Thursday 22 February 2018

My favourite room: Their own Italian job

Celebrity chef Catherine Fulvio and her Italian husband show Mary O’Sullivan their historical home, set in the stunning Wicklow landscape. Photography by Tony Gavin

The elegant drawing room. Photo: Tony Gavin
The elegant drawing room. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary O'Sullivan

Mary O'Sullivan

'I'd love to be able to tell you I met him on a gondola in Venice, but it was actually in O'Dwyers Pub in Mount Street," Catherine Fulvio laughs, as she describes the rather prosaic setting of her first encounter with her future husband, Claudio.

But while it may not have been romantic, it was certainly full of drama. It was the night in 1995 when England came to play Ireland in Lansdowne Road and the England fans rioted. As a result, the pubs in the area closed their doors, and the drinkers already inside were locked in. These included Catherine and Claudio, a London-based accountant who had come to Ireland to do an audit. "I had to talk to him," she says with a giggle.

Catherine's maiden name is Byrne; by marrying Claudio she gained not only a lovely Sicilian husband, but also a fantastic name for a celebrity chef. These days it's all happening for her with a TV series on RTE, Catherine's Italian Kitchen, and appearances on the American networks, where she has been described as "the queen of Irish cooking". While Catherine may have a name which sets her apart -- something which is very useful in the competitive world of TV -- she also has all the other qualities necessary for a successful presenter of a cookery programme: dark, sultry looks, a bubbly personality and, of course, impeccable cooking credentials.

It's clear from her performances that she has a genuine love of food and a great grounding in the culinary arts, which, it transpires, dates from her childhood, when she used to help her late mother cook for the visitors who came to stay in their guest house. "Mum opened the house as a B&B in 1968," Catherine explains. "Her main business was families from Dublin -- it was before the Irish started going on foreign holidays. My job was to help her in the kitchen. She did three meals a day, and she put on such a show for the guests. She was a fantastic cook, always entering and winning competitions."

She obviously inherited her mother's work ethic and competitive spirit. In addition to her TV work and role as mother to the delightful Charlotte, seven, and Rowan, six, Catherine combines the business of running her charming Victorian farmhouse, Ballyknocken House, Co Wicklow, as a guest house, with her thriving cookery school, situated in a former milking parlour. Here, the dark-eyed beauty and her fellow instructors teach cookery courses such as Delicious Dinner Parties, One Pot Wonders and Gourmet on a Budget.

Catherine had no idea when she left school that life would turn out as it has, and that she would own a school. Interestingly, however, teaching was originally part of her plan. She did a degree in German and Irish with the purpose of becoming a teacher, but it was not to be. "I took a year out and went to Germany, where I taught English for a year. I didn't take to the teaching at all," she recalls. So she jettisoned the teaching career. A job with the bank followed the degree, but she didn't take to that either, so she went back to college and did PR and marketing. That led to a job at Tinakilly House, Co Wicklow, and it was there she began to find her niche. "My job was to get the place known, and I loved it," she says. "I had a passion for old properties, antiques and food."

Soon after she began that job, she met Claudio, and they married in the autumn of 1996. "I stayed in Tinakilly and commuted at weekends to London," Catherine recalls. "Not ideal for a just-married scenario, but he was waiting to get a job in Ireland."

It finally worked out: Claudio did get a job here, and they set up home in Ireland, though from the beginning they spent long periods in Sicily where the couple have a villa by the sea. That is where Catherine began to experiment with Italian cuisine. "Claudio's parents live part of the year in England and part in Sicily," Catherine says. "His mother is a great cook, as is his aunt. I usually cook an Irish meal for his family and they show me their recipes. I also pick up ideas from meals I have out in restaurants when we're in Sicily."

Two years after Catherine and Claudio married, Catherine's mother died, and it was decided that Catherine would take over Ballyknocken House and the guest-house business, leaving her father -- who now lives in a cottage on the land -- to concentrate on the family farm with the part-time help of her two brothers, Paul and Karl. Catherine's sister, Eithne, is a vet, and also something of a farmer.

"Our family is long established in farming in Wicklow; we have vellum documents relating to the farm dating back to the 1500s," Catherine explains. "This house dates from the 1850s. It was built for a none-too-popular rent collector, who was murdered after he informed on local rebels. My grandparents came here in the Twenties. My dad was brought up here, and we always lived here."

Before taking over the guest house, Catherine decided to do a Ballymaloe cookery course to hone her skills. She found it gave her fantastic confidence and soon she was making lunches at Ballyknocken for non-resident private groups. Their compliments translated into a demand for lessons, and she started running classes. One day, she had 30 German ladies in the house for lunch and was teaching them, in German, how to cook a dish -- who'd have thought the German would come in handy, eventually? -- when her baby daughter started to cry. "I didn't know what to do, continue teaching or attend to Charlotte," Catherine confesses. Her dilemma led to her decision to move the lessons out of the house.

The farm had been switched from dairy to sheep, leaving a milking parlour redundant, and in 2003 Catherine opened up the cookery school proper. "My first pupils were five Norwegian chefs, who I didn't know were chefs until they turned up for their lessons in full uniforms and tall hats," Catherine says, laughing. "They had all won gold medals, but it turned out grand, as the course was about Irish food. They're still in touch, and often ask me for recipes."

Usually, pupils are not professionals. Private individuals sign up to learn to cook, and companies such as O2, Meteor, Brinks Allied, and Unilever Brothers all send their staff to Catherine on team-building courses.

The cookery students are a sharp contrast to the guests who stay in Ballyknocken House. The guests tend to be German and Dutch walkers who, Catherine says, are blown away by the beauty of the Wicklow mountains.

They also love the grounds around the house -- which include a well-stocked herb garden -- and the Victorian decor of the guest house. When they first took over, Catherine and Claudio completely renovated the guest house. "As Mum had developed her business, she added extension to extension. So we decided to gut it, and rebrand as a four-star guest house," explains Catherine.

The result is a 10-bedroom house, seven of them en suite. They are all decorated in Victorian colours such as old rose and burgundy and furnished with old pieces, many of which came from Catherine's grandmother's home, and others from auction rooms and even skips. "My brother rang and said he saw a wardrobe and dressing table in a skip. 'What do you think?' he said, 'I'll send up the sheep trailer,' I said," Catherine relates with a laugh.

On the ground floor there are two cosy sitting rooms, a large dining room, a playroom and, of course, a kitchen which is full of culinary mementos from all over the world. "A guest sent me an encyclopedia of Creole cuisine, I've got recipes from Louisiana, I get tea towels posted to me with recipes on them. It's amazing," she says, "the guests send me recipes from wherever they're from."

Sounds as if, even should she exhaust Italy, Catherine Fulvio has material for many other TV series.

For details of cookery courses, see

Sunday Independent

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