Nohoval, Co. Cork
I felt like a wolf in sheep's clothing. I, a carnivore, had hunted them down. I, a non-vegetarian, was welcomed to their table. I was lavished with hospitality by a chef who had never touched meat in his life and who just so happened to grow all the food himself. The deception was killing me. When would they see through my disguise?
At last, they raised the question: "Are you vegetarian?"
It was time for a confession.
I'd adopted my carnivorous status (strictly for journalistic reasons) since coming to Ireland. Before that, I was vegetarian. Yeah, yeah - all the hard-core vegetarians can holler over this, but I don't care much for strict adherences when traveling. They surely inhibit exploration in life. When in Ireland, I want to try black pudding and lamb stew. So I converted to being meat eater for a few wee months. I can't say it was worth it -
some of my best meals in Ireland were vegetarian, a couple of them created by Lucy Stewart and Ultan Walsh at Gort-Na-Nain Vegetarian Guesthouse and Organic Farm.
The setting is a new farmhouse. The couple built with their own hands. A nine-acre organic farm surrounds it. They are tucked away in Nohoval, a quiet, forgotten pocket of East Cork. It is paradise. Having been open for just two months, the guesthouse is already attracting quite a bit of attention.
Their farm is the principle supplier of Café Paradiso, Cork city's premier gourmet vegetarian restaurant. Run by Denis Cotter, Café Paradiso creates spectacular organic cuisine, maybe the best in Ireland.
Ireland impresses me with the quantity of organic, artisan foods available. From cheese and yogurts to juices to baked goods, there is one organic shop in every town. But it does not have a lot of locally grown organic produce...yet. The Irish farmers who grow organic are definitely the minority. I wanted to meet them. That is how I found Lucy and Ultan.
Ultan didn't start out to be a farmer. He got a PhD in Scotland, then came back to Ireland to teach, but he soon grew bored. He wanted to work entirely with plants. So he stopped teaching and started organic farming. The land was bountiful, the space vast, and he learned by making mistakes over the years how to do it right. The hardest parts now are getting the soil right and not letting the bugs destroy the crops. Ten years later, he successfully grows hundreds of vegetables and herbs, all in small quantities. "The vegetables are grown purely for taste, not for huge yield," he says.
We take a tour of the mind-boggling array of growing things. It is row upon row of Scottish salad blue potatoes, leeks, brussel sprouts, fava beans, black kale, and shallots. We compare the flavors of golden-colored Sungold tomatoes (sweet and rich) with the red Gardener's Delight (more tangy, with a punch). The mustard Golden Streaks salad has a mind of its own - the flavor changes from plain, roasted potatoes, to roasted potatoes with Dijon, then to pure Dijon. They even grow peppers here -- Anaheim, jalapeno, you name it, they've got it. It is a pretty amazing feat to grow peppers in Ireland, they certainly are not native.
Our dinner is a creamy risotto with fresh peas, flat bread encrusted with Sungold tomatoes and herbs, and a chili-chocolate cake with Lucy's homemade vanilla ice cream. It is divine. We drink wine and talk. I laugh harder than I have in a long time. The night ends with Ultan playing his eight-stringed, Greek instrument that buzzes a warm tremor, or maybe it's the wine in my belly?
Time to hit the hay. Our room, themed in burgundy poppy flowers, is a quiet field to dreamland. The farm door to the bathroom is a nice touch. The organic herbal teas for a bedside nightcap delight me. The bed is huge and cozy.
We wake up to Lucy's gourmet, home-cooked breakfast. Fresh squeezed orange juice, "Spotted Dog" bread just out of the oven, muesli and fresh yogurt, preserves and honey and tea. Mmmmm, hello heaven! I choose homemade spicy-chestnut-veggie sausages with mango chutney and poached egg, fried tomatoes and courgette and toasted focaccia bread. My travel partner has drop scone pancakes with butter, lemon, and maple syrup. It is all superb. Fantastic vegetarian meal number two.
In Irish, Gort-Na-Nain means "the field of the birds." Ultan enjoys bird watching, and he noticed the field was popular with a variety of birds. Now they are planting lots of trees and hedgerows to encourage a diversity of birds to keep visiting.
Eating at their farm has convinced me to become vegetarian again. That is, strictly for journalistic (and personal) reasons.
Gort-Na-Nain Vegetarian Guesthouse and Organic Farm, Ballyherkin, Nohoval, Kinsale, Co. Cork, Ireland. Contact Lucy Stewart & Ultan Walsh, +353 (0)21 477 0647. www.gortnanain.com.
Written by Liz O'Malley - Summer of Travel 2007