29 October, 2007

County Kilkenny, or Living the Dream

It's hard to believe, in the cold light of a London Monday, that we were ever in the delights of the Irish countryside with nothing more to worry us than how many apples to pick from the orchard behind the castle! This morning finds me discovering that we forgot to go to a concert for which I had really good tickets last night (good hard thwack on forehead), coming to terms with the fact that my passport expires in six months and therefore I need to go queue up at the wretched American Embassy and get it renewed. What's more, the school applications that were on my desk when we left are, for some curious reason, still there, blank as ever. And some dreaded long division has appeared in Avery's homework, so we all have little worries.

However. The fact remains that a week ago today, we woke up in Dublin, checked out of our lovely hotel, and hit the roads to Co. Kilkenny in a blinding rainstorm. The rain followed us through the countryside, passing road signs of dreamy romance: Co. Cork, Limerick! Avery and I amused ourselves by trying to translate the Gaelic into English, watching as the greener-than-green scenery flashed by. We had lunch in a darling little town called Abbeyleix in Co. Laois, just off the motorway, at Cafe Odhran, a tiny little establishment that winked out of the rain. Avery ran to do reconnaissance on the place and returned to say breathlessly, "There's a soup of the day, which must mean it's a nice place!" Lovely panini of pancetta and a local Irish Brie called Ballacolla, very flavourful and sharp and worth an order from here, and then Avery was desperate for a pudding but too shy to ask for it, probably because of her scratchy throat, but we persevered and finally she got her apple crumble. Then we were back in the car which was, by the way, completely packed to the gills so that Avery was squashed under books, pillows, rainboots, etc.

An uneventful drive until we reached Kilkenny at which point the directions from Landmark Trust were, let's see, laconic at best. I have a pet peeve about directions that say "follow the Thurles road," as opposed to "make a left on Route 639." How do I know which road is the Thurles road? So back and forth in the mist along one 5-kilometre stretch of road looking for "church ruins on your right," grrr! Finally we repaired to a tacky furniture store to ask real directions, and the sweet proprietor had useful bits of advice like actual mile distances and road signs. We passed through darling little Freshford, the nearest village, and I was thrilled to spy a series of tiny shops and, most wonderfully, a butcher! I made a mental note to return for provisions. And we were finally off in the right direction, and there were church ruins, as it turned out OUR church ruins! And immediately after that, Clomantagh Castle looked huge and dark in the distance.

We were greeted by the ultimate in Irish hospitality, the housekeeper Mrs Butler, who threw open the Dutch door and let out a waft of warm peaty air, the dulcet tones of Irish radio floating with it. "Sure and you've made better time than I thought you would, and this bein' a nasty rainy day for it," she said, and gave us a tour of the castle, up and down winding ancient stone steps, around mysterious corners, flinging open this and that bedroom door. "Now this is the blue room, and it's said the ghost, a lovely kind one to be sure, is to be found here most frequently," so immediately Avery claimed that room (although her enthusiasm waned a bit at actual bedtime). John and I chose the only bedroom in the castle proper, the others being in an ancient farmhouse addition attached to the castle itself. The kitchen was huge and intensely warm, with a massive Aga-like Irish Stanley stove on one wall and a cosy deep cushioned windowseat next to it. "I know that's where I will be reading," Avery gloated.

We let our bubbly hostess go home, settled in a bit and then headed to Freshford to get food, since nothing makes me more nervous than an empty fridge and empty cupboards. We repaired to "M Bergin, Victualler," and found ourselves served by a lovely, shyly friendly young butcher. I was in my usual position when speaking a foreign language (and Irish English is definitely a challenge, however much the illusion that's it's English): I ask a question that's perfectly understood by my listener, and then... I can't understand a word of the answer! Case in point. "That looks like lovely pork. Where do you get it?" And a stream of lilting mystery came back at me! So I smiled encouragingly and asked for a pound of stew beef, chose a nice green cabbage, some mushrooms, celery, onions, pears and apples from the boxes off to the side of the butcher counter, and departed in a soft flurry of indistinguishable communication.

