Thursday 22 February 2018

Nine out of ten cats prefer... Kilkenny

 

Resplendid: Lyrath Estate Hotel
Resplendid: Lyrath Estate Hotel
Anna Coogan

Anna Coogan

Going down the country on the train is always great fun. There's the chat, bags of crisps, and watching the fields whizz by - and me and my pal are in relaxed holiday form when we're met by James Doran in Kilkenny. James is our driver for the weekend, and on his taxi tours he regularly shares his knowledge of the area with tourists, and it seems quite a few visiting Dubs.

James drops us off at Lyrath Estate Hotel, our five-star luxurious base for the weekend, and which is a short drive outside the medieval capital of Ireland. As soon as we're in the door of this 17th century country house, which has been restored to its original grandeur, we find ourselves in a light-filled lobby with larger-than-life Greek-style statues - the very playfulness of which lets us know we're about to get a real break from life.

But before we get too comfy in our splendid suite, which is a short walk from the hotel's spa, we're off to Ryeland House Cookery School in Cuffesgrange for a cookery lesson - the first activity in our all-go couple of days.

Ryeland House is a country farm house which was built in 1845, and has been the home of the Neary family for over four generations. We're welcomed into the house by Anne Neary, cook, writer and broadcaster, and told to make ourselves at home. It's an easy ask, as Ryeland House is a house full of old-world charm and elegance, right down to its antique furnishings and fine bone china.

Anne opens her cookery book, as in the cookery book she has written, and sets about teaching us how to make two recipes in her rustic kitchen - Brazilian chicken with spicy tomato and coconut sauce, and a rhubarb tart.

Did you know the secret to a perfect rhubarb tart is to slice up a couple of ripe strawberries and place them on top of the rhubarb? The added sweetness is delicious.

I keep saying it's the nicest cake I've had in a long time and my pal keeps saying I'm only saying it because I think I have made it. But it is the tastiest cake I've had in a while whatever she says.

Next we're off to Highbank Orchards to meet owners Rod and Julie Calder-Potts, who give us a guided tour of their apple orchards and distillery. The couple planted their first apples in 1969, and today they turn their apples into cider, gin, vodka, whiskey and brandy, and their award-winning Highbank Orchard syrup.

Their passion for apples - all of their production is to the strictest of organic standards - is palpable, and it's not surprising their tours are popular. Their lives are a lovely slice of artisan heaven, and they've added two small lakes, woodland and various wildlife habitats to their orchards.

It's time to return to gorgeous Lyrath Estate Hotel, where we dine in Yindees restaurant. This is a chic Pan-Asian restaurant, and it's buzzing on a Sunday night (we're told Sunday is the new Saturday in Kilkenny). The food - prawn massam curry and duck khao san - is yum.

The following morning, Monday morning, begins as every Monday morning should begin, with a fortifying fry-up followed by a back, neck and shoulder massage and mini facial in the hotel's spa. The spa has a 17-metre infinity edge pool. It's an effort to drag ourselves away.

Lunch is in the award-winning Foodworks restaurant on Kilkenny's Medieval Mile. A cafe-style bistro, it offers a farm-to-fork experience, with the ingredients for the dishes sourced from the restaurant's own farm. Fish and chips and mussels do the trick nicely, and we've a great chat with owner Maeve Moore.

It's time for us to do some culture-vulturing on Kilkenny's Medieval Mile. Our first stop-off is the Smithwick's Experience, which offers a tour of the original site where Smithwick's was brewed from the 1700s until 2014.

Central to the story is John Smithwick, a brewer who lived in Kilkenny in the early 1700s and who because of penal laws for Catholics, couldn't own property or run for elected office. So clever Catholic John quietly went into business with ambitious Protestant Richard Cole who leased a piece of land, and the duo got down to the business of giving the drinking public the intoxicating red ale.

The Medieval Mile Museum is Kilkenny's newest visitor attraction, located in the 13th century St Mary's Church and graveyard, and it tells the stories of Kilkenny's powerful patrons through the monuments and artefacts they've left behind. It's hugely engaging and atmospheric, though it's hard not to be distracted by the church's magnificent windows which frame a blue sky and dancing leaves.

Next stop is Kilkenny Castle, a 12th century castle set in rolling parklands, which was built for Strongbow's son-in-law, William Marshal. Its connection to British royalty lies in the castle having been the principal seat of the Butlers of Ormonde - and especially in how Lady Margaret Butler (1465-1539), the daughter of Thomas Butler, 7th Earl of Ormonde, grew up skipping about this vast and imposing edifice. She would go on to marry Sir William Boleyn, and become the paternal grandmother of Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII.

Anne was beheaded in 1536, so lord knows what affect this had on her granny.

It's hard to believe it, I know, but we head for more food. This time we go to the popular French-inspired Rive Gauche, an enveloping restaurant with a rich red interior, glossy wood and a chandelier, which is situated opposite Kilkenny Castle.

We don't need to be convinced that people linger in this lush environment over cocktails and wine long after their dinner is devoured.

We find room for a delicious meal of Mediterranean risotto Wellington - with plum tomatoes and mozzarella cheese - and herb rack of lamb and shoulder, followed by two vanilla creme brulees because neither of us wants to be the one who has to share.

It's time to return to Lyrath Estate Hotel and our elegant suite which has a dining area, a wall-mounted fire, two bathrooms and beautiful views, and is pure luxury.

On Tuesday morning James, who has been a fount of information throughout our trip, drops us to Cakeface Patisserie near St Canice's Cathedral, where Ballymaloe-trained Rory and Laura Gannon make really pretty and theatrical cakes which would be a crime to eat. They insist we leave with a few in case we get hungry on the train home.

GETTING THERE

Let the summer fun begin at the Lyrath Estate: www.lyrath.com

For more information on events, tours and special offers, visit www.visitkilkenny.ie

James Doran taxi tour: www.kilkennytaxitours.com

Ryeland House Cookery School: www.ryelandhousecookery.com/ Highbank Orchards: highbankorchards.com/

Foodworks restaurant: www.foodworks.ie/

Smithwick's Experience: www.smithwicksexperience.com/ Medieval Mile Museum: www.medievalmilemuseum.ie/

Kilkenny Castle: www.kilkennycastle.ie/

Rive Gauche restaurant: www.rivegauchekk.com/

Cakeface Patisserie: www.cakefacepastry.com/

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