Sunday 26 May 2019

Cork: Modern Farmette's brilliant food and photography breaks

Lens & Larder

Foodies Cliodhna Prendergast and Imen McDonnell - author of 'The Farmette Cookbook' - organise the Lens & Larder photography retreats.
Foodies Cliodhna Prendergast and Imen McDonnell - author of 'The Farmette Cookbook' - organise the Lens & Larder photography retreats.
Cork's English Market, which has been trading since 1788, has a massive variety of foods - and is also a great place to savour the local banter.
Ballyvolane House
Justin and Jenny Green with their family outside Ballyvolane House

Susan Jane White

Susan Jane White joins Imen McDonnell and friends for a photography weekend with a difference in Cork.

Farmette is a curious name. It's the sort of creature you would expect to see in an episode of The Smurfs, with oversized dungarees and an irritatingly high bounce.

In real life, Farmette is Ireland's most successful food blog, run by a suave, sophisticated (and American) television director called Imen. Limerick did well to win her over. As did her farming husband, Richard McDonnell. We can now, officially, call her one of our own. And there's even a cookbook to prove it (The Farmette Cookbook: Recipes and Adventures From My Life on an Irish Farm).

Aside from running the McDonnell farm, singing to heifers and chasing renegade hay bales with her son, Imen also runs a professional photography workshop called Lens & Larder across Ireland.

The one I attended was held on the stunning grounds of Ballyvolane House in Co Cork. Up there with Ballyfin and Hilton Park, it's one of the great country houses of Ireland. Imen's partner in Lens & Larder is Cliodhna Prendergast, host at Bally­nahinch Castle. Both women are impossibly gorgeous, straight from a Vermeer painting. Their presence is unmistakable - enough to incite poetry in George Hook.

Arriving in Cork for my workshop, I was emotionally knackered after driving for three hours in a stubborn car with a defunct satnav. It was the perfect way to start a three-day break, especially given that Ballyvolane has its own distillery. The next few hours were bathed in handcrafted gin cocktails with crushed ice and rhubarb syrup (using ingredients from its own walled garden). It was like liquid Solpadeine for my indolent limbs. After that, I don't remember much. But my photography skills sure did improve.

I'm always searching for a good photography course - and have attended more than I care to remember. Most courses were passive, achingly dull and uninspiring. I was dreading the thought of spending the next three days with total strangers.

Was it possible to implode with anxiety? Would they let me decompress? Would every waking minute be spent in each other's company, making platitudinous remarks and pretending to be best friends? Would I suppress the urge to tear out someone's tongue in an attempt to stop their inner monologue from being externalised?

Ballyvolane House
Ballyvolane House

Yes, I had my issues. They were all neatly packed in my suitcase.

Many readers love the company that holiday workshops can offer -from three-day breadmaking courses in San Francisco, to permaculture in Cloughjordan Ecovillage.

But what's in it for the introvert?

Don't fret - I find both extroverts and introverts excel in such an environment. Participation is not obligatory. At any point you can retreat and indulge in a good book, or some headspace. You work at your own rhythm - which is what holidays are all about, no?

Over the course of three days, Lens & Larder workshops organise a suite of local producers that participants can meet and photograph. Fingal Ferguson was hopped upon by eight eager women clutching their lenses, demanding to "have him up against the wall" or "definitely in the potting shed". (English was not everyone's first language). Fingal runs the Gubbeen Smokehouse, one of Ireland's most treasured farmhouses, producing top-class cheese and local charcuterie.

This crazy-talented artisan also specialises in bespoke knives and metallurgy (more like a metal orgy, to judge from the squeals of delight coming from the workshop's guests). His craftsmanship is astonishing, which might help explain the two-year waiting list for his handcrafted blades.

Cork's English Market, which has been trading since 1788, has a massive variety of foods - and is also a great place to savour the local banter.
Cork's English Market, which has been trading since 1788, has a massive variety of foods - and is also a great place to savour the local banter.

 Nevertheless, we managed to hold him at knifepoint and demand "compulsory purchase" before his release. He put up a good fight, distracting us with his latest venison chorizo and aged Gubbeen. Damn him.

We later built a splendid shrine to all the local produce from Cork's English Market, and spent time making friends with the aperture and ISO on our cameras.

After an hour, I can tell you that ISO was my New Best Friend. Under the watchful eye of award-winning Dutch photographer Renee Kemps, each guest had one-on-one time to ask Renee questions and seek counsel. She has an outstanding work discipline, and I felt incredibly privileged and humbled that she was so willing to share her trade secrets with us. My photography benefited immensely from her generosity, but so too did my soul. I hadn't expected to make new friends and real connections on this break (see paragraph four). Our shared experiences, coupled with time, brought us closer together.

One of the best adventures of the trip was limping giddily through the grounds of Ballyvolane in dirty wellies, foraging for food. It felt like a scene from Into The Wild, but was probably closer to Father Ted. I was more interested in following Justin Green and Antony Jackson on the hunt for local botanicals to be used for their gin, Bertha's Revenge. Justin graciously showed us the secret recipe later at the distillery.

 Made in small batches, and with just under 20 different spices, herbs and botanicals, no gin can compete with its authenticity and roar. Our nostrils did a mighty samba while we clicked away, chronicling the life of a distiller in rural Ireland. Magical. The next morning at 5am, I understood Bertha's Revenge. My liver was not on speaking terms with me. The revenge doesn't end there. She's been on my mind ever since. I know there's plenty more gin in the ocean, but nothing else satisfies my thirst in quite the same way.

I went on Lens & Larder to improve my photography skills, and to tolerate the predictable small talk that comes with workshop holidays. Over the course of three nights, I became a much better photographer while having the best craic imaginable with total strangers. While these courses do not come cheap, they offer inimitable experiences and peerless tutoring. Do it.

Getting there

Lens & Larder workshops are run throughout the year at Ballynahinch Castle in Connemara, Co Galway, and at Ballyvolane House, Co Cork. Visit for details of upcoming workshops. Prices start at €2,000 per person, and include accommodation, food, tuition and a bespoke welcome package for every guest. Prior photography experience is not required.

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