect husband; he's obviously also very talented, as can be seen by the house, which he started building to his own design once they got engaged, and which he project managed, using direct labour. He had designed it before the couple got together and had opted for a contemporary design. "I would be very traditional, Peter would be very contemporary; there were a few strong cups of coffee," says Marita. Peter explains his design philosophy: "I designed it around the sun," Peter notes, adding that it's simple in appearance, but it was quite complicated to maximise the sun and the light at the right time in the relevant areas. He sums up the house as follows: "The roofs are very traditional, sitting on a contemporary design. Any part of the house is only 14 feet wide with high ceilings, but you get three-dimensional views," he says.
It's a very international house; the slate on the roof is Spanish, the gutters are from Norway, while the plaster is French. The crew were international too, and included Latvians, Lithuanians and Polish, all of whom were superb, according to Peter, especially those who built the dry-stone walls. A mark of the standard of work can be assessed by the fact that 14 years on, it's all in fantastic condition.
The structure was very much Peter's baby, but as can be expected, Marita had a lot to say about the interior. And apart from the coving, the Waterford Stanley range and the laundry chute, she had one particularly brilliant idea, and that was to go to the States to buy what they needed. "It was Celtic Tiger Ireland, kitchens and other furnishings were very expensive. We were quoted €85,000 for a kitchen," Marita says. "I'd lived in Boston, and my sister still lives there. I said, 'Let's go to Boston and fill a 40-foot container', and we did and it was well worth it," she adds.
They had the standby flights because of Peter's job, and they made four trips in all over a period of 12 months. They bought literally everything they could need for the house - sofas, beds, tables, chairs, lighting, bed linen, towels - everything except carpets and curtains. "By the time we were finished, we couldn't have fitted a budgie in, the container was so full," Marita says with a laugh, adding, "We paid duty on everything we brought back, but it was still worth it. Everyone thought we were crazy, but it really worked out."
A lot about this lovely couple's journey may seem a little bit crazy - the romance, the trip to India, the trips to the States, but it's all worked out. Maybe because love is the reason behind everything. See drummondhouse.ie
Edited by Mary O'Sullivan
Photography by Tony Gavin
Sunday Indo Life Magazine