country Matters: Age-old greetings from Ireland's family tables

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What better way to start the new year than with a gastronomic tour of Irish country houses? It is, of course, no use merely to drive up to the first Georgian pile you see crumbling at the end of its avenue: probably the place will turn out to be i nhabited by a pipe-smoking spinster with crew-cut, carrot-coloured hair, and there will be nothing to eat but mouldy potatoes. What you need is some sort of a guide - and in Deirdre McQuillan's The Irish Country House Table you have one.

Strictly speaking, this is a practical cookery book, but in finest Irish fashion it is a few other things as well. Almost 40 country houses are represented, each with its own special dishes. Some of the establishments are hotels or restaurants, others private homes. All are introduced with informative notes on history and ownership by the present occupants.

Thus one learns that the origins of Altamont in Co Carlow can be traced back to the 15th century. The present owner, Corona North, was born in the house, and has devoted her life to what she calls her "magic garden", on which she bases residential gardening courses.

Introducing her first recipe, for trout in paper, she remarks that "no one has improved upon the traditional Irish ghil-lies' method of cooking trout" - which was to dot a fish with butter, wrap it in sheets of wet newspaper and stuff the bundle into theashes of a wood fire until the paper began to smoulder.

Fish, naturally, feature often - and none more stylishly than Closheens Mariniere, a recipe contributed by Lady Mollie Cusack Smith, mistress of Bermingham House at Tuam. Great-great-grand niece of John Dennis, who founded the Galway Blazers, Lady Mollieherself was master of the hunt for 38 seasons, and still breeds her own hounds.

"Closheens," she explains, "comes from the Irish cluaisini, the smaller or queen scallop. Clearly she has a deft hand with them, as she has with oxtail stew. (In the same vein, bean caoin means "gentle woman", the equivalent of bonne femme.)

Many of the recipes, like the houses and the people who own them, are very old. Birr Castle has belonged to the Parsons family for 14 generations, and the recipe for pigeon soup given by Alice, second Countess of Rosse, dates back to 1800. That for Louise O'Morphy's venison chops (emanating from Luggala, Co Wicklow) comes from the 1750s.

Louise was mistress to Louis XV, and "was made famous in Boucher's portrait which showed her recumbent naked back view ... She also lived in Le Parc aux Cerfs [the Deer Park] from which she, too, escaped". This excellent information was contributed by the present owner of Luggala, the Honourable Garech de Brun, who married Princess Purna of Morvi. One result of their union is that the cuisine in this corner of the Wicklow mountains has become a sizzling mixture of Indian and Irish: Bengali fish with mustard seed, and Mem Sahib's shepherd's pie.

Strokestown Park potato fritters, Florence Bowe's crumpets, Partry pike, Molly Keane's sawdust eggs ... one could eat oneself to a standstill. Yet there is another ingredient, barely mentioned, that gives all these recipes a special savour: the warmth of

hospitality that envelopes strangers who fetch up at any rural hostelry.

I think particularly of Rathsallagh, near Dunlavin, Co Wicklow. This does not feature in the book, but it well might have, so original is its food. The home of Joe and Kay O'Flynn, it is a small country house hotel with all the comforts you could ask.

Capping them all is the priceless extra asset of Joe's stories. A formidable hunting man, he will talk about his boyhood in Cork, about horses and hounds and foxes, until the fire sinks low in the grate and the sky lightens, and you feel your wits being stolen away, down the boreens, along the rough thorn hedges, and out over the misty bogs into the very soul of Ireland.

The Irish Country House Table, by Deirdre McQuillan, is published by Gill & Macmillan, £16.99.