CATHERINE FULVIO is one of Ireland’s best-known celebrity chefs. She wasn’t always shopping cookery books and sizzling on TV, however. “Don’t let the Fulvio fool you. My maiden name is Byrne, so I’m a real Wicklow woman,” she told me. The heart of her cottage empire is Ballyknocken House, a Victorian farmhouse that her mother first opened as a B&B in 1969.
Leaving the N11 and driving through Ashford, the roads get narrower and the stone walls and spring leaves draw tighter until we eventually pull up at a driveway exploding with flowers.
Ballyknocken dates from the 1850s, and the farmhouse is strewn with ivy and flanked by large, leafy trees. Stepping into the porch, the sense is of a fusty, old-world hideaway as opposed to the state-of-the-art, 21st-century guesthouse her celebrity chef exploits might suggest.
At heart, it seems, Fulvio is a down-home girl carrying on the family business. Ballyknocken is a working farm, Catherine recalls learning to cook at her mother’s apron strings, and she continues to live here with husband Claudio (a Sicilian, hence the surname) and their two bubbly kids.
Ballyknocken Cookery School is set beside the guesthouse, in a converted milking parlour next to the herb garden, and we book in for a half-day course — Gastro Food at Home.
The atmosphere is chipper. Catherine arranges a dozen or so participants at shared workstations; we scribble our names on paper hats, and everyone sets about learning how to make an impact on dinner party guests rather than wallets. There’s plenty of homespun advice from the chef.
“Risotto waits for no man, and presumably no woman either,” she quips. “When it’s ready, we’re going to down tools and eat. It needs a little bite. It shouldn’t be soft and mushy.”
Ballyknocken has seven guestrooms — some, but not all, have Victorian roll-top baths, so it’s worth requesting one in advance. We found the rooms comfortable, with splashes of burgundy cushions and throws livening up the antique furniture. It’s perfectly fine four-star accommodation, falling just short of luxury that demands lolling about in.
WHAT TO SEE
Ballyknocken plonks you in the middle of the Wicklow countryside. During the day, you can take a walk on a track leading up Carrick Hill behind the house (picnics can be arranged), and by night the stars are ridiculously bright and the country roads quiet. The city seems an age away.
Big hits in the area include Glendalough, Powerscourt and Mount Usher Gardens, where you can follow dainty trails through the Robinsonian layouts before chowing down with a hunk of cake at the Avoca courtyard. If you prefer hidden gems, skip south of Wicklow town to Silver Strand, a private cove (silverstrand.ie; €8) that looks like it has been sent from the Seychelles.
Dinners are served on Fridays and Saturdays at Ballyknocken, with guests gathering by a fire in the sitting room, before Catherine pops in to chat through the evening’s menu — talking about the farmer who raised the pork, for example, or the purple sprouting broccoli plucked from the garden.
There’s lots of foodie activity in Wicklow — if you’d prefer fine dining, Brook Lodge or Rathsallagh House do a more polished production. What Fulvio brings to the table is yummy country cooking and a super-enthusiastic flourish. We started with an antipasti platter, followed by a lovely butternut squash soup with sage and apple, and a citrusy daube of beef Provençale.
Breakfast is worth travelling for too. Homemade granola, soda bread baked to her mum’s recipe, farm eggs and a fry using Laragh smoked bacon and Cullen’s sausages from Wicklow are the highlights. My wife, who is coeliac, was impressed by the gluten-free options on offer too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
B&B at Ballyknocken costs €59pp, and a four-course dinner is available on Friday and Saturday nights at €45pp. Half-day cookery courses are priced from €110, though you can combine all of the above in a short break special from €169pp. Contact 0404 44627 or ballyknocken.com.
ANYTHING TO ADD
As a parent of two myself, I haven’t a clue where Catherine Fulvio gets her energy. One minute she’s serving sausages. The next she’s cooking a Paddy’s Day breakfast live on NBC. She’s a hugely impressive woman, and she blazes through Ballyknocken like a dynamo.
The key I think is to just go with it, put yourself in her hands, and surrender to a bubbly love of life, can-do approach and a sunny attitude in stark contrast with these dark times.