Living the Business: Fiacri Country House Restaurant & Cookery School

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It is a sunny Sunday morning early in December and Don and I are heading over to Fiacri Country House Restaurant and Cookery School to interview Ailish Hennessy, the chef and owner, together with her husband Enda, of this renowned local enterprise.

There is a feel of Christmas in the air, and driving these local roads, like driving up to Killea every day, reminds me of time spent with my brother Tim. I recall one particular Christmas Eve he and I went to Knock and the surrounding area, near where Fiacri House is situated, as Tim wanted to meet some farmers, with whom he worked in the cattle dealing business, to give each a bottle of brandy for Christmas. Suffice to say it was a bit of an adventure and I recall we got home very late, having missed Christmas Eve mass.  Mother was not a bit happy with us!.

Since October I have made the trip to Fiacri House on several occasions as I did the cookery course that Ailish holds on Tuesday evenings, for four weeks, in October and more recently her Christmas evening class. There are classes at Fiacri House all the year round, and participants can enjoy sampling the dishes prepared in the class, in their beautiful dining room, afterwards. It was a really most enjoyable experience and I learnt some lovely new recipes.

Don and I arrive and even though it is only 10.50 am on a Sunday morning, the place is buzzing. Fires are lighting and Grace, their youngest child, is hoovering the carpet in the lobby. Things are almost ready for the arrival of a huge party of people at noon for the day Christmas cookery demonstration.

 

 

Ailish is sitting having a cup of tea at her kitchen counter, where the demonstrations take place, and she invites Don and I to join her and commence our chat.

Templetuohy Tipperary & Adalaide Road, Dublin

Ailish Hennessy was born Ailish Maher, the daughter of Betty and the late Tommy Maher in Templetuohy. I asked her if she grew up in a ‘foodie household’ and she tells me her Mother was a good cook and so was her maternal grandmother Sadie Clarke (who died, aged 96, only a few weeks ago). Ailish tells me her grandmother reared fourteen children and ‘could make a meal out of nothing’. Another family member who was a big influence was her grandaunt Jo who ran a guest house in Dublin – Kilronan B & B on Adelaide Road.

Ailish frequently spent her summers at her grandaunt’s guest house where she helped out. She loved cooking from an early age. Her grandaunt ran a top class operation and had very high standards, Ailish tells me, something that clearly left a lasting impression. However neither her Mother nor her grandaunt wanted Ailish to pursue a career as a chef, which was her dream. They wanted her to become a teacher or a nurse. Being a chef was no life for a woman, it was believed. After completing her Leaving Certificate at Our Lady’s Secondary School in Templemore (where she studied Home Economics under the late Sr. Gabrielle) there was a little compromise made – and Ailish went to Bolton Street to do a course in Hotel Management.

Alix Gardner

Ailish soon discovered Hotel Management was not the course for her. Still wanting to pursue her dream of becoming a chef, she started taking private classes under Alix Gardner, who ran a private ‘Cordon Bleu’ Cookery School in Dublin. Ms. Gardner was quick to spot Ailish’s unique talent.

Ailish won a scholarship to continue her studies with Ms. Gardner and her teacher informed Ailish’s mother that her daughter was going to go places, and not to stand in her way anymore. Finally, it had to be accepted that Ailish Maher would pursue the career she had wanted from an early age – to become a chef.

Rathsallagh House in Co. Wicklow

On completion of her scholarship Ms. Gardner had three top class jobs lined up for Ailish but advised her to take the job at Rathsallagh House in Co. Wicklow. While the salary was a little less , this would be a really worthwhile experience where Ailish would flourish. And she did. She stayed there for three years and Kaye  O’Flynn  was another big influence on her emerging career.

Cookery Classes Back in Tipperary

On her days off Ailish would come home to Templetuohy where she started to give cookery classes at her Mother’s kitchen table. They grew in popularity and she soon had as many as thirty people coming to participate. Not surprisingly her reputation as a gifted young chef was rising and she was head hunted by the Egans of Inch House who were opening up a restaurant in the Ragg Thurles. Ailish started the restaurant there but it was not long before she was again head hunted, this time by Frank Mulcahy of the Anner Hotel in Thurles. They were expanding and growing the hotel business and offered Ailish a lucrative contract to come on board.

Anner Hotel

This, however, was not the kind of kitchen Ailish was used to running – the numbers she was catering for were huge, and she had to divide her time between large wedding and other parties  and running the restaurant – a juggling act that was very difficult though she learnt a great deal  about managing larger groups here. She met her future husband Enda Hennessy, the son of John and Mary Hennessy, around this time and they were planning to start a small cookery school at their new home, in Boolareagh Knock where Enda was farming the family farm.  The plan was, after their honeymoon, that Ailish would continue to work in the Anner Hotel and run the cookery school on days off. They built their family kitchen with this in mind, ensuring it reached the Health and Safety standards needed.

Waterfront Roscrea

Once again Ailish was approached, this time with the offer to set up her own restaurant at the Waterfront Roscrea. A beautiful building, she explains to me, but the rent was very high for the location and it was hard to make the venture profitable as most of the customers wanted a seat at lunch time only. There could be large parts of the day when business would be very quiet. Ailish, however, worked almost a 7 day week here and was at this time, pregnant with their first child Tommy. A month before Tommy was born she became ill with toxemia and was hospitalized and she and Enda decided, reluctantly at this point, to close the business in Roscrea.

‘The Phone Never Stopped Ringing’

Amazingly she was no sooner home from hospital with their new baby when their phone started to ring and people wanted to know could they book a table to come eat. The plan was a cookery school, not a restaurant. So they were effectively looking to book a seat in their home!  This had not been the plan but when Ailish received a call from their local Parish Priest asking if he could book a table for lunch, for Bishop Willie Walsh and ten other priests, the day of the local Confirmation  – the realization dawned that they were most likely about to start a restaurant, right  there under their feet, at their family home.

