Cooking with Sarah Parker: The recipe for an elegant country break

Cloughjordan House  in North Tipperary has a cookery school, as  well as accommodation; opposite, Sarah Baker collects produce from the gardens.

A weekend of cooking with Sarah Baker isn’t just a relaxing getaway, says Pól Ó Conghaile. You may come home with plans for the kitchen and garden, too.

WHEN Sarah Baker asks, “Do you know how to make an omelette?” judging by the mischievous look on her face, you know this is a loaded question.

Sure I do, I tell the face of Cloughjordan House & Cookery School, going on to outline my method — from breaking of eggs to serving of end product. Omelettes are easy, right? 

“Yes, but do you know how to make them fluffy?”

“Erm, no,” I concede.

“I’ll show you,” she says, pulling on a pair of boots and heading into the garden.

With a wicker basket tucked under her arm, Baker leads me from pigs to vegetable patches, from garlic bulbs to greenhouse laden with tomatoes and aubergines. She plucks eggs from the straw of a chicken coop. She pulls her own, dry-cured bacon from the fridge.

Returning to the kitchen, it looks like we’ve been to market. “The key is having everything really ready to go,” she says. The bacon is fried, the tomatoes chopped, the eggs beaten. It all comes together in a blur: She works the mix with a wooden spatula, crafting little grooves and running the egg into the spaces. She turns it once, twice, and lifts the pan.

“The final turn is the turn onto the plate.”

First impressions 

Arriving at Cloughjordan the previous evening, the last place I expected to find myself was cooking omelettes in the cheery warmth of a country kitchen.

Pulling up the driveway, my tyres crunched satisfyingly over stone chips; red wisps of Virginia creeper trailed down the 400-year-old facade. It felt like a dower house for Downton Abbey, a place where guests and owners stay separate.

It’s anything but. Within moments of arriving, I was eating beetroot chips with Sarah and her husband Peter. Behind the elegant exterior, there are very easygoing folk.

The culinary arts 

Does Cloughjordan House look familiar? You may recognise it from supermarket shelves, where Baker and her business beam out from cartons of Glenisk milk, yoghurt and crème fraiche, inviting customers to enter a competition for a mini-break and cookery class. By all accounts, it’s a popular prize.

Baker teaches all kinds of classes in the restored coach house beside her kitchen. Scheduled classes include Winter Comfort Food (Nov 9 and 23; €85pp) and the Magic of Christmas (Dec 7 and 14; €85).

My favourite part of the stay, however, was chatting and cooking with Baker in  her own kitchen (an option available to small groups). After the omelette, she took fresh blackberries and reduced them to a compote, mixing the results with yoghurt.  

The rooms 

Cloughjordan House is impressive, but don’t expect a Blue Book property. The six rooms fit the description of a very good guesthouse rather than a luxurious country pile.

All are different (some offer open fires), but all come  with decent beds, cosy throws and a scattering of period features.

Mine is on the second floor, twin single beds set beneath a roof curving with the eaves, lots of books slotted into nooks and crannies. A rain shower is an unexpected treat and there’s a little vase of flowers from the garden. Another surprise is the first floor bathroom with sauna. I also like the window seats, honesty bar and antique touches such as the twists to the upper banisters.  

A little history 

Walking into the house, my eye is drawn to the curious collection of black and white photographs and documents lining the hallway. Peter Baker talks me through them.

Cloughjordan was built on the site of an old Norman tower. A gentleman by the name of Jordan de Marisco is said to have lived there. He travelled to the Holy Land and returned with a stone reportedly now buried in the foundations. Cloughjordan means ‘Jordan’s Stone’.

The house  was built around the tower  in the 1600s, and has been invaded by Cromwellian forces, occupied by Free State soldiers and lived in by the owners of a garden nursery business before being acquired by Peter’s family.  

The food 

Expect slap-up country breakfasts. Hens’ eggs, bacon and sausages from Cloughjordan’s pigs and lashings of homemade jams, compotes and brown bread — and don’t forget to order one of those fluffy omelettes.

There are lots of casual options nearby too: Try the Derg Inn in Terryglass (thederginn.ie) and Larkin’s of Garrykennedy (larkins.ie) for gastro-pub fare, or the culinary crossroads that is Peter and Mary Ward’s Country Choice in Nenagh (countrychoice.ie). Every time I drop into the café/deli here, an irresistible delivery is after landing from some corner of the county — or indeed, the continent. It could be clover blackberry honey from Cahir, bulbous garlic from France, or tomatoes fresh from a Lebanese grower in Borrisoleigh.

What to do 

Cloughjordan is a small village, but there’s lots to do within a short drive. President Obama’s ancestral hometown of Moneygall is just down the road, the sailing boats and cycle trails of Lough Derg are nearby and Nenagh is 20 minutes away, with some surprises lying in wait.

On a recent walking tour, I finally got to visit Nenagh Castle. Its origins lie in a 13th century fortification built for the Butler family, and a recent restoration has opened up 101 spiralling steps.  

Don’t miss Rohan’s Pub,  (12 Sarsfield St). Run by two generations, father Paddy  and son Patrick, the pub is plastered with yellowing GAA posters. Wednesday nights see trad sessions strike up next to old grocery shelves lined with Bird’s custard and Barry’s tea.

Rohan’s can’t match Sarah Baker’s cooking, but if word gets out it’s your birthday, they have been known to stick a candle in a slice of Galtee cheese.

The bottom line 

B&B costs from €65pp at Cloughjordan House. There’s a 10% room discount if you combine with a cookery class. Contact 087-2515694 or cloughjordanhouse.com

CROATIAN PACKAGES HAVE LOTS OF OPTIONS

Concorde Travel’s 2014 Croatia brochure features a range of holiday options, including island breaks. The company has escorted tours, schooner holidays and pilgrimages to Medjugorje. Early bookers can avail of €100 discounts. www.concordetravel.ie, telephone 01-7759300.

TREAT IN STORE FOR FOOD LOVERS

Organic or Italian foodies should take note of a three-night winter special at Brooklodge and Macreddin Village in Aughrim, Co Wicklow to include dinners in the Strawberry Tree and La Taverna Armento. At €275 per person, the deal also includes a pampering package. Tel: 0402-36444, www.brooklodge.com

GLITZY OFFERINGS INCLUDES CRUISE

American Holidays is selling a holiday that features excitement and glitz with three nights at the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, one pre-cruise night in Miami and a four-night Caribbean cruise from €1,099pp with flights ex-Dublin. visit www.americanholidays.com or phone 01-6733804.

TURKISH DELIGHT WITH FREE CHILDREN’S PLACES

The new WingsAbroad preview programme has up to 700 free child places available in selected Turkish properties. The company also features low booking deposit of €70 and savings of up to €80 for early bookers. www.wingsabroad.ie, call 01-8719444 or visit any local travel agent.

RELAX AND ENJOY GLASS OF WINE AND MINCE PIE

Day visitors to Inchydoney Island Lodge & Spa from Dec 1 can avail of a new relaxation package. The Spirit of Christmas Ritual package is €99 and, on completion of three treatments, guests will be get a complimentary glass of mulled wine and a mince pie. visit inchydoneyisland.com or facebook.com/InchydoneyIsland


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