Wexford: Magic in the Model County
A trip to Dunbrody House and the Hook Peninsula is a seasonal breath of fresh air for Fran Power
When we pull up to Dunbrody Country House Hotel in Wexford, it seems somehow familiar. I've seen this solid, square, climber-clad Georgian building before.
There's something about the way it sits in the landscape out here on the estuary of the Barrow, close to where Wexford, Waterford and Kilkenny meet. I remember the way the stables sit to the side of the house, with the parkland behind.
And then it comes back to me. About 20 years ago, I was here. The new owners, Kevin and Catherine Dundon, were friends of a friend. We called in as they were doing it up, racing to get ready to host their first wedding. The floors were up, there were wires everywhere and there wasn't a teabag in the place.
It's a bitter-sweet memory, as we made eejits of ourselves by asking Catherine and Kevin back to our house for something to eat, and then, amid much fanfare, taking our roast chicken out of the oven. We were already feeling the pressure as Kevin had been head chef at the Shelbourne Hotel. "Tah-dah!" we cried, only to find we'd forgotten to turn the oven on and the bird was pink as a baby.
The good news is that, two decades later, the floors and the wiring are finished. In fact, the place has been transformed, with a new wing and the plush and comfortable feel of a well-run country house hotel.
The old house features a grand entrance, a ritzy cocktail bar and a dining room decorated in a deep shade of red. There's a luxury spa and a "pub" called The Local, a gastro-pub serving fish 'n' chips wrapped in paper, chipper style, great burgers and wood-fired pizza. Between 8 and 9pm, the barman will toss a coin with you for the price of your drinks - a 50/50 chance of free booze. We win three in a row!
The stable block has also been renovated, and is now a cookery school, where you can sign up for day-long courses. There's also a weekend market in the courtyard, where Dunbrody produce is sold (we bought a Dunbrody Christmas pud for €25) alongside local food and crafts.
The morning after our arrival, I am booked in for a day's cookery course called Make Christmas Easy. I find chef Phelim Byrne and sous chef Diane Sinnott in the school and I settle in to learn how to prepare the perfect Yuletide feast.
Phelim started his career at Kelly's Hotel in Rosslare before moving to The Park in Kenmare, then he took over as head chef at Dunbrody for four years, serving up gourmet dishes to the likes of Bono and Rosanna Davison. He set up the cookery school and added fruit and vegetable gardens that still provide fresh produce for the restaurant. Nowadays, Phelim runs many of the specialist courses at the school.
There's an air of calm about the demo kitchen. Diane pads about, wiping, chopping, anticipating Phelim's next move. He starts on the turkey and all the trimmings, including bread sauce and mulled wine. All myself and my fellow cooks have to do is taste, learn, and enjoy the results at the end of the day.
And there are plenty of Xmas cheats to takeaway. Planning is everything, says Phelim. Prep your veg and the bird on Christmas Eve. Don't wash out the turkey cavity - it just spreads germs. Wrap your stuffing in clingfilm and tinfoil, so it can be sliced like a black pudding, and cook separately. Make sauces, gravy and mulled wine ahead of time and decant into thermos flasks to keep warm. And maybe most importantly, if your guests keep trespassing on your kitchen space, pack them off with a strong Irish coffee.
But we also pick up other tips such as how to slice smoked salmon, wafer thin, so each slice runs from top to bottom of the fillet and contains smoke, fish and salt flavours.
Then, at about four, with minimal fuss, our Christmas dinner is served. The verdict? Delicious.
That evening I'm reunited with the husband and our 13-year-old daughter who have been exploring the 300 acres of grounds. We sit down to a lavish feast in the hotel restaurant and I manage to put away a perfectly cooked hake with citrus cured broccoli. The husband and daughter share the house special - a plate of beef ribs with meltingly soft beef cheeks - and make a good dent in it. I shake my head at the puds, but they lap up a creme brulee and white chocolate with coconut macaroons and passion fruit sorbet.
What with the hotel, spa, pub and market, Kevin and Catherine have created a whole ecosystem here, and there is no need to leave the warm embrace of Dunbrody at all. But the flat, wild Wexford coast beckons.
Dunbrody is close to Campile and the Passage East Ferry ferry across the estuary to Waterford. We decide to save visiting New Ross and the Dunbrody Famine Ship for another day and head south instead, down the Hook peninsula.
Looming at the end of the peninsula is the great Hook lighthouse, the world's oldest working beacon. It's a cold grey December morning, and the sea is pounding the flagged shore. The wind is screaming, and it's easy to see how a ship rounding the point could come to a nasty end. Yet the place, one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country, is packed, and there are about 30 brave souls on our 11.30am tour.
We learn that monks established a settlement here in the fifth century and were the first to keep a fire lit to warn seafarers off the rocks. The Normans followed and built the current tower. With its 4m thick walls, it looks like it could easily stand another thousand years or so.
After a tasty lunch of seafood chowder at The Strand in Duncannon, we stroll along the wide open beach. There are litter sticks at the entrance to the beach to encourage beach combers to pick up flotsam. We bag a few plastic bottles and yards of fishing twine and feel mighty pleased with ourselves.
Later, we bump into Kevin strolling benignly through the stalls at the Christmas fair. He leads me to see the smoking machine he has installed. The birds are browning beautifully, and look rich and succulent. If only we could have bought one of these on that fateful chicken-less day 20 years ago.
Fran and family stayed in a suite at Dunbrody Country House Hotel on a two-night getaway package with B&B and one dinner, priced at €395 per person.
One-day courses at Dunbrody Cookery School cost €175; five-day master classes, €750.
See dunbrodyhouse.com for more info, and for more information on activities in Wexford visit visitwexford.ie.
This story originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.
Read more:10 great reasons to visit Wexford
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