Converting the Garage

Ailish says they had no place to put the priests and the Bishop unless they seated them at the family kitchen table! So very quickly and demonstrating the type of work ethic and resilience both Ailish and Enda have in abundance, they converted the garage situated and attached to the house into a dining space, by laying down a timber floor, polishing an old fire place that was in storage at her parent’s house in Templetuohy and installing it, and hanging some good curtains they had used at the Waterfront. Within a few weeks they had a space capable of seating their first large party at the house.

Expansion

So successful was the fledgling business that just after one year their accountant advised them they should apply for a loan to expand. So they did,  building the first of two extensions to the property in 2000. Not even skeptical bankers could deter them!. It was clear the business was there and growing from word of mouth. Ailish and Enda felt sure they would make it a success story – and they did.

The Meaning of ‘Fiacri’

There are two possible meanings to the old Irish word ‘Fiacri’ and Ailish tells me it was Molly Maher from the Stables – a thatched cottage down the road, who lived to be 100 years old,  who told Enda and Ailish about the name and connection to the field where they had built their new home. One meaning is ‘Hunting King’ but the more likely meaning, in this context, is ‘wet marshy field’. 20180912_154636

Ailish says when they were building on the site they came across stones that would indicate drainage from older years, confirming the likely reason why the place was named ‘Fiacri’. And so the house, and soon to become well known gourmet restaurant, was born, something we have to be so proud of here in Tipperary.

In 2004 they were the winner of the Georgina Campbell Feile Bia Award and they are also listed among the top 50 restaurants in Ireland by Hot Press.

Living the Business

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I look at my watch and it was now just after 11.30 and people were already arriving for the cookery demonstration at noon.  I commend Ailish for her remarkable energy and work ethic. ‘It cannot be easy’ I comment, ‘running a business like this from home’. Ailish is frank about the fact that it is a very demanding life. She was working the previous night until after 2 am as they had over eighty people for dinner. She was up at 7.30 am that morning and she was about to start a food demonstration at noon. The mind boggles – to have the energy to run this business, at this level, the past twenty years, and rear four children – Tommy, who has just joined the Military; Denis who is in 5th year (and now helps manage the bar at the weekends,if possible with school work commitments ); David who is in 3rd year, and their youngest Grace, pictured above with her Mam when she was a little younger. This is surely a family enterprise story of passion, dedication – but above all else, of hard work and talent.

‘Are any of the children interested in getting involved in the business?’ I ask? ‘Grace is’, Ailish says, ‘but I don’t encourage her. She could have an easier life!’. I am surprised to hear this after the effort it took for Ailish herself to convince people to allow her to pursue her chosen career  path. Somehow I get the impression Grace will make her own mind up on the subject, when the time comes.

Fiacri House is just ten minutes drive from Greenville Cottage and I encourage all our guests to go and enjoy this unique evening out in their restaurant, serving locally sourced and produced food, to the highest standards.

IMG_20181209_113451I return home after getting a photograph with Ailish, taken by Don, driving back along those rural and beautiful winding Irish roads, the sun sparking in the December mid day sky. My mind is busy thinking about the fascinating story I have heard. I have people coming later for late lunch and I am going to make Ailish’s delicious savory goats’ cheese tart, followed by one of her delicious desert recipes, like the one of her amazing deserts, photographed in this blog.

I am looking forward to the Spring classes already. While a big part of me wants to return to education soon and take the MA in Art History, Collections and Curating at UCD, there is another big part of me that would love to do a 12 week professional cookery course. Maybe in time I will do both!

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Gazing from Tipperary: Mary Finn’s Remarkable Journey

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‘The colour changes all the time in the landscape’, Mary Finn tells me.  We sit around her kitchen table, in the beautiful light filled home, designed for her and her husband Jim Finn, by Jim’s cousin and their mutual friend Jim Coady, in 1971 when they got married.

We ‘gaze’ at a recent painting of hers which Mary has propped on the shelf to discuss with me. It depicts a scene from Littleton bog, near Thurles, where Mary often goes to take photographs and observe the colours in this unique Irish landscape. ‘Landscapes can be bleak’ she cautions.  The flowers in this piece add life to what is, in reality, a now disused railway track that runs through the bog. They capture the attention of the observer -the gazer. Mary frequently uses photography as a reference point when starting a work of art. She and Jim have both a keen interest in photography.

Our interview touches on the theme of observation frequently. The word used in art theory is ‘the gaze’. It is an interesting verb, the verb ‘to gaze’. In an article about this published in ‘The Chicago School of Media Theory’ journal, Jennifer Reinhardt refers back to The Oxford English Dictionary which defines the verb as: ‘to look fixedly, intently, or deliberately at something’. The Dictionary also mentions that in early use, ‘gaze’ merely meant ‘to look vacantly or curiously about’. The origins of the word, Reinhardt speculates, come from Old Norse and a word meaning to ‘gaw’ – meaning to gape or stare.

Of course ‘gazing’ has become more controversial in recent decades, in art theory and other disciplines, as clearly it can suggest a power dynamic between the observer and the observed. I mention the word is also used in Anthropology, my area of training.  Both disciplines put much emphasis on seeing; how we interpret the world around us; how we give meaning to ‘objects’ or to cultural practices,  our relationships, either through writing ethnography as Anthropologists do – or by painting or drawing.

Recently discussions have revolved around how the objects observed in art can also draw us in and change our perspective, change our way of seeing. Subject and object interact, as such, in this relationship. It is a more equal dynamic.  The art viewer becomes also the observed, rather than just the observer.

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“A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” Édouard Manet Image via Courtaulds Institute

Mary mentions a painting that has intrigued her, Manet’s painting of ‘The Bar of  the Folles Bergere’ where the lady behind the bar observes us from her work place. The female gaze here is powerful, reminding us of the limitations, perhaps, of our own judgements and opinions – the limitations of the critic’s gaze.

 

‘One of the things that intrigues me is listening to how the observer interprets a work of art’ Mary tells me.  ‘People bring their own experience to the image and different people see different things… it’s amazing. This is what ‘the gaze’ is essentially about for me’ she explains.

This may all sound very ‘theoretical’ – but Mary Finn’s life and her body of work is the product of her keen eye and her ability to see that bit deeper than others. Her work is steeped in local community. This is where her unique artistic ‘gaze’ was initially focused and formed – in Thurles and the surrounding areas. At 71 years of age she has had an eclectic career but one thing has been consistent throughout – the importance of art and what that creative eye can bring to any endeavour.

GROWING UP IN THURLES

Mary grew up in Thurles, one of two children. Her Father (Michael) and Mother (Annie) owned and managed a shop called Mixie O Connell’s in Liberty Square and Mary remembers how, as a child, she was always decorating and arranging things in the shop.

She had an interest in design and in fashion but when I asked her if this was noted by her parents or her teachers at the Presentation Convent Thurles or Loreto Convent Kilkenny, where she went to Boarding school, she says, without hesitation,  ‘no’. I comment that only a few decades ago, the language of creativity did not exist either in education or in day to day life in Ireland. Indeed it is still not fully incorporated into our educational system, the Victorian model still predominating. Mary says it was expected she would either become a teacher, work in the bank or become a nurse. And of course the hope was she would marry well!. This was the norm for her generation and for her gender. A career in any area of design or in art would have been unheard of.

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Work by Tina ( Bridget) Shelly

TINA (BRIGET) SHELLY

However, there was one very powerful female personality who did influence her creatively, although they never met!  Her Paternal Grandmother Tina (Briget) Shelly . She died young after the birth of her only child, Mary’s father and is buried in Killinan Cemetery Thurles.  She loved to draw and paint and many of her pieces were in Mary’s home growing up. She tells me she posted one of her Grandmother’s paintings on Facebook 100 years after she died. Clearly her Grandmother’s work had a deep and lasting influence, and showed Mary that there was value in drawing and painting, even if it was presumed it would not lead to anything that might make money or inform a career.

 

Mary’s Father also died young, at 46, when Mary was only 16, a tragedy that had a huge impact on her, the year she was doing her Leaving Certificate. In a beautiful tribute about this sad experience Mary writes:When my father left me, I was distraught, but I now realise after all these years that I have kept him close by nurturing the legacy that has sustained me and that I have passed on to my children, his love of the arts, particularly music and art. He never knew his mother who was a very good and an enthusiastic hobby artist’.

 

Ballynahow Castle

Ballynahow Castle

MEETING JIM FINN

When Mary finished in secondary school she did a Commercial Course at the Loreto Crumlin and started to work immediately in the Bank of Ireland.

She met her future husband Jim Finn at a joint 21st party she held with her friend Eileen O Donoghue, and Mary and Jim got married a few years later when Mary was 24 years old.

Jim’s family lived just outside Thurles on a farm where the impressive Ballynahow Castle (A 16th century round Castle)  is situated.

 

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As mentioned above Jim’s relative and their mutual friend designed their first home, at the entrance to Jim’s family farm, and this light filled house, in le Corbusier style architecture, is where they started their married life together and the rearing of their four children.

 

 

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With Mary at her Studio Oct 2018

 

 

It is where I sit, on a sunny Autumn day in 2018, to interview Mary. The light flows in the windows as I admire the views from the kitchen table of the surrounding locality. After our chat we go out to her art studio, situated beside the house, to get a quick snap to remember the day.

 

 

 

FARMHOUSE BUSINESS

Mary tells me she started to note the number of people who drove past their home and into the farm to see the Castle and Mary decided to start a B& B at the farmhouse adjacent to the castle where Jim’s parents then lived. So Jim’s parents moved out to their house and Mary and Jim and their children moved into the farmhouse. Mary said it was a big adjustment because it was so much darker than the house they had designed as their home.

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Farmers Journal Article 1987

‘Activity holidays’ were beginning to become popular in Ireland and Mary came up with an idea to add value to the farmhouse B&B by doing painting holidays for children. She had been on a residential course, of this nature, in the Lake District in England and she spotted the opportunity to do the same at their home. I comment that this was very innovative for it’s time. They even got major coverage in The Farmer’s Journal for their initiative, in an article published in 1987.

A local art teacher from the Ursuline in Thurles, Bertha Holmes, would come out to the house and eight or nine children would come and stay on holidays and participate in these painting classes.  Mary and Jim restored a thatched building on the farm as an art studio and the classes gained in popularity and recognition. During this time  Mary was also acting as the Tipperary representative for Irish Farm Holidays and so the next twenty years went by, managing the guest house and bringing visitors to Thurles and to their farm to learn more about Irish country life and the history of Tipperary.

RETURN TO EDUCATION

When her last child Michael started in university, Mary decided it was time to go back to education. Remarkably she did several diplomas and degrees in the years that followed while also holding down for almost a decade, a full time job with the VEC. She started by attending what was then called Tipperary Institute where she commenced a business Diploma and she completed this at the Institute of Public Administration where she graduated with a degree in Business Marketing. Work experience, while doing the Business Diploma in TI,  was mandatory so Mary got went to work for the VEC, and soon became a valuable and hardworking employee. She did a Higher Diploma in Education Literacy Development (Management) between 2003-6 and  started to work as a Community Education Manager , coordinating  literacy courses for several local VEC schools and colleges.

Her second last son James was at this point getting married so once again houses were swapped and Mary and Jim moved back to their original home at the entrance to the farm and their son took over the farm business.  Mary headed out to work every day and once again her creative side empowered and informed her work as she introduced art into the programmes for teaching literacy. I comment, yet again, this was highly innovative. Mary agrees but recalled how, as a child, she would remember things and learn things by association with an image or a drawing she had done, so she could see and understand how this would help people develop educationally and of course socially. It all seemed to add up like a perfect jigsaw puzzle.

BAVA (Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts)  DIT Sherkin Island

About nine years into her job with the VEC, someone mentioned to Mary at a drawing class at the National Gallery of Ireland ,  that she would really enjoy doing the Visual Arts degree offered at Sherkin Island.  Mary was allowed flexibility by the VEC to study part time for this second degree and so she made the decision to go ahead with it.  So for the first two years, of the four year degree for a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Arts, Mary studied and worked part time before she retired from the VEC to concentrate fully on finishing her degree and focusing completely on her artistic career.

 

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” Three sheets in the Wind”

ART PRACTICE

Mary never really stops leaning and enhancing her practice. She regularly attends the Slade Summer School, part of the University of London, where practicing artists go to meet like minded artists and upgrade their skills through practice. She also goes to the Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig where she enjoys the company or other writers and artists. Mary regrets there is not a more active art scene in the midlands for people to get together for this type of art practice. She contrasts this with places like Sligo where there is a dynamic art community. I mention it may be because the midlands and Tipperary in particular are farming communities and this would perhaps lessen the awareness and interest there might otherwise be in artistic pursuits?.  That said, Mary tells me how grateful she was for Thurles Art Circle, which she and Jim joined in the early 70s and she specifically mentions the role of Tom Holmes and Enda McCann and the importance of having these people around then to stimulate and encourage their creative interests at that time. Jim was one of the founder members of Thurles Camera Club.

 

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From Mary’s sketch books

SKETCH BOOKS & INFLUENCES

As my son Don has come to the interview with me, as he often does, we complete our chat by involving him more directly and Mary explains to him that she makes her own charcoal and even some of her own paints.

She shows Don some of her beautiful sketchbooks and we can’t help being awed by their detail and the obvious talent behind each sketch or painting or note she has kept. I suggest she should keep them very safe for posterity as they are works of art in themselves.

I ask about other artists who have influenced her work and she mentions Jack B Yeats as her consistent favorite but also Alberto Giacometti and William Kentridge. She holds a special place for Brian Friel  (whom I was privileged to meet personally when doing my PhD) and in particular his famous play ‘Philadelphia here I Come’. A story about emigration – something the Irish have experienced for decades since the famine in the 1840s , this play is also a narrative about how we see and interpret other people’s behaviors and emotions – in particular those who are close to us.  It is the critical relationship between Father and son Friel explores in this work and the play suggests their communication may not ‘reflect’  the love shared between them. (Another interesting verb, ‘to reflect’, the origin of which is derived from light hitting the earth with the resulting throw back of colours).

Mary PictureI am so delighted we have one of Mary Finn’s work at Greenville Cottage, a piece inspired by the local bog and windmills – the ancient (the bog) and the modern (the windmills), majestically complimenting each other in one of her wonderful art pieces. A little like how the artistic gaze can incorporate both the interpretation of the observer and the perceived interpretation, by the observed. My guests always comment on it, I tell Mary.

Because of artists like Mary Finn we will look again at the colours that radiate from our local landscape, gaze just a little longer – so we can see things, even our own relationships perhaps, more clearly.

 

 

 

Tim Meagher Appreciation

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Tim Meagher was born on July 31st 1958, the sixth child of Denis and Mary Meagher, Killough. He was an adorable baby and soon became a handsome and somewhat mischievous young boy, the pet of the family, in many respects. In fact when his blazer caught fire, one Sunday morning, lighting a candle before mass in the Sacred Heart Church Templemore, terrifying his Mother and members of the congregation that he was going to set the Church on fire – his Mother even forgave him that.

Tim went to Shanakill National school where the other seven members of his family all attended and from there to the CBS in Templemore. Academically bright, Tim’s interest was in business and he was also very good at Art in school, something that many people might not know or associate with him. When he left the CBS he made the decision to go and work in some line of business and started in Chadwicks of Navan. His Late Mother remembered the day she looked down the lane at Killough and exclaimed: ‘Tim is walking up the lane’. He had returned to Killough, to the farm, and that was certainly where his love and his passion were deeply rooted and flourished in the years that followed.

Tim had many friends far and wide and lived every minute of his 60 years on earth, with engagement, enthusiasm and warmth. He was particularly known and respected in Clonakenny, Killea and Knockinroe, the neighboring areas, and spent many nights in O’Sullivan’s Killea or the Norebrook in Clonakenny, happy to support local business and to have a chat and enjoy company socially. Tim would always call you by your first name and he was a very good judge of character.

In recent years he worked professionally as an agent for Dawn Meat’s Rathdowney and was excellent at his job. His boss Peter Quinn and colleagues used words such as ‘reliable’, ‘hardworking’, ‘competent’, and ‘well liked’ when they spoke about him. Tim would be out herding the cattle and one could hear him talking, not to the cattle, but to someone on the phone, as he closed a deal or did some other cattle related transaction. Tim regularly had the phone to his ear – but never when driving!!

His life changed for ever when he stopped one day to help an attractive woman changing a tyre at the side of the road, in Rathdowney outside Meadow Meats. That woman, Tina Khan, stole his heart and soon she and Darragh became a central part of Tim’s life. Tina was the love of Tim’s life and vice versa. Tim always loved children and he became a devoted Father to Darragh encouraging him in every way possible to reach his goals in life, right to his last days on earth. When Tina and Darragh came to Killough they brought colour, creativity, and an air of cosmopolitanism, that Tim, who loved to travel, appreciated – and so did family and neighbors. During the seventeen years they shared, they developed, among many other things, their home Sycamore House at Killough and Tim’s early interest in art reemerged as he and Tina started to enjoy looking at and collecting antiques, paintings and other interesting objects. They created a unique home together and with Darragh, where pets of many different species could roam freely and Tim continued to pursue his farming and business interests with dedication and commitment.

Just before our Mother died in September last year, Tim, Tina and Darragh visited her at Quinn’s in Thurles, on the day Darragh graduated from An Garda Siochana Templemore. Many tears were shed at Nana’s bedside that day – as everyone knew Mother’s days were numbered and Tim, her pet, was brokenhearted to see her go on September 29th. Her body reposed on the night before her burial, at Killough, her former home, surrounded by her children, grandchildren, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great grandchildren, friends and neighbors, as they mourned the passing of a huge force in their lives.

No one could have contemplated that ten months later another hearse would drive up the lane to Killough, another huge force in our family taken from us, when Tim’s body returned from Spain. A most awful moment never to be forgotten.

On July 31st, Tim’s 60th birthday, he collapsed in Tenerife, Spain just outside the hotel, where he and Tina went to celebrate his birthday. When the phone calls came early that afternoon that Tim was critically ill, his family were in shock, disbelief and devastation. We all wanted to believe Tim would make it.  Mae his eldest sister, and Darragh went to join Tina and be at Tim’s beside. Tim had such energy and vitality and so much to live for – we all struggled to believe this was really happening to him. But as the days went by and the team of cardiologists, neurologists and other medical staff working to help him, realized his condition was fatal, the painful reality had to be accepted by all, that Tim was not going to make it, leaving so many of us utterly brokenhearted.  Much thanks are due to the medical staff who tried to save Tim’s life and in particular to Alexander the nurse who did so much to help Tina and Darragh at the hospital in Spain. Thanks also to Paddy McCabe and Noel King, Donie Gilmartin, Noel Egan, Declan Bourke and Denis Bohan, who kept the farm operating in those distressing weeks Tim was ill in Spain. It was very hard on them all.

Tim died in the early hours of August 11th, with Tina and Darragh by his side.

Tim’s body reposed in Grey’s Funeral Home on Monday August 20th. A huge number of people came to pay their respects, a tribute to how well loved and respected Tim was. His body made the final journey from Killough the following morning, to St. James’ Church Killea where he and Tina married 7 years earlier. His motor cycle was driven, by his motor cycle instructor Tom Tynan, before the hearse -as Tim had recently taken up bike riding as a hobby and loved to go out for a spin particularly on Sunday afternoons. Fr. Hayes gave a beautiful sermon and for the final part of that sad journey, from the Church to St. James’ Graveyard Killea, Donie Gilmartin led a heifer before the hearse, something that would have made Tim smile, even if everyone else was crying.

He is buried close to the recently erected mass rock that is dedicated to all those buried in the graveyard – but in remembrance of all Mahers/Meaghers buried in that ancient place in Killea. Tim’s ancestors on both sides of the family are buried there around him.

Killough will never be the same without you Tim Meagher – for Tina, Darragh, sisters Mae, Anna, Kate, Carmel, Terri and Denise, brother Eamonn, sisters-in-law and brothers-in-Law, nieces, nephews, friends and neighbors. RIP

‘For what is it to die but to stand naked in the the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?’ – Khalil Gibran ‘The Prophet’

 

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Family group mid 1970’s

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Family group at Mother’s 90th

The Art of Phénoculture: Meeting Tanguy de Toulgoët

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Enjoying the sunshine in Tanguy’s garden

As I mentioned in the introduction to my blog, when I launched it last year, I had many unexpected ‘hurdles’, I suppose you could call them, to manage in our family life, over the past ten years or so – not all of them the easiest to bounce back from.  In the midst of these, in 2012/13, we spent months designing a large public garden project for the village of Killea that, unfortunately, failed to get LEADER funding in the end, as the EU resources had run out. This explains, perhaps, why the garden here at Greenville, and what to do with it, was put on the long finger.  We had planted apple trees and berry bushes, some years ago, which are producing successfully and both Seosamh and I have an interest and awareness of the principles of permaculture and biodiversity – but we just did not have the time until now to implement some of these here at Greenville.

Permaculture & Bio-Diversity

While these terms are now commonly used, they are words that describe systems long in use, in fact since the middle ages. The Wikipedia definition of Permaculture is  a system of agricultural and social design principles, centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems’. The term permaculture was developed and coined by David Holmgren, then a graduate student, and his professor, Bill Mollison, in 1978. Bio-diversity refers to the variety of life on earth – its biological diversity is commonly referred to as ‘biodiversity’. Biodiversity boosts ecosystem productivity, where each species, no matter how small  all have an important role to play.

Initial Consultation

Enter into the picture Tanguy  de Toulgoët of Dunmore Country School in Durrow. I was aware of Tanguy and his garden for some time so we made contact in April and invited him over to give us an initial consultation. This was probably the most important hour we spent this year, in terms of making changes to the grounds at Greenville.

Last Sunday I went back to his garden to interview Tanguy for my blog and take some photographs. We sat outside in the glorious afternoon sunshine (pictured above), sipping coffee and tasting his own (delicious) honey (below), and chatted about his life and his philosophy of horticulture.

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Delicious honey produced by Tanguy’s bees

Growing up in Paris

Tanguy was born in Paris, and has two sisters, one an artist and teacher still living in France, the other, who is multilingual, also settled in Ireland and lives nearby,  in Rathdowney. Tanguy tells me that when he was a young boy, he felt Paris was not right for him. He adored his time in the countryside, spent with his grandparents, all of whom, while working in Paris, had houses in the country and loved gardening. His paternal grandmother was a member of the French Alpine Society and would go to the Alps collecting plants for her garden. His maternal grandmother grew apples and walnuts, among other things, and had a more ‘old style’ garden in Périgord, in the south-west of France. So from the age of four or five working with his Grandparents started to shape his view of the world and indeed informed his gift and his passion for horticulture.

He also mentions that his Great Uncle was a very famous entomologist  (insect scientist) who traveled extensively and several insects he discovered are named after him – toulgoëti –  the family surname but with an ‘i’ at the end.

Phénoculture

Tanguy’s gardening technique is called Phénoculture – (using straw, hay, grass clippings or similar materials as a mulch to cover the ground where fruit, vegetables, flowers are gown). This layer of mulch protects the soil – which is fundamental to growing crops successfully.

Mainstream farming depletes the soil of so many nutrients – slurry spreading for instance, because it is so acidic, depletes the soil of worms who naturally aerate the soil and keep it moist – not to mention what slurry does to water supplies. Tanguy has a lot to say about water during the interview, which I will get to.

The method Tanguy uses hardly disrupts the earth at all. In many respects, he explains, it mimics the soil of a woodland forest – where the leaves protect the soil in spring and summer and when they fall, the bacteria in the soil, and the small creatures that live there, along with nitrogen, will naturally want to decompose the leaves, rather like a ‘digestive system’ he explains.   This resulting forest soil is rich in nutrients and excellent for growing plants. So the hay, straw, grass clippings, wood (wood can produce a type of ‘humus’ that can last up to 3000 years, he explains), that Tanguy uses, all protect the soil from UV rays, from dryness and allows the earth’s ‘digestive system’ as such, to work very efficiently.

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Beautiful potatoes growing just under the rich mulch

Moving to Ireland

An obvious question to ask Tanguy was why he moved to Ireland. France is such a stunning country, I comment, and their produce is so amazing. Just think of their food markets for instance. He explains that his sister, mentioned above, met a farmer from Rathdowney, who was visiting France, while she was working with the Charol Sheep Society. They married and she moved to Ireland and Tanguy and his wife Isabelle would come over because Isabelle is a keen and talented horse rider and Tanguy loved fly fishing – both of which they could do more easily in Ireland than in France. Eventually they too decided to move here and bought their home in Durrow.

Food for the Kitchen

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Sweet peas

Tanguy and Isabelle quickly got to work  developing a garden that supplies the family with almost all the fresh food they need. So no – he does not miss the great food markets of France – because his garden could stock one! Tanguy and Isabelle have two teenage daughters.  They don’t produce their food to sell, though they do sometimes take their honey to local markets. They produce food  for their own consumption, primarily. They make their own cider, mead, preserve many fruits they grow, make ketchup and chutneys. I understand their stir fries are on another level – given the freshness of the vegetables used. Several of the herbs and plants Tanguy grows are rare and many of the roses and flowers grown in the garden are also edible. I am hoping I may be able to arrange a class or two with Isabelle in her kitchen soon!.

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Edible roses

Water – A rapidly Depleting Resource

Our conversation goes back to water. Tanguy says that, in the past twenty two years, he has seen many changes to our lakes in Ireland, where he has been  fly fishing for many years. As water becomes polluted and scarce, fish life dies and Lough Derg and the other lakes on the Shannon, and more recently Lough Corrib in Galway are, in effect, now virtually dead as fishing lakes.  Lough Mask in Mayo is one of the last living lakes in Europe. In general there is not enough respect for water in Ireland, and bog depletion is also aggravating this situation.   His gardening method is geared to protect soil and keep it moist, and if you could see his garden, you would have little reason to question his logic and understand his concerns for our natural world and the damage we are doing to it.

 

Bee Keeping

Tanguy invites me back another day to talk more specifically about his bee keeping techniques. This is something he started only eight years ago. He went back to some of the principles of the Middle Ages to research the best bee-husbandry skills . It is called skep bee keeping. He does not spray for Varroa mite, for instance, a serious problem all bee keepers have to manage and one, even so called ‘ organic bee farmers’ spray against. Neither does he feed the bees extra sugar to encourage early egg laying. His honey, which we sample, is just delicious – totally different in taste to any I have eaten before. It cannot be certified organic however, because Tanguy does not have enough hectares of land to qualify – which makes little sense, given how simply and naturally he produces this product.

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Bee Hive at Dunmore Country School

Tanguy and Isabelle also use by-products from the hives such as wax, to make natural candles and Propolis ( a natural by product from bees that is an age-old antibiotic and antioxidant).

‘Just Covering the Soil’

Permaculture and biodiversity – these titles, explained above, are, I suggest to Tanguy,  ‘elaborate’ words, or theories, used to explain very old styles of horticulture. I ask Tanguy to explain, in his own words, what he does in the garden: His response:  ‘ Just covering the soil’ he says ‘ protecting the soil from sun, wind, and drying’.

Me in garden

Back in Greenville where we have started using this technique

I am so excited to see how things emerge at Greenville in the years to come. I fully expect to see a lot of hay and straw in our garden, and look forward to the many great fresh fruits and vegetables, we hope to produce – and of course to converting them into something delicious to eat and share in the kitchen.

Tanguy is, in the broadest sense, a horticultural genius with a sincere and genuine concern for how we manage our earth and protect it’s systems – some of which are frighteningly at risk of collapse, due to the stupidity of our own human practices.

Tanguy and Isabelle de Toulgoët
Swan road
Durrow
County Laois

tanguy@dunmorecountryschool.ie

Tanguy 087 1258002
Isabelle 086 0722183

Of its Place – Cashel Blue Cheese

Cashel blue.2.

Picture the scene: it is early 1980s in rural Tipperary, and Jane Grubb, the young wife of Louis Grubb, who has returned to his late Father’s Farm, in Fethard Co. Tipperary, to run the business and keep it alive, is standing at her kitchen table, experimenting with cheese making. The couple have just bought a herd of 90 dairy cows who are grazing the 200 acre farm at Beechmount. Jane has an interest in food and cheese making and has completed a cheese making course. From here starts the amazing story of how a small cottage business becomes an Internationally respected brand name, grown slowly and organically over several generations of the Grubb family.

1984 - J&L Grubb Ltd

Image from the 1980s :-  Jane Grubb piercing some of her first wheels of Cashel Blue. Sarah is the child in the foreground.

On a sunny May morning this week, we all travel down to the dairy in South Tipperary to meet Sarah Furno, Louis and Jane’s only daughter, who returned, in 2004, with her Italian husband Sergio, to run the family business. Both Sarah and her husband have extensive experience in wine tasting, which has added tremendous value to the maturing and tasting side of the Cashel Blue enterprise in recent years.

Sarah meets us with her 5 year old daughter Layla  (her other daughter Anna joins us later in the morning). Layla is the same age as Étienne and this will be her first time to go into where the cheese is being made, Sarah tells us. This is something I am sure Étienne will really appreciate, when he is a little older and we recall our special visit, as a family, to where Cashel Blue cheese is made.

The Family  Farm

When we meet Sarah she immediately wants to impart to us the importance of the ground we are standing on. This cheese making dairy , we are so privileged to be given a personal tour of, is situated on their family farm. It is of its place. It is a family run business, employing people  who are all from the local area ( a staff of 20 in total, their first  employee was Pat who was employed to help milk the cows in 1986, and still works with the family to this day).

It is clear to me that this fact, that we are standing on the family farm, the family ‘terroir’ (discussed again below) and the fact that their business, unlike so many others, has been saved from the ravages of industrialization, and is  steeped in community and reflective of their local place, is fundamental to  their enterprise, fundamental to their philosophy. This family and their  staff do not make a ‘commodity’ for the market, but rather a unique food product, with tested quality, strong tradition and a commitment to it’s local place of origin.

The Uniqueness of Sheeps’ Milk

We enter the reception area of the dairy where we are introduced to the 4 cheeses made at the dairy . Many of us are familiar with ‘Cashel Blue’, a soft blue cheese made from cow’s milk; ‘Cashel Blue Organic’, is the organic variety of this cheese; a sheep’s cheese called ‘Crozier Blue’ which is a semi soft cheese, another one of their prized products, and ‘Shepherd’s Store’, a semi hard cheese, also made from sheep’s milk.

sheep milking (photo R Grubb)

Milking the sheep

Sarah engages the boys by asking them if they can guess how many liters of milk it might take to make a kilo and a half of cheese? The boys are given  a cheese of this weight to hold and guess and Sarah goes on to tell them  that a sheep produces about 2 liters of milk a day; a goat about 4 liters;  a Buffalo about 7 and a cow on average about 27. So if we hold this chunk  of cheese in our hands (this particular one is made from sheep’s milk), we  have to think about the work that has gone into producing this.  It took a massive 14 liters of milk to make that kilo and a half of sheeps’ cheese!.

The moral of this story? Not many farm businesses make sheeps’ cheese in Europe to-day. It is a lot of work, it is expensive to produce and buy and as a result, has earned the justified title ‘liquid gold’ .

Our Special Visit

Life in the diary is busy, intense, especially in the morning as most of the cheese making for the day is completed by 1.30pm, so we are aware we are very lucky to be given this opportunity to actually see the process  happening. Not many do.

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Dressed for our visit!

Getting dressed to enter the factory is the first step, and we are given plastic covers for our clothes; hats for our hair  and plastic covers for our shoes. Étienne is a little overwhelmed and the  tears fall for a few moments before he is transported to another world of  cheese making.  I comment, in the mind of a child, it is like entering ‘Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory’. What we are about to see is  sooo…special.

In adult land there is a process to washing and disinfecting hands also, which we all do carefully.

 

The Cheese Making Process

We enter the production area then and Sarah shows us the huge vats where the milk is fermenting, at a specific temperature. The milk was delivered  earlier in the morning from their own farm and from other local farms. To this milk has been added a starter and then a plant based Rennet and  finally, essential for blue cheese making, a ‘mold’ called ‘Penicillium  roqueforti’. This, with the introduction of something all around us – air – will eventually produce the blue colour, texture and flavor we associate with this famous Cashel Blue cheese.

Bread, Beer and Cheese – Micro Organisms and their amazing Power

My readers will remember earlier blogs discussing the use of yeast in bread making and in beer making, and the role these agents play in creating the originality of the product. The air, as mentioned, is also  very important, as it too has natural agents that give the cheese, in this  instance, it’s distinctive characteristic.

The Process

What we are seeing, when we enter the main floor, are the large vats, and the process where the curd is being separated from the whey, and the ‘mold’  (which acts a bit like yeast in other food producing activities) has been added. The substance is stirred by hand using a  type of paddle and ‘cut’ using a “Cheese Harp” to facilitate the fermenting process, until it eventually forms a gel like substance on the top, the process taking  approximately 3 hours .

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Cheese-maker Pawel Noga, stirring the curds. We met this dedicated guy and saw him doing his work.

J&L Grubb Cashel Cheese Cashel Co Tipperary. Pic Sena curtin press 22.

Cheese ‘Harp’ cutting the curds

We see this work being done while Sarah allows us all to taste the curd and we note how sweet and gentle the flavor is. She points out the colour is slightly yellow, like Irish butter,  because the cows have been predominantly grass fed, on the lush grasses of  this part of rural Tipperary.

The meaning of the Word ‘Terroir’

All of the milk used in their cheeses come  from a defined locality. A specific place. This corresponds to the  classic winemaking concept of the ‘terroir’ as mentioned above. For Sarah a classic cheese  should, like a classic wine, be a reflection of the soil and climate and all the other environmental factors of the locality from which it comes.

Respect for Our Environment

At Cashel Blue care has been taken to use solar  and wind energy; care in purifying the waste-water they have used, and in the overall environmentally aware  approach they take to producing their beautiful products.

Several more key stages follow – the whey is drained from the curd and  the curd is put into moulds where it is ‘pressed’ (the  length of time will reflect whether it is a hard or a soft cheese. Hard  cheeses take longer to mould). When this process is complete the cheeses  are then washed in a salty brine that both preserves and gives flavor to the cheese. We see these brine containers also on our tour.

Piercing and Turning the Maturing Cheese

The next stage is ‘piercing’ the cheese (adding in holes in simple language!), and as we saw in the photograph from the 80s earlier, it is particular, and very essential to blue cheese making, using a specifically designed stainless steel instrument. This is to allow the air to do its critical work. Later Sarah explains to us that key to Cashel  Blue’s unique taste and flavor is the balance – it is not too strong, nor too spicy, in flavor. A stronger taste and a spicier flavor, would involve  more air being introduced and a harder curd (the curd being moulded for  longer) being used.

Storage rooms  called “caves” are named after family members, which I found so endearing and we are led into each to see all the racks of cheese which are maturing and then sorted for dispatch. Temperature is very cool to cold in these units, but Sarah hardly seems to notice.

The cheeses are ‘turned’ several times a day  in these ripening caves to ensure the right balance is emerging so that liquid in the cheese moves through the maturing product evenly. Sarah is central to this process and she oversees and inspects the cheese regularly during the 2-3 weeks they are in the caves, before being wrapped in special cheese foil for further maturing, for up to 4 months on the farm.

 

Walter turning cheese on roller racksPORTRAIT

Turning the cheeses on roller racks in the Ripening caves

Wrapping in Foil to Complete Maturation

As mentioned, next in the process the cheeses are wrapped in special cheese foils for storage in various storage units called maturing rooms. Each vat of cheese in storage is tasted several times along its path of maturation to follow the development of flavor and texture to just the right point. In all there are 65 thousand kilos of  cheese at the dairy on an average day. Much much more in the lead up to  Christmas.

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Cheese on racks in the final maturing stages which can take 4 months

Released to the market when they have been fully approved by Sarah and Sergio, Sarah explains the ‘aging’ is not to create ‘strength of  flavor’ but rather to create ‘balance’ of flavor. Cashel Blue for instance  is not a ‘sharp’ taste. It is a gentle, ’round’ taste, but with no  compromise on flavor. Hence its uniqueness. Balance is so important, she  reiterates – that is the point of difference, for Cashel Blue cheese.

They also hand cut the cheese and have all their own packaging equipment, so what you see and buy in the shops have been cut by the staff at the dairy.

A lot of their cheeses go directly to restaurants, Tesco and food suppliers, though they also have a growing International market shipping  to various parts of the world, including Britain, United States, Europe and  even Japan. The cheese, when ready for the market, has a 7 month shelf life.

Tipperary

What does Tipperary mean to Sarah, I ask?

‘Tipperary is home’ she says. ‘Tipperary for me is about the richness of the land – the pasture, hedgerows, trees, a strong connection to  agriculture, agriculture being the dominant income for a lot of people. Very few people you meet in Tipperary don’t have some connection to the land.  You can’t say that of every county in Ireland. Tourism does not come first. Agriculture comes first. Living from the land. What I particularly love  about this area where we live, we are close to Coolmore actually, and I  think they have added value to the land, in the same way with what we have  done here at Cashel – we have added value to the land – we have brought  something from here which has gained respect outside of its own region.

So  good land, stable community, where people do commute to maybe Dublin or Cork but comparative to other areas, people do try to stay in the area which gives that stability’.

How better to complete our tour of this Tipperary institution than with some cheese tasting before we head home.

Back in My Kitchen 

I have used Cashel Blue in a delicious winter pear dish that I first came across from Ina Garten (Barefoot Contessa) . More recently I have  been using it in summer salads when barbecuing chicken or scallops. Even the rind, Sarah tells me, can be used, if mixed with butter and herbs and  plopped onto burgers or steak or into a soup, to add special flavor.

Cashel Blue is a story of how a business grown slowly and organically over time can have a huge reach. This is an institution, in the form of a family farm, we can be very proud to say is 100% Tipperary.

Sincere thanks to Sarah for making our visit so special and for several of the images used.


Cashel Farmhouse Cheesemakers
Beechmount, Fethard, County Tipperary,
Ireland
tel: +353 52 6131151
fax: +353 52 6131066
web: http://www.cashelblue.com
http://www.cashelblue.com
twitter: @cashelblue
facebook: /cashelblue