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“There are one hundred acres here. The train will take you through the lower fifty and you can walk the upper fifty.”
So we were told as entered the fabulous Oakfield Park in Raphoe, County Donegal. The train will cost you an extra five euro so we added that on. Probably just as well as the 100 acres is packed with various attractions, parklands, woodlands, sculptures (of all shapes and sizes), a traditional walled garden, a kitchen garden and more, including a lovely bistro. The only part not open to the public is the 18th century Georgian house originally built for the Dean of Raphoe.
We pick up the mini-train at the station (where else?). And the station buildings look like the real thing, red brick dominant, even used in the front of the restaurant which is, appropriately, named Buffers.
The train winds its way through the woods and the open spaces, getting close to most of the features in the lower fifty. The biggest one, the most eye-catching, is the Longsleeper, a sculpture by local artist Locky Morris and unveiled for the Spring 2015 re-opening of Oakfield Park, commissioned by park owners Sir Gerry and Lady Heather Robinson. The same artist created the imposing Polestar sculpture which you may see on one of roundabouts in Letterkenny
Longsleeper is made from 17 tons of oak and appears to perform visual and structural acrobatics!And that impression is certainly and dramatically enhanced as the little train winds its way around it. Oakfield Park is renowned for its narrow gauge train and some of the inspiration for the massive piece comes from the railway. Longsleeper may also be viewed from various distances between two rows of trees with Croaghan Hill, an ancient burial mound in the background.
Flower meadows, lakes and streams, as well as wild and wetland areas are entwined with over 4km of narrow gauge railway to give hours of pleasure.
Deer by Rupert Till
We treated ourselves to lunch in Buffers when we arrived back at the station. They support local here of course, Ballyholey Farm Shop, Donegal Rapeseed Oil, Kinnegar Brewery and McCarron’s Butchers among the suppliers. And much of the fruit and vegetables comes from the kitchen garden up by the big house.
I enjoyed my Toasted Sourdough Sandwich, Baked Ham, Cheddar, Caramelised Onions with Soup of the Day (8.50). The sourdough is nicely cut, not those big thick slabs you get in some places, and the soup is a full bowl by the way. Well pleased with that. The Goats Cheese Salad, flavoured with their own honey, Candied Hazelnuts and Pickled Slaw Salad (9.95) was another fine dish, full of flavour and both were well-priced. This is quite a large space and there is room to eat outside as well.
Next we crossed the road and entered the upper grounds with the big house on the hill dominating the view unless you go into the woods of course. More thoughtfully placed pieces of sculptures around here. The first big feature is the lake, planted with reeds and wild flowers. A gurgling fountain powerfully pushes white water a few feet above the surface and a Castle Folly provides stunning views towards the house above and also the lower grounds. There is also a boardwalk that takes you on a loop through the reeds and back to terra firma.
Make your way then up the hill and soon you’ll find the perfect parterre and next to it the beautiful walled garden with its ponds (colourful carp circling) and pillars. Last month, the gardens were at their summer best, full of colour. Took our time around here before making our way to the kitchen garden. This is a working garden, lots of fruit and vegetables here for the house itself of course and also for the restaurant below.
A leisurely walk, with detours here and there, took us back down to the car park and, with a final look along the avenue of trees to the Longsleeper we said goodbye to Oakfield and headed back towards Letterkenny.
All in all, a superb visit to a very well equipped place. Lots to see and do for adults and kids, the train, the bistro and picnic tables, WCs of course, and no shortage of parking. Very Highly Recommended.
There were gasp when Ballymaloe House gardener Mags Coughlan told us she grows 4,500 leeks here each year. Soon we would see some of them on our plates as we enjoyed lunch in the house. The garden tour, a mead tasting, a long leisurely lunch and a visit to the ever increasing craft fair in the Grainstore and Big Shed, were all part of a lovely day that brought the curtain down on the Munster Wine and Dine activities for 2017. A good day. A good year.
Here's where we get our hazelnuts
Hazel Allen introduced the fifty or so of us to Mags who told us the aim here in the walled garden and surrounding area is to grow “seasonal and unusual”. Even with Mags working flat out, there is no way the garden could fully supply the house, so Ballymaloe gets much of its regular plant and vegetables supplies from local growers, a traditional relationship maintained.
That leaves the gardener, in consultation with the chefs of course, to concentrate on something different, a crop of sea-kale for example, followed in turn by asparagus and artichoke. And then there are also edible flowers and flowers for decoration. One of the specialities of the walled garden, taking advantage of a south-facing wall, are peaches. Lots of herbs here too, of course.
All is grown from seed so that means glasshouses and we walked through there admiring the lines of harvested pumpkins (also on the day’s menu). We were then shown the relatively new cider apple orchard; varieties here include Dabinett and Bramley. Here too we saw the hazel bushes which provide quite a harvest and have a bit of growing to do yet!
All had been quite in the fields where the pigs are kept until the arrival of our group. Then little groups of the younger pigs came rushing out to greet the visitors. They may not have been so eager had they known that the same people would be eating their older siblings later on.
Back then to the conservatory room in the house for an aperitif, thanks to Kate Dempsey of the Kinsale Mead Co. We sampled her Atlantic Dry Mead and also Wild Red Mead – and then she made some delicious cocktails using her mead (and also the new Beara Gin). Quite a few were very impressed by the mead. Both meads are honey based and are rapidly becoming widely available in Supervalu’s and speciality shops such as URRU in Bandon and Bradley’s in the city's North Main Street.
Kate and her meads
Time now for lunch, the main event. A good start is half the battle. And so it was here with a delicious warming bowl of Garden Pumpkin Soup with Chilli and Parsley Oil. More simple food followed, simply delicious Ballycotton Crab Paté with cucumber and dill salad.
We had a choice for the main course. CL chose the Poached Ballycotton Monkfish with Chive Butter Sauce served with Leeks and Romanesco while mine was the Roast Ballymaloe Farm Pork with red cabbage and Bramley Apple Sauce. Each, with Pommes Duchesse and Glazed Carrots on the side, was superb.
The temptation levels then soared with the arrival of the famous Ballymaloe Dessert trolley. We were like the little piggies! Pavlova, poached pears, chocolate cake (and sauce), and so much more, all washed down with little sips of sweet Jurançon. Pratsch Gruner Veltliner and Solstice Rhone Valley were the earlier wines.
After the tea or coffee, or a garden infusion, there was a quick review of 2017, a raffle for foodie prizes and an announcement that Munster Wine and Dine had decided to donate €300.00 to Penny Dinners.
Some of us then took a walk around the annual craft fair. The opening day, Saturday, had been busy but one stall holder told me Sunday, the day of our visit, was even busier and she was looking to getting her feet up for the night! There were some gorgeous crafts here but, looking for a particular item with certain restrictions as to material, size and colour, proved mission impossible for me! The search begins again next week at the big Craft Fair in the City Hall and the smaller one at Franciscan Well Brew Pub.
Darkness had now settled on this amazing East Cork farm and our bus had arrived. A very satisfied group headed back to the city, bang on schedule. Here’s to another great Munster Wine and Dine season in 2018. Happy Christmas everyone from Eithne, Richie, Colm, Beverly, Michael, Stuart, and yours truly.