As guests arrive at Ballymaloe House for its legendary Sunday evening buffet, they’re greeted by Mrs Allen. “Good evening,” she says. “Where are you travelling from?” The answers vary, from local to as far-flung as is imaginable. “You’re very welcome,” she continues. This year marks Myrtle Allen’s 90th birthday and her 50th anniversary of welcoming guests into her home each night, and this particular Sunday in spring, the buffet has already been set. It is a sight that, at first, looks to be a time capsule of another era of dining: boiled eggs piped with mayonnaise, lobster vol-au-vents, and proud breasts of roast goose stand out as especially nostalgic. However, once adjusted to the sight of seeing dishes long since banished from menus elsewhere, the visitor notices the timeless, indeed modern, qualities of Ballymaloe’s buffet. Platters of tiny Dublin Bay prawns, cockles and sea urchins are neatly piled next to salads of foraged pennywort, wild garlic flowers and springy watercress so fine it resembles clover. House-baked pale and dark soda breads are accompanied by a hand-churned Jersey-cow butter whose intense aroma retains a hint of the barnyard. Just as the butter comes from the Ballymaloe herd, so does the beef, roasted to pink with a rich yellowing fat. There are farmhouse cheeses of varied size and shape, and whole sides of smoked fish, too. Everything is organic, made by hand and locally grown or sourced. It is an experience that is somehow unforgettable; convivial, unpretentious yet deeply sophisticated. It represents the beauty of travelling in Ireland right now and there isn’t a boiled potato or a greying stew in sight.
“You’re very welcome” is something you hear everywhere you go in Ireland. From arrival to departure, at airports, in hotels and restaurants, even the remotest of four-stool tumbledown pubs, you cannot escape the goodwill. For seasoned travellers accustomed to slightly mechanical, globalised hospitality-school-taught service the natural warmth can be jarring at first. For the sceptical, it even raises suspicion of whether the generosity is genuine. At times it feels so prevalent that it begs the question of whether the government has gone so far as to mandate a ‘welcome all visitors’ policy. That cynicism around authenticity is, of course, unfounded, yet there may still be an acorn of truth to that notion of a national approach. Brehon law, the principles that governed early medieval Ireland (800–1169), dictated that visitors were always welcome and that every Irishman must open his home and share what he has with foreigners. While those laws are long since defunct, that way of being has become Irish custom. The beauty of the country is storied and its history and culture have inspired generations of artists, writers and musicians. However, rarely celebrated is the unique style of Irish hospitality. In a world of increasingly homogenised travel experiences it is the generosity of spirit and good humour of the Irish themselves that elevates and enriches the experience of travelling there.
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Photos: Pablo Zamora © Vogue Living, Nov/Dec 2014Download PDF