Ballyvolane House, County Cork
By Hilarius D.G
“OH, THERE HAVE BEEN many lively nights around this table down through the centuries,” says our Ballyvolane host, Justin Green, fondly patting the mahogany as dinner is served. My fellow guests at Ballyvolane are a family of five Chinese Americans on a whirlwind tour of Europe in celebration of an important birthday for Kitchi, their matriarch.
The long rays of an Irish summer sunset dapple the red, shamrock patterned walls of the dining room. Through broad windows, we glimpse Friesian cattle grazing in buttercup-filled meadows and, in a distant haze, the rippling hills of East Cork. “Ballyvolane” translates as “place of the springing heifer” and, sure enough, a young cow performs a dutiful skip.
Originally built for Sir Richard Pyne, a lord chief justice of Ireland, and completed in 1728, th wisteria-draped Ballyvolane got an Italianate makeover in 1847 and is now a flagship of Hidden Ireland, a group of family-owned Irish castles, manors, and mansions that have opened their doors to paying guests. One of the quirky pleasures of Hidden Ireland hospitality is that all guests dine together.
Kitchi’s family turn out to be great fun. It’s the last night of their grand tour, and the banter runs ceaselessly. We contrast the lives of the Chinese and Irish emigrants who built North America’s railroads. We compare Oliver Cromwell’s conquest of Ireland with China’s Cultural Revolution.
Justin gamely fields questions and spins fresh ones back. Alongside his wife, Jenny, he’s racked up nearly 20 years of looking after guests at hotels and resorts in Hong Kong. Dubai, and Bali, before returning to southwest Ireland to take on the family home in 2004. In addition to the six cozy guest rooms in the main house, the Greens offer furnished luxury tents for rent on the estate grounds in summer. This evening, while Justin hosts the table, Jenny is cooking in the kitchen.
Twelve-year-old Toby Green, the eldest of their three children, has already built up an impressive international network of yunger Ballyvolane guests. “He has pen pals all over the world,” says Justin.
As the evening draws to a close, Kitchi gives her verdict on the trip: “For me, the big highlights has been…feeding the piglets this morning.
The piglets are five saddlebacks that snuffle in a stable adjoining the main house. With their mother and some Muscovy ducks, they are the principal beneficiaries of any excess scraps from the Ballyvolane kitchen.
In fact, the kitchen has vaulted Ballyvolane into the upper ranks of Ireland’s places to stay. Homegrown or locally sources ingredients drive the menus, including the succulent halibut we are eating, recently hooked by a fisherman on the Beara Peininsula. All fruits and vegetables come from a three-acre garden bordered by 14-foot-high sandstone walls. Orderly rows yield asparagus, sea kale, spring onion, rainbow chard, beetroot, and potato. And rhubab-which Justin so deftly converted into a rhubarb martini when I went for a stroll before dinner, passing under a glorious arch of laburnum that leads to terraced gardens and a croquet lawn with a dovecote at its center. The ground beneath roll out a seasonal carpet-snow drops in February, then daffodils, bluebells, rhododendrons, azaleas, and camellias over the ensuing months.
The following day, Kitchi tells me she feels as though she has “just stayed with friends.” Justin isn’t surprised. “The advantage of opening up only a handful of bedrooms is that you can give guests playing an old Percy French music hall tune. Silhouetted between Ionic pillars and classic statuary in a hall the color of burnt orange, he’s still playing when the next guests arrive.