Thence in turn to each of the little grocery stores around the village square, overhung with yellowing trees and bright green grass. One shop was tended by a sweet elderly couple, she with a perfect Lady Bird Johnson beehive lacquered hairdo, and he pleasantly deaf and smiling. There we acquired butter, milk, salt and pepper, herbs, apple juice. Onto another shop where we found bread, spaghetti and tinned tomatoes, and then I felt safely provisioned and could go back to the castle to settle in.

Avery was in heaven to discover that in the sprawling lawn outside the house, actually between the castle and the church ruins, was a pair of horse jumps! "Someone must have ridden cross-country here!" she exclaimed, and was perfectly happy to go racing across the wet grass in her school shoes, promptly soaking herself to the skin, the perfect position for a person recovering from a bad cold to be in. Into the house to sit by the stove and dry out. And I had my first experience cooking on a stove that's perennially ON. Over the next several days I had the MOST fun developing a relationship with the various strategic heat sources. For those of you who have cooked on an Aga or a stove like it, this will be old hat. But for me, it was like putting together the pieces of a puzzle to figure out how hot it would be under the heavy iron lid if I just opened it for a minute, or if I left it open for 10 minutes, and then there's the little rectangular space to the side of the burners that holds a bit of heat slightly above warm, but not hot enough to get above a little sizzle. Such fun.

I determined to cook nothing all week that Irish people wouldn't traditionally eat, and thankfully I had bought at the Georgian Museum in Dublin a tiny booklet of traditional Irish recipes. But the ovens? Forget it. I could never get them cool enough to put anything in without burning it, even with a lid. So the beef stew we had the first night was a bit less liquidy than yours will be, in a regular oven whose temperature you can control better.

Irish Beef Stew
(serves 4)

3 tbsps butter
1 pound beef cubed for stew
1 white onion, sliced thin
2 handsful small button mushrooms, cut in half
1/2 cup beef stock from bouillon cubes
good splash Irish whiskey
good pinch dried thyme leaves
good pinch "mixed herbs"
salt and pepper

Melt the butter in a good heavy casserole (the castle yielded a le Creuset) and over fairly high heat saute the beef and onions until the onions are soft, then add the mushrooms and stire well. Cover with stock and whiskey, add herbs and seasoning and cover. Place in not-too-hot oven for about 20 minutes. Serve with:

(serves 4)

3 tbsps butter
1/2 white cabbage, shredded
3 green onions, sliced
4 boiled potatoes
1 cup-ish cream
salt and pepper

Melt butter in a heavy skillet and saute cabbage and green onions, then set aside. Mash the potatoes with the cream and mix into the cabbage. Season well.


These two dishes were LOVELY together, and we invented a nice leftover dish from them as well, which was a perfect little lunch for John next day.

Sally the Ghost's Castle Pie
(serves one)

leftover beef stew
leftover colcannon
bit of butter

Put the leftover beef stew in an ovenproof dish and top with leftover colcannon. Dot with a little butter. Bake until warmed through.


Sally the Ghost, you ask? Yes, indeed, she appeared first time as I was cooking dinner and setting the table. I reached into the silver drawer for three forks and was JUST thinking, "I need a small one for Avery," when I looked down to see that all there was in the drawer were... two large forks and one small. No doubt the work of the ghost whose presence we read of in the Irish Landmark Trust logbooks, one of our favorite bits about staying in an LT house. Everyone who stays leaves stories of their adventures, and Sally popped up in many accounts. Later, Avery left her a note of thanks and an invitation to help herself to an apple should she feel peckish, and in the morning there was an apple with several bites from it, atop the note. Proof positive if ever we were in doubt.

Well, sadly the Embassy beckons, so I must go do my paperwork. Avery is happily ensconced making a black felt witch from a kit her loving Nonna sent her in the post, and I have no excuses to postpone my duties. More on life in the castle soon...

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