At age 11, I moved from a suburb in Dublin to Kenmare, Kerry. My mother, a single parent, was too ill to care for me so while she resided in The Royal Hospital, Donnybrook, I was fostered by my aunt, uncle and five cousins.
Kenmare was a different place in 1983. It didn't have the beautiful galleries, high-end hotels, bijou jewellery, clothes and book shops or the cosmopolitan cafe and gourmet restaurants back then but nestled between mountains and the bay, a triangle of streets, leading on to a square, with a small park and a view dominated by a stunning church steeple, it had a quiet, unbridled beauty.
The place in town that means most to me is a restaurant called Packie's, named after a beloved man who ran it as a general store back in the day. Even from the outside, its dark mustard walls, arched windows, delicately painted signage and window boxes brimming with colourful flowers captured me.
I remember my first visit to Packie's, all of 18 and armed with a fat paycheck in my pocket from a combination of two summer jobs, as a chambermaid in a local hotel by day and a pot-washer in a restaurant by night. I followed my friends into the small hallway and through the dark wooden door and into a room with exposed rock and limestone-plastered walls, dark rich wood, contemporary artwork, low lighting, candles, and dotted with pottery lamps, vases filled with fresh wild flowers and house plants, some of which climbed toward the rafters.
Packie's wasn't just about food, it was about a lifestyle, and I was instantly sold. That night we ate, drank and laughed, and despite standing out from the rest of the worldly clientele, we were made to feel more than welcome. The owner and chef at the time was Maura O'Connell Foley, a petite, attractive woman, always perfectly groomed and possessing a thousand-watt smile. She wasn't just a culinary genius, she was, and still is, a true force of nature.
The first time I placed a potato pancake with garlic and herb butter into my mouth and it melted on my tongue, I just about died and went to heaven. The crumbed scallops with lemon butter make my mouth water even thinking about them.
The sides were always generous and to share: string fries, colcannon and perfectly roasted veg, always enough, if not excessive, no matter how many people were seated at the table.
I've never been too interested in dessert, which is a good thing because even without it, I'd have to be rolled out of the place. I know this is an article about a special place and instead it's reading like a food porn blog - but Packie's Kenmare isn't just about magnificent food, it's about the understated beauty of the place and the welcome and the warmth that exudes within those walls.
Soon after that first meal, I left Kenmare to begin college in Dublin. Over the years, I'd return to reunite with my family. All of us kids had found ourselves in different parts of the country or abroad and so these reunions were always emotional - and always held in Packie's. I wasn't alone in my passion for the place. It was where we'd catch up and meet with old friends and neighbours. There was always someone eating at the next table that you'd be more than happy to see. It was the first place I'd bring friends and work colleagues from Dublin and I can honestly say, no one was ever disappointed. Many made the trip back to Kenmare time and again just for the Packie's experience.
That's what it was, an experience. From the warm greeting at the door to the chat about the town and who was doing what and where, to the laughs, to the delicious food and the perfect wine and the offer of a glass of something on the house at the end of the night just because we were local. It was deeply touching to be still treated as local years after I'd made the move back to Dublin.
When Maura retired, she left Packie's in the more than capable hands of her protege, Martin Hallisey. Nothing changed, he kept everything, including the menu, the same. He treated the place with the reverence it deserved, staying true to the legacy and still managing to carve out one of his own.
Martin was a worthy successor, his talent as exceptional as Maura's and he offered that same warm welcome. His staff was as loyal to him as they were to his predecessor. I looked forward to seeing Siobhan Cronin, who was always there with a greeting that often included a hug and I was ever grateful that after a night spent behind a hot oven, Martin never failed to appear with a story to tell.
Over the years and one by one, my family emigrated to New Zealand, culminating in my aunt and uncle following their kids and making a new life on the other side of the world. I was the only one to remain in Ireland; married to a man who couldn't bear the idea of living more than 10 miles from his Ma.
After a year or so, they sold the family house and so when I returned to the place I grew up in, I rented with pals or stayed in hotels. It was weird and for those first few years I felt slightly adrift. I found I missed the family more profoundly when in Kenmare but in Packie's, I still felt I had a home.
The girls in our family all had favourite items on the menu. One year I had a real dilemma when deciding whether to have the garlic pancakes or the prawn and spinach pastry with mousseline sauce. After pained deliberation, Siobhan Cronin, possibly losing the will to live, insisted I mixed it up and so the prawn with spinach pastry won the day. Magic! After that I'd order the prawn and spinach pastry every time and Martin would add a course of pancakes on the house and it meant the world.
My cousin/foster sister Brenda loved the lamb, Caroline, the lemon sole with tomato and caper salsa. Aisling was mad for the seafood sausage. Our Siobhan couldn't pass on the Dover sole stuffed with Atlantic prawns. We'd all be giddy at the prospect of an evening in Packie's.
I've had the best laughs, brightest conversations and made all sorts of plans and decisions there. I resolved to write my latest novel after discussing the pros and cons at length with my pal Valerie. I was nervous of writing a sequel to The Last Days of Rabbit Hayes, despite its success and the many requests I've had from readers to continue the story of the Hayes family.
I desperately wanted to write it because my mother-in-law Terry McPartlin inspired the character and matriarch, Molly Hayes. We lost her a few years ago.
Writing a sequel was an opportunity to spend some time with an imagined version of a woman I loved and mourned but I was torn because I wasn't quite sure how to guarantee the work would stand alone as a novel. We tossed around ideas from the starter through to our main courses and by the time we enjoyed a drink on the house, I knew what I had to do to please the dedicated Rabbit Hayes' fans. I've made plenty of resolutions within those walls; I've celebrated anniversaries, weddings, christenings, homecomings and reunions. I've eaten my own body weight and drank with abandon. I've loved every second of it as I relished every mouthful.
Then earlier this year, I heard that Maura O'Connell Foley was bringing out a cookbook, My Wild Atlantic Kitchen, a collection of recipes including all of our Packie's favourites and recollections too of her time there. I had everyone I knew on alert, my Uncle Paudie in Kenmare, my pal Valerie, I was desperate to be first in the queue. When I finally got my hands on it, it was everything I'd hoped and more. This book is to me what the lost scriptures are to a scholar, no joke. It's beautiful - but then again, it would be, filled with charming illustrations, stunning photography and Pauline Bewick prints.
Last year I celebrated finishing the manuscript for Below The Big Blue Sky, at one of my favourite tables with my old school friends. It was one of those nights filled with banter, great food, copious wine followed by a little Irish coffee and a meet with Martin's lovely mum in the back. A perfect night.
Martin Hallisey departed earlier this year. The premises is refurbished and it will soon reopen under a new name, Anois, with Thos Foley at the helm. He's keeping some of the locals' favourites on the menu and with support from Maura his mum, I have no doubt it will be a roaring success.
I was due to visit Kenmare this summer to celebrate the release of Below The Big Blue Sky with a slap-up meal but Covid has a way of changing plans. I'm no chef but I'm an enthusiastic home cook so for now I'll be practising my very own menu to serve my pals (socially distancing, of course). It won't be a patch on an evening in Packie's but it will be special - the restaurant's essence within the pages of a cookbook; my home away from home.
For opening hours, contact Anois on (064) 664-1508.
The Big Blue Sky by Anna McPartlin is out now, published by Zaffre, £12.99