Joe McNamee basks in the comforts of Ireland’s only organic hotel, the Brooklodge Hotel & Wells Spa, in Macreddin Village.
THERE is really only one way to travel to Brooklodge — by train. Sure, driving to Wicklow is always lovely but it’s hard to beat the sensation of escaping rush hour Dublin, mopping a sweaty brow, still panting as you wangle a window seat and then beginning the leaving of the capital and a gradual, gorgeous immersion into its hinterland on a brilliant-bright Irish morning.
First, we spy on increasingly salubrious back gardens the further south the train chugs along Ireland’s ‘Riviera’ until eventually the line turns inland somewhere around Wicklow town, heading for the green woody heartland of the Garden County.
Alighting onto the platform at Rathdrum, a deserted little rural station, serenely silent, a taxi is required to travel the final 20km through leafy laneways to Macreddin.
The Brooklodge Hotel & Wells Spa in Macreddin Village opened for business in 1999 but thoughtful architecture and landscaping and, in particular, some voracious climbers have already bestowed on the hotel a patina of age beyond its years. Give it another couple of decades and you’ll have guests swearing it is a fine old country pile with a pedigree dating back centuries.
Ireland’s only organic hotel, run by a most progressive proprietor Evan Doyle, it also hosts Ireland’s only organic restaurant, The Strawberry Tree, and reflects Doyle’s commitment to organic, free range and locally sourced and foraged produce.
The ‘village’ of holiday homes was actually built from the ground up, the original Macreddin abandoned some 200-300 years before, but this artificial construction is cleverly executed with a pub, café and Italian restaurant, La Taverna Armenta, for guests seeking variety without the without the hassle of actually leaving.
On the first Sunday of the month, they host a farmer’s market and, every two years, it is the setting for Slow Food Ireland’s Wild & Slow, a splendid two-day festival (taking place this weekend, November 8/9) devoted to wild Irish foraged foods and wild game.
Doyle is also the co-author, along with food writer Biddy White Lennon, of Wild Food, a fine little primer for those taking their first steps into the world of foraging and I am here for the Brooklodge Wild Foods Masterclass, courses running throughout the year.
We begin with a visit to the ‘Pantry’, a cellar store for which any right-thinking gourmand would trade his eye-teeth, a subterranean cornucopia of preserves and pickles, syrups, cordials, vinegars, dried flowers and leaves, jams and jellies made from a plethora of foraged and cultivated produce, even wines, made from the grapes that bulge from the rafters of the sunroom.
“It’s eye candy,” says Doyle, “not for sale but it is also a source of inspiration for the chefs who can come in here and use the produce to add something special to a dish they might be working on.”
Clothilde Walenne is Brooklodge’s resident chef/forager, charged with maximising the yield from all wild foraged foods gathered up over the course of the year. As we take a run through some of the vast array of edible goodies they produce each year, she points out how those foodstuffs foraged at the start of the season are leaf and flower-based, all greens and whites; towards the end of the year, it is the turn of the fruit, all browns, oranges, umbers and ambers.
And while every dog in the street is churning out a wild garlic pesto these days, Doyle, has featured it on his menus for over two decades.
“Wild garlic season begins around March,” says Doyle, “we gather enough to make pesto for all year round. This year, we filled 35-40 black bags, the flowers are used fresh in salads, or dried to be used as a condiment.”
We set off around the grounds of Brooklodge with Clothilde. We encounter the skeletal remains of Alexander, or Black Lovage, down by the stream; sorrel, close to the base of trees; in the hedgerows, we uncover wild pea; on the ground, the pretty little flowers of herb Robert. A beech tree has had a spigot tapped into the trunk to drain off beech sap. Clothilde regularly photographs particular trees and plants, all part of a record she compiles of each growing year.
“Wild plants are super-resilient,” says Clothilde, “managing to survive and prosper without any intervention from man but they survive, like animals, concentrating the goodness.”
We’ve barely covered a kilometre in an hour but intensive engagement with a microcosmic plant world tends to alter scale and perspective entirely and suddenly we are back at base, in the walled garden where much of their cultivated produce is grown.
The Strawberry Tree Restaurant dining room is rather different to the underplayed, understated charm of the rest of the hotel. With navy and black flocked wallpaper, brass chandeliers, gilt-edged mirrors on the walls, finely polished mahogany tables with even more finely turned ankles and an entirely mirrored ceiling, it is a veritable Versailles.
Conversely, the seven-course tasting menu is deceptively simple, devoid of cheffy tricks, content to allow natural flavours of high quality ingredients shine through and we experience none of the usual epicurean ennui, that mental bloating that comes with an overload of excess. The 6th course features a choice of local lamb or duck breast, neither floating my non-meat eating partner’s boat so Doyle emerges from the kitchen to discuss an alternative. Actually, he emerges bearing the alternative, an exquisite wild salmon caught the same day on the River Barrow, a glistening, glittering hen, dripping onto Doyle’s patent leather shoes. When a portion returns, 20 minutes later, perfectly pan-fried fillet, one stolen mouthful of that sweet, oily flesh turns my hitherto splendid duck to sawdust in my mouth.
The following morning, after a breakfast that would carry a body through to dinner and beyond, I discover the second leg of the Wild Foods masterclass is a cooking demo — ah well, I can at least watch.
Chef Tim Daly is cooking a dish of fresh wild salmon with a wild garlic crust. Perched on stools, sipping refreshing nettle tea served by Clothilde, we watch on as he works. Tim moves quickly, descaling, gutting, filleting, removing pin bones and trimming the fillets. It is a relatively simple dish but any further elaboration would be criminal in the extreme.
Do I taste it, recent breakfast notwithstanding? Hell, yes, and then some!
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