Irish country estates serve fare from local gardens

Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and author of “The Slim Down South Cookbook.” Email her at

“It’s a soft day,” said Damien Bastiat, general manager of Ballyfin hotel, an elegantly restored country house set in the middle of Ireland.

Bastiat was referring to a gentle mist of rain as he led a tour to explore the walled gardens and landscaped grounds, including a fernery and stone tower. The kitchen garden boasted a gourmet grocery of vegetables, herbs, apple trees and even artichokes.

“Irish producers are just starting to promote their own,” Ballyfin executive chef Michael Tweedie said. His “garden to plate” menus star Irish farmhouse cheeses and yogurts, shellfish and sea salt from the coast; eggs and honey from the estate; and Thomas Salter’s free-range pork from a nearby farm.

“It’s nice to meet the farmers and hear their stories,” Tweedie said. More local tastes include braised lamb from Kilkenny with wild garlic, mint and peas.

Step inside Ballyfin’s manor house (originally built in the 1820s) and step back in time for cocktails in the Gold Room overlooking the lake, or the library with a secret door that opens into the glass conservatory. Guests can time travel to dinner by donning formalwear from the hotel’s collection of period costumes.

More echoes of history: Ballyfin spent time as a boys boarding school. The hotel’s serene indoor swimming pool sits in what was the students’ dining hall.

Estate food and fitness

What’s a country estate without outdoor sporting pursuits?

At stately Ashford Castle, on the shores of Lough Corrib in southwest Ireland, guests can golf, fish, learn archery, shoot at sporting clays or try their hand (safely cloaked in a leather glove) at falconry.

Dating back to the 13th century, Ashford Castle, which has soaring turrets, has been lovingly restored with technology-friendly antique-filled rooms, a wine cellar and a luxurious spa.

You can dine in the elegant George V dining room or hide away in the Dungeon restaurant. For a taste tour of the Irish countryside, sample woodland mushroom soup or the wild game terrine with plum gel and purple potato chips. A full Irish breakfast at Ashford Castle includes the luxury of baked ham served from a silver domed cart.

Good thing there are 350 acres of land to explore on horseback, bicycle or running shoes before the next enchanting Irish meal.