The Bell Tower Restaurant, Castlemartyr Resort, Castlemartyr, Co Cork 021-4219000, castlemartyrresort.ie
THE Bell Tower Restaurant at Castlemartyr Resort stands on lands that epitomise a very bloody and tragic strand in history. Where guests today enjoy fine dining, cavort and occasionally seduce each other, where they are flummoxed by the choice between a five or six iron, a Beaujolais or a Bordeaux, blood was spilt and necks stretched with enthusiasm and regularity.
A castle, a big house, sieges, executions, displacement, abandonment, betrayal, brutal treatment of local communities, restoration, ancient burial places, a Catholic teaching order, a period of Versailles-like over-reach and, today, a complex of buildings moated by a golf course trying to survive today’s economic realities.
Though the atrocities are ancient the “martyr” part of Castlemartyr is not so very far off the mark, but the same story played out in most colonised societies too. It’s an Irish version of Gone With The Wind, with the old, big house playing Tara admirably.
The castle was built in 1210 by Knights Templar — the Strongbow kind, not the Anders Behring Breivik kind, though the differences might be lost on Strongbow’s victims.
Sir Walter Raleigh and Richard Boyle, the first Earl of Cork, the Carews, the FitzGeralds — known as Madraí na Fola (Dogs of blood) because of their violence towards the local population — were all cocks of the walk for their fleeting moment.
Not to be outdone, the Earl of Orrery, in his contribution to the suppression of the 1581 Desmond Rebellion, hung the venerable mother of seneschal John FitzEdmund from the castle walls. An early version of Mexican drug lords’ habit of hanging victims from motorway overpasses maybe.
It is interesting how time and vocabulary can almost make Elizabethan ethnic cleansing seem little more than a commercial venture — which it was too — maybe nothing more than a mundane matter of family housekeeping.
There is nothing mundane about the food at chef Kevin Burke’s restaurant, an opinion endorsed by the recent award of two AA Rosettes. It is very good indeed.
DW started with scallops, cauliflower beignet and puree all brought together by white raisin butter.
It was a lovely dish, as close to a calming but gird-your-loins overture as you’d find on a plate. I chose veal sweetbreads with celery and apple with polenta and mustard jus. It was not as good as the scallops as the sweetbreads needed some of the robustness some long-dead castle owners brought to their affairs.
A sweet potato soup followed and it was as silky as anything Scarlet O’Hara might have worn to a cotton plantation ball. It had, however, a subtlety Ms O’Hara, if she would acknowledge that honorific, might not recognise.
For her main course DW had fried bass, buttered lettuce, parmesan gnocchi, broad beans, peas, mussels and salsa verde. Decent fish, presumably farmed, on a duvet of cream flecked with the sharpness almost unique to green vegetables and pulses.
I chose duck breast roasted with onions, thyme and pear sauce.
The small, pickled and roasted onions were a really deft combination of loamy taste and sweetness. Though the duck was satisfactory it made me long for the succulence and richness of a good stuffed, roast duck.
Maybe it’s that duck breast on its own is so narrow, almost limited, that it is actually and metaphorically, as the adage has it, vendre des canard à moitié — selling ducks by half.
Next DW had a lovely, baked yoghurt, pineapple and pepper sorbet dessert. I had chocolate pave which was too dense for that point in the meal.
The wine was a preposterously expensive — €54 — Jerome Quiot Gigondas and pointed to one of the least attractive Bell Tower traits.
Though there are some wines in the €35 to €45 bracket the great majority seemed over €55, stretching all the way to €1,500 for a bottle of Pétrus.
The Bell Tower, as any restaurant in a building of such tremendous proportions would, struggles too to offer a warm embrace. Despite excellent, professional service and pleasantly fitted surroundings, the air of a mausoleum is very hard to shake off.
The cooking is very alive though and trumps everything else. Well worth a visit, especially as today you can get in without laying siege to the place.
Dinner costs €62.50, drinks and tip extra
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved