County Cork could arguably claim to be the gastro heart of Ireland. Drive down virtually any tiny country lane and you'll find evidence of a burgeoning culture for artisanal food producers - a farm churning out unique handmade goat's cheese, or a blink-and-you-miss-it village that will be home to a gourmet restaurant.
At the epicentre of this foodie activity is the handsome Ballymaloe House, set in 400 acres of rolling green pastures in picturesque East Cork. Myrtle Allen is widely attributed with kick-starting the organic food movement in Ireland when she opened her restaurant, the Yeats Room, at Ballymaloe in 1964. A self-taught cook and farmer's wife, Allen passionately believed that locally sourced ingredients were of prime importance - something Ballymaloe has stayed true to ever since.
Three years later, she opened the house to paying guests and also managed to find the time to establish a cookery school. This is now run by her daughter- in-law Darina, Ireland's Delia Smith and writer of numerous cookbooks. Suffice to say, Ballymaloe now enjoys the kind of status that anyone who has ever dreamed of opening a country house hotel would long to emulate.
The comfort factor
Classic country-house style: squishy sofas, roaring open fires, iron bedsteads, old-fashioned Irish hospitality. The are 34 rooms - 23 in the main house, which dates from the 1600s, and 11 in the courtyard, including a 16th-century gatekeeper's house.
No surprises here - the usual bath and shower and unremarkable toiletries. But you're not here for that, you're here to eat.
The food and drink
Eating and drinking is the main attraction at Ballymaloe. Almost all the ingredients are delivered straight to the kitchen's doorstep from the surrounding area: fish are plucked from the sea five miles away, meat and poultry reared at organic farms and vegetables grown in the gardens. Biscuits and bread are made in the bakery. Menus change with the seasons and availability of produce. But expect the likes of bruschetta with roast peppers and Ardsallagh goat's cheese, and free-range leg of pork served with herbs, garlic, Bramley apple sauce and aubergines. Dinner on Fridays start with fresh shellfish from Kenmare Bay and a truly superior buffet is served on Sunday nights. Myrtle no longer mans the pots and pans, but her friendly presence is still felt.
You'd be a grump to be irked by the general good-life wholesomeness of the place. A house-party atmosphere prevails, but it's big enough not to make you feel like you need to join in if you don't want to. There's a varying mix of guests - families celebrating special occasions, tourists and weekenders. Ballymaloe attracts more than its fair share of high-fliers.
Explore East Cork: the immediate area has plenty to keep weekenders busy. One of Ireland's most celebrated potters, Stephen Pearce, has his workshop nearby. Or there's the pretty harbour of Ballycotton for bracing coastal walks. Cork City, with its foodie-friendly English Market, is 20 miles away. Alternatively, you can sign up for a short course at the Ballymaloe cookery school two miles away.
Children are welcome. There's even a children's tea with homemade organic burgers. There are facilities for people with disabilities.
Double rooms start from €200 (£143) per room per night, based on two sharing, including breakfast, or €250 (£178) for a superior double. A five-course dinner costs €60 (£43) per person without wine.
Shanagarry, Co Cork, Ireland (00 353 21 465 2531; www.ballymaloe.ie).Reuse content