THOUGH a saltwater baby, half my childhood seemingly passed in the sea playing Man From Atlantis (ask anyone with receding hair and expanding belly), with age I am infinitely more reticent in my dealings with the cold, cold Atlantic, inching in toe by toe — and that’s while wearing a wetsuit. And so it is with January, these days, I ‘inch into it’, toe by toe.
Plenty of souls out there kicked off the new year with #Veganuary, turning vegan for the entire month; I braised a humongous shoulder of beef on New Year’s Day that we were still picking at 10 days later. Many of you began the #100DaysOfWalking initiative, 30 minutes’ walking a day for… you get the picture; but we hardly left the couch until it was time to return to school on January 7, loath to leave beloved Christmas behind us.
Which is why I am absolutely delighted to walk through the gates of Blackrock Castle — first built in the 1600s, now home to Blackrock Castle Observatory — in late January to find what appear to be Christmas lights still twinkling on courtyard trees and then discovering menus with a wintery, seasonal ethos (including Brussels sprouts), tailor-made for an alternative Christmas dinner.
That festive magic is maintained within as we are directed beyond the modern ‘glass cube’ — a lovely bright daytime venue — to the infinitely older, former gate lodge, a cosy den, light from candles and chandeliers shimmering off multiple mirrors, heat jacked up to jumper-shedding temperatures, especially welcome on this clear, cold night. We break any lingering ‘ice’ with pre-prandial drinks: a lychee cosmo that Current Wife slurps with gusto while No 1 Son and I enjoy Jawbone Pale Ales (from Elbow Lane micro-brewery, all part of the Market Lane group stable); No 2 Son and La Daughter relish natural colas from a soft drinks menu commendably shorn of the usual overly sugared suspects.
No 1 Son orders pork wellington with mushroom duxelle, wrapped in Parma ham and pastry. Though roast potatoes are a tad weary after their second trip to the oven, meat is tender and well-cooked, complimented by sweet, creamy parsnip puree and sautéed sprouts are top drawer, crunchy and with bags of flavour. (Kudos to any establishment featuring this magnificent yet carelessly maligned vegetable throughout its season rather than restricting its use to Christmas Day.)
No 2 Son’s roast marinated chicken, leg and thigh, on the bone, is very decent, strong citric and herbal flavours penetrating deep, and a puckish and textured sausage and apricot stuffing makes for a bolshie partner. Creamy mash aside, accompanying veg could benefit from some TLC: roasted carrots and parsnips, appear to have spent longer blanching than in the oven and sorely lack the caramelised sugars of properly roasted veg while braised red cabbage is cut so finely it has lost all semblance of bite during cooking.
I order gamekeeper’s pie, a hot pot with a puff pastry lid enclosing a deep, rich ragu of venison, pheasant, and Ballinwillin Farm wild boar that stretches fresh, plummy Cento Cavalli (Nero D’Avola) to the limits. The meat downright overwhelms accompanying ‘winter greens’, sprouting broccoli and mangetout (winter?), too callow to pair with the meat’s thumping umami notes. While herbed mash is creamy, multiple ‘twigs’ suggest dried rather than fresh herbs.
Dish of the evening is Current Wife’s seafood pie, a savoury-sweet prawn bisque with a lid of potato and kale galette, while my ‘winter greens’ of broccoli and mangetout — this time billed as ‘seasonal greens’ — find their ideal match.
An out-of-sorts La Daughter merely grazes on decent chicken goujons from the children’s menu and very pleasing home-cut chips with celery salt and smoked garlic aioli we order more for the table to share.
More than sated, we leave dessert to the young ’uns, chocolate and honeycomb brownie, salted caramel sauce, and vanilla ice cream, which deservedly meets with youthful approval.
Service is very good and the venue is a delight; with a little more care and attention paid to ‘supporting players’, particularly the vegetables on the plate, some very considered and greatly comforting fare could be taken up a further notch but as it stands, we’ve had a lovely evening, a most civilised ending to family Christmas — I’ll get back to you on the new year’s resolutions.
€167 (excluding tip)
Tuesday to Thursday, 9.30am-9pm;
Friday and Saturday, 9.30am- 9.30pm;
The Castle Café, Blackrock Castle, Blackrock, Cork.
Tel: 021-4537911; www.castlecafe.ie