That being said, as someone who has never successfully cooked a proper stew in my life, I was looking forward to sampling some of the traditional Irish dishes when I visited the country this past September, especially knowing that Ireland’s reputation for beef has been soaring in recent years. It’s no wonder their beef has been praised; with almost 65% of Ireland’s land used for farming (much of which is made up of small farms under 80 acres in size), here locally-produced, “farm-to-table” food isn’t just a trend, it’s a lifestyle.
So what better place to enjoy my first Irish stew than on a 280-acre farm with a Cordon-Bleu-trained celebrity chef as my hostess? Here’s what I took away (including recipes to share below!) from my visit to Ballyknocken House & Cookery School.
Ballyknocken B&B & Cooking SchoolBallyknocken is a small town about 40 minutes south of Dublin in the hills of County Wicklow where TV personality and acclaimed Irish chef Catherine Fulvio runs both a cooking school and Victorian B&B – that is, when this tireless entrepreneur isn’t writing another cookbook, flying around the world making favourite dishes for homesick Irish expats (her TV series ‘Tastes Like Home’), recreating historic menus at grand estates around Ireland for another series titled Lords and Ladles, or raising her family. (I have no idea how she manages all of this, because I’m exhausted just writing all of it!
But no matter how far Catherine travels around the world, Ballyknocken is home for her and her cooking school. Here, in the farm’s former milking barn that has been renovated and turned into a modern kitchen/classroom, Catherine helps visitors create mouth-watering meals that they prepare together from recipes that she has perfected in her cookbooks.
Taking inspiration from both her Irish roots and her Italian husband’s heritage, many of these cookbooks incorporate both country’s influences. (Potatoes meets pasta…. should make for a great gnocchi recipe, I would think!)
A 4-star, 4-course meal we made 4-ourselves
I had come to Ballyknocken with a group of travel writers, so our cooking class was going to be all about preparing a traditional Irish menu that included comfort foods like beef stew (made with local Wicklow beer, of course), herbed mashed potatoes – known as “champs” to the Irish – and some of the most delicious savoury scones I’ve ever tasted.
Even though I was an Irish stew virgin, under the tutelage of Catherine and her chef/assistant Sharon Bradford, I managed not to screw up cooking the beef, and what resulted was a savoury stew that was both tender and tasty. Hurray! And I even lent a hand when it was time to mix our yin-yang soup duo of Carrot and Cumin soup with Spinach Soup.
While I was worrying over the beef and the presentation of the soup, others in our group prepared the creamy mashed potatoes with spring onions, parsley and thyme foraged from the farm’s own gardens, along with a fresh salmon and strawberry green salad to start our meal.
And of course no meal would be complete without dessert: in this case, a chocolate truffle torte that was rich, dense and decidedly decadent. In total, we cooked up 8 recipes for our meal, but as the old saying goes: “Many hands make light work.” Washed down with a fair bit of wine and even more laughter, this was a meal that I would be proud to serve at home to any guest – parts of which I have since made with great success, to be honest. (Which goes to prove that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks.)
Ballyknocken B&B: a warm welcome to go with the food
Ballyknocken isn’t just a cooking school. For visitors who are looking for a country escape to go along with their culinary experience, Catherine runs one of Ireland’s oldest B&Bs that has been in her family for three generations. This charming 1850s Victorian home adjacent to the cooking school is exactly what you would expect from a country getaway: a romantic 19th century farmhouse with a formal parlour, inviting breakfast room and 7 pretty ensuite rooms. Filed with character and furnished with antiques that have been in Catherine’s family forever, the house is welcoming and warm, just like its owner.
With its reputation as a cooking school it’s no surprise that Ballyknocken served up a breakfast at the B&B that was every bit as delicious and hearty as the evening meal we had cooked up the night before in the classroom – only this time, it was made to order for us, not BY us. With everything on the menu from homemade bread for toast and creamy locally-made butter to a full Irish breakfast with all the fixings, no one left the table – or Ballyknocken – hungry.
My visit to Ballyknocken satisfied more than my appetite for Irish stew; it included a generous helping of Irish hospitality, thanks to Catherine Fulvio. So although I can’t share her home with you here, I can at least share a couple of her recipes, and hope that you enjoy this taste of Ireland wherever you are.
Your takeaway: recipes!
Beef and Wicklow Wolf Stout Stew Recipe
2 lbs stewing beef, trimmed of fat, tossed in flour seasoned with salt and pepper
3 large onions, thinly sliced
275 g mushrooms
1 tbsp sugar
1 tsp powdered mustard
1 1/2 tbsp tomato purée
Fresh herb bouquet consisting of 4 parsley sprigs, I sprig of thyme, and I bay leaf tied together
260ml Wicklow Wolf Stout (or Guinness Stout)
salt and pepper to taste
2 tbsp butter and 2 – 4 tbsp olive oil
Cut the meat into 1 1/2 inch cubes and toss them in the flour to coat them. Heat the butter and 2 tbsp of the olive oil in a large frying pan and fry the beef on high heat until nicely browned. Place the beef into a deep, heavy bottom pot.
In the same frying pan used to brown the beef, add remaining oil and gently fry the onions. When they are transparent, add the Stout to deglaze the pan.
Add the onions and juices to the pot with the beef, adding in the sugar, mustard, tomato puree and herb bouquet. Bring all to the boil, cover and simmer over low heat for approximately 2 hours or until the meat is tender. Don’t stir the dish too much to avoid breaking up the meat and if the juice is rendering down too quickly, add some beef stock.
While stew is cooking, wash and quarter the mushrooms. When stew is almost done, fry the mushrooms in some melted butter and season them with salt and pepper. Once mushrooms are cooked, add them to the stew and simmer all together for another 5 minutes. Add more salt or pepper to taste.
Garnish stew with chopped parsley when served.
Carmelized Leek and Onion Scones
2 tbsp butter and 2tbsp olive oil (for frying)
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 tbslp leek, finely diced
225g plain flour (1 1/2 cups)
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
50g cold butter, cut into pieces (1/2 stick)
40g grated Parmesan cheese
200g natural yogourt (3/4 cup)
Preheat oven to 400F. Heat the butter and olive oil in a frying pan and cook the onion over medium heat, stirring often, until lightly browned. Remove the onion to a small bowl and cook the leeks for 5 minutes without browning. Add to the onion.
In a large bowl sieve together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Transfer to a food processor and add the butter. Mix for 3-4 seconds. (Or blend by hand until mixture resembles the texture of oatmeal.) Transfer back to a bowl and stir in the onion and leeks along with the cheese. Mix in the yogourt to form a dough but keep a little back and only add it if the mixture is very dry. The dough should be a bit sticky but not wet. Transfer this mixture to a floured surface and lightly knead it for a few seconds. Pat it out until it is about 1 inch thick. Using a 2 1/2 inch cookie cutter (I used a wine glass!), cut out rounds from the dough and place on a lightly greased cookie sheet. Bake for about 15 minutes, until golden brown.
Special thanks to Tourism Ireland who hosted my visit to the Emerald Isle.
For more recipes from Catherine Fulvio, as well as information on cooking classes, special events, visit Ballyknocken’s website.