The months of lockdown have passed in a blur. I find it hard to remember what I did during any of them, but the weekly trip to the McNally Family Farm shop in Balrickard in north county Dublin for organic vegetables kept me sane.
In the early days, it felt intrepid, that journey north on the M1 beyond the airport. As the weeks rolled by and markets reopened, I considered returning to the McNallys' stalls in Temple Bar or Naomh Olaf, to shop as I did pre-pandemic. But by then the Friday morning trip had established itself as the highlight of my week; I was loathe to give it up. I understood the hungry gap better than I ever had before and there was joy in the welcoming of the new crops as the weeks rolled by. I collected an order for a friend and the dropping off of her order and the distanced chat in her front garden provided some welcome social interaction in a world that had become very small.
The farm shop has evolved over the months and now stocks products from other small producers alongside the McNallys' own organic vegetables. But while the displays may be aesthetically pleasing, this is no chocolate-box farm. Chef Keith Coleman, who has spent the past year working on the farm, has been posting stories on his Instagram that give an insight into the tough reality. We are so disconnected from our food that his videos of the planting and growing of crops, the flatbed weeders that accommodate several people lying prone as the tractor moves across the field, the daily tribulations of weather and rain, the sweaty heat of the polytunnels, the sheer hard physical labour of it all, verge on shocking. And it all makes me think that the McNallys don't charge enough for their vegetables.
Early in the summer, the little cafe alongside the farm shop reopened, with a few granite tables in a covered open-air area alongside. There is nothing fancy in terms of the set-up, that's not what this is about. To eat, there are sandwiches in light Tartine rolls filled with whatever vegetables there happen to be a glut of during any given week, augmented by Corleggy cheese and fine Irish charcuterie from the Wooded Pig.
Sarah McNally will be a familiar face to festival goers and regulars at the Saturday Temple Bar market from the Market Kitchen food truck that she runs with her partner, Liadain Kaminska, and its epic hangover-busting toasties. She's been honing her 'what interesting thing can I do with this vegetable?' skills for years and, while the descriptions of her sandwiches hand-written on a sheet of brown paper pinned to the wall behind the counter may seem effortless, underlying each one is a chef's deep understanding of flavour and texture. One recent vegan sandwich featured hummus, salt-baked beets, courgette pickle, zhoug (a Yemeni version of pesto), marinated kale and seeds, while a vegetarian version included courgette pesto, peppercorn cheese, and sweet slow roast cherry tomatoes, the crack cocaine of the fruit world, guaranteed to drip down your wrists with no regard for decorum. (McNally tomatoes have a cult following, for good reason.)
The sandwiches are augmented by Ariosa coffee, and cakes and biscuits, that might include 'proper' coffee cake, courgette buns (an inspired way of dealing with seasonal glut), home-made custard creams and raspberry bakewells. Everything is made inhouse except for Gordita's Alfajores, rich Argentinian cookies filled with richer dulce de leche and covered in chocolate, Italian meringue or coconut, by local baker Grace Reddin. There isn't a dud amongst them. One day I bought everything on offer and brought my bounty home to share. Lunch for five cost me €44.90.
The potential of the McNally brand - not that I imagine that the family thinks of itself in those terms - is limitless, but selfishly I hope things stay just the way they are for a little while longer, and that we are a few years away from it going the full Daylesford on us.
ON A BUDGET
The sandwiches are €5.50. It may surprise regular readers to know that I often opt for the vegan version.
ON A BLOWOUT
Sandwiches, cake and coffee for two will cost less than €25.
THE HIGH POINT
The authenticity and integrity of McNally Family Farm is the real deal.
THE LOW POINT
Get there early to avoid disappointment - the sandwiches sell out early.