Farm to Table Dining in County Wicklow, the Garden of Ireland

Known as the “Garden of Ireland,” County Wicklow lies to the south of Ireland’s capital,  Dublin.  Between the mountains and the sea, Wicklow has earned the sobriquet due to its wealth of farms and gardens that have supplied Dublin with meat and produce over centuries.  The village of Rathnew (population 2,964) is buried deep in County Wicklow and there you will find Hunter’s Hotel.   Beloved by generations of Dubliners as a quiet retreat and home of good food, Hunter’s started life in 1650 as a coaching inn.  It has been in the Gelletlie family for five generations (since 1825) and over the years has maintained its reputation for comfortable accommodation and excellent fare.  Mention “Hunter’s” to south Dubliners and they will recognize it immediately.

A recent family lunch at Hunter’s provided a delightful antidote to busy city life.  Hunter’s is a short distance from the N11, the main Dublin to Wexford highway, down a winding, hedge-lined road.  A turn under an archway alongside the road and one arrives in Hunter’s graveled parking lot which is also the original stable yard, complete with stone mounting block, an ancient water pump and clucking chickens.

On a drizzly Spring day (Ireland is not green without reason), our foursome entered the hotel bar, a cheerful low-ceilinged room.  It is in truth more like your grandmother’s parlor than a bar.  Even on a cloudy day, the room is lighted by windows overlooking the spectacular gardens, of which the hotel is deservedly proud.  Comfortable chairs, wide-planked floors and a fire blazing in the fireplace set a low-key and cozy tone for our pre-lunch drinks, served while we perused the menu.

The hotel prides itself on providing vegetables for its table from its own gardens and sourcing locally as much as possible of the produce, fish, and fowl that are featured on its menu.  Assistant manager Margaret Thompson was a friendly presence on hand to answer questions about the menu and to take our orders.  Her enthusiastic and well informed responses to questions eloquently demonstrated the hotel’s commitment to the promotion of home-grown and local produce.

After a leisurely drink we were advised that our table was ready and we moved into the dining room, a spacious, bright room that also fronts on the gardens.  Outside, a large rhododendron,  bursting into a frenzy of magenta blossom, was just feet from the window by which our table was located.  All through lunch a succession of birds flitted in and out of it, busy about their Spring business.

A light hum of conversation filled the cream-colored dining room.  Most of the tables were occupied, plainly by escapees from the city such as ourselves.  Each table was covered in starched white linen and placed on it was a vase with spring flowers from the garden, a nice touch.  The old hunting prints on the wall and the clunky, classical cutlery were in complete accord with the charm of the setting and bolstered a feeling that one had stepped back in time.

We had selected from the luncheon menu which contained a choice of six starter courses and five main courses accompanied by vegetables.  One could also opt for dessert or a selection of  Irish cheeses, served after the meal in the local custom.

I skipped the starter course, but others were less restrained.  One of our party had chicken liver paté, tomato chutney and melba toast and another had oak-smoked trout, with orange and blueberry salad.  Both were pronounced to be excellent.

Ireland is an island in the north Atlantic and it is a shame not to sample its variety of fish and shellfish.  Accordingly, I selected baked filet of hake with leek velouté for my main course. It was delicious. The hake was expertly prepared; boneless, juicy and fork-splittable, and the velouté upon which it rested was the perfect complement: leeks and a hint of wine combined to create a sweet contrast to the flavor of the fish without threatening to overpower it.  All main dishes were accompanied by a selection of carrots, potatoes and cauliflower, simply cooked and neatly silver-served by our waitress.

Others had grilled salmon, drizzled with a tomato and garlic cream sauce, and slow roasted belly of pork with apple compote.  Both were reported to be excellent.  My father, blessed with unreconstructed tastes, ordered pan fried lamb’s liver and bacon with onion gravy.  To the dubiousness of the rest of us, he was thrilled to find this old fashioned staple which is rarely offered on menus these days.  He loved it.

There was barely room for dessert, but we were on holiday and so prudence was thrown to the winds.  The Irish love their fruit crumble, but it is difficult to find it done properly.  Hunter’s proved to be the exception.  The spiced apple and raisin crumble was superb with just the right balance of fruits and juiciness, all topped with a crisp – not soggy, not lumpy – buttery crust.  Other desserts enjoyed were a crème caramel and