independent

Sunday 19 November 2017

Faces of the Sligo Food Trail

Warm, charming and accomplished, Christina O'Hara is the epitome of a welcoming hostess. The fact that she effortlessly runs a quality kitchen almost single handed while doing a hundred things besides is all in a day's work for her. She and her husband Simon run Coopershill House, a historic Blue Book property in Riverstown dating back to the 1700s. The dining room was the appropriate venue for Simon and Christina's wedding ceremony when that happy day arrived.

Life rarely follows a straight line and it is the twists and turns that make it so interesting. Christina's route to calling lovely Coopershill home was anything but direct. She spent her early life in Strandhill; an idyllic childhood in a busy house near the sea.

Sixth of eight children she was brought up in a home where both parents ran businesses and where boys and girls learned to love food at an early age. Her mother ensured everyone learned to cook, using fresh produce from their own garden and fresh eggs and milk from neighbours. They began with desserts and built their repertoire right up to full dinner parties. Delegating and multi-tasking were definitely attributes of Mrs McAuley!

Despite that love of food, Christina studied Business and Marketing with German in Sligo IT and headed for the bright lights of London as a young graduate. Her mother had been born in London and Christina had always wanted to live there. It didn't disappoint. She loved the cultural mix and the cosmopolitan lifestyle. There she spent six happy years working at Reuters and enjoying life in her 20s.

Christina had worked solidly as a student at weekends and during holidays - at Tír na nÓg health food shop and with Ryanair. Unlike many friends she hadn't taken a 'gap' year so when an opportunity of redundancy arose, she was quick to grasp it. Her first port of call was the blue skies and sunshine of Puerto Rico in the Caribbean.

She hooked up with a friend working on a cruise ship and after a few weeks cruising, joined her brother who was living there. Three glorious months of tropical living followed; learning about the wonderful local cuisine and revelling in the easy availability of fresh fruit and especially seafood. Bananas, tamarind and mangos grew everywhere - although the latter did make a mess of the car windscreen when they fell from the trees!

Life was wonderful though as Christina comments ruefully - the Caribbean lifestyle and diet are not good for the waistline!

Back in England Christina enjoyed a more relaxed career than before, as a consultant, living in Brighton and London. Then her thoughts began turning to home, to the wild Atlantic, the beaches and the Sligo countryside. A decade away from home was enough; she packed her bags and headed for Strandhill.

Again, her business experience opened up the door for consultancy and contract work, but Christina's days behind a desk were numbered. She wanted to do something herself.

Never one to let the grass grow under her feet, she signed up for the famous 12 week Ballymaloe course. She loved every moment of it and particularly the whole ethos spearheaded by Darina Allen - an ethos she had been raised with by her far sighted parents.

Cork seemed the most likely place to find employment with that farm to fork culture, but instead an opening appeared in Coopershill near home. That was 12 years ago, and Christina hasn't looked back since.

Historic Coopershill has been in the O'Hara family for generations. It was first opened to guests in the 1960s by Joan O'Hara, Simon's grandmother who made it a destination for horse lovers, complete with their mounts. In the 1980s Simon's parents Brian and Lindy O'Hara took it over followed in the early noughties by Simon.

Today Christina and Simon have six bedrooms available for guests, they also have their own kitchen gardens (another love of Christina's dating back to childhood) and they run the deer farm as well. Coopershill Venison finds its way onto fine dining menus all over the country. It's a busy but happy life with all that, plus their active five year old, Finn.

This Christmas the family circle will expand to welcome Kian, Simon's son from a previous marriage, his mother and grandmother from Mexico. Looks like Christina has found a multi-cultural lifestyle right at home in Sligo! www.SligoFoodTrail.ie, #SligoFoodTrail

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