To the waters and the wild

Cookery schools, river walks and wildlife parks — Kilkenny has a lot to offer, says John Tynan.

To the waters and the wild

FOR ME, Kilkenny will always be associated with Ireland’s first Pub of the Year. In truth, the fact it carries my name was the only reason I ventured into Tynan’s Bridge House Bar in the 1990s, and it was obvious that its 300-year-old charm was reason enough for the accolade. No superpub was this.

As such, warm memories of the Marble City. Nevertheless, I ventured into the land of the Cats this time in trepidation of a clawing, conscious that Cork had shown the county’s hurlers to be mere mortals after all.

Firstly, the aim of this whirlwind tour was to experience the best of Kilkenny via its walking/cycling trails, food trails, and crafts trail.

Our base was the luxurious Lyrath Estate Hotel and Spa, which set the scene perfectly. Nestled in 170 acres, it’s difficult to believe this sanctuary is just 1.2km from Kilkenny City and, strangely, I found even my walking slowed noticeably when I entered its confines. As a taster, we were lavished with a lunch using food from local artisan producers, which would be reprised the following day.

Impressed on me over the two days was something that came as a surprise: that Kilkenny as a county wraps its history around itself like a blanket and Lyrath Hotel, with its 17th century house, epitomises this. The historic is married to the modern, which included a pianist giving a classical feel to modern pop songs in the cathedral-like foyer on Saturday evening.

September saw the Kilkenny Trails Festival with the aim of getting people out and about — nature trails including the bat walk along the River Nore, a discovery of the city’s history, a meet the gardener and tour of the walled gardens at Mount Juliet, concluding with the grand finale Harvest Picnic at Highbank Orchards.

Our group was brought to the historic village of Inistioge, with its 10-span bridge and Woodstock House. Next was a walk along the banks of the Nore, through woods and glades, replete with autumn colour.

It was gorgeous and all too brief, before we were bussed to Georgian Ballyduff House, where we were greeted by Brede Thomas. As we restored the energy levels with her sister’s chocolate cake and scones, Brede told us of hen parties in her house and her late departed husband, the Master of Kilkenny Hounds, whose eccentric ideas included encouraging local children to build a wall, into which, as a reward, he inserted bottles, each containing the names of the children.

On the road again, this time on two wheels, courtesy of Waterside Bike and Hike at Graiguenamanagh. Using river towpaths, country roads and forest hills, they cater for leisurely family spins to mountain bikers... and also have electric bikes.

We freewheeled into Thomastown, where I learned to truly appreciate why the Aztecs elevated chocolate to a delicacy fit for the gods.

Chocolate reaches another plane in Mary Teehan’s hands, but in particular her tequila, salt and lemon truffle, understated among the treats at The Truffle Fairy.

Crafts were up next, at Karen Morgan Porcelain. The signature for this award-winning designer is creamy white ware, sculptural in form, but with a practical application. Her gallery/studio is three years in existence and you can see her at work. She also allows space for the efforts of other local artists, whose work attains a high level of sophistication and creativity.

A brief sojourn at Lyrath before attention turns to more precious objects; gold, silver and platinum at the shop of Rudolf Heltzel and his son Chris in Kilkenny City.

Then its over to Foodworks on Parliament St. A modern, fresh feel to this restaurant is highlighted by a frequentlychanging menu, with an emphasis on the use of herbs and vegetables from the family farm, along with free-range pork. The latter dictated that I select slow roast shoulder of pork, accompanied by glazed carrots, roast garlic, fig chutney and potatoes. Preceding this was a fresh on the palate goat’s cheese parfait, lemon, roasted peppers and cashew nut crumble, with desert of apple tarte tatin easing into a coda of Knockdrinna Farmhouse cheeses. An early bird menu offers three courses for €25.

A nightcap at Lyrath and it’s head down on the plumpest pillows in existence.

Sunday, obviously, begins with more food.

Twenty-two years giving cookery classes to adults and children alike, Anne Neary is in her element in the kitchen at Ryeland House Cookery School. Fried field mushrooms set the relaxed scene. She then proceeded to make the bread-making look simple before we separated into threes to blend locally-sourced buttermilk and other ingredients for a loaf that far exceeded expectations.

A bountiful weekend was rounded off at the organic-focussed Highbank Orchards, in Cuffesgrange. It boasts a stone courtyard and small wildlife park and is open to the public. It is owned by Julie and Rod Calder-Potts, whose parents returned from South Africa in 1961. Apples were first planted on the family farm in 1969, but in 1982/83, the family was forced to burn 32,000 apple trees, after being “hammered” by the French, said Rod. They subsequently came to realise that while they could not compete on looks, they could on flavour and I honestly believe I could chew cardboard if it was lathered in their apple syrup. I’m not a big fan of cider, but I could easily make an exception for their Medieval Cider, made with organic honey, which is equally good served warm.

These drinks were accompanied by a feast that included Ann Neary’s bread, meaty, full-flavoured Lavistown Sausages served with Ann’s chili jam; little photons of fishy flavoured orange-coloured light that constituted the amazing Goatsbridge Trout Caviar, and nutty Knockdrinna Gold cheese, not to mention the Potts own Highbank organic hummus, cucumber pickle, and just-picked figs and grapes.

While the hurlers lacked the Cody factor, Kilkenny’s artisan food producers and craftspeople are in the All-Ireland-winning category.

I travelled to the county in trepidation, and left in real fear, too, that my words would not do justice to the creativity and work of some inspirational people.

TRAVEL DIGEST

by Barry Coughlan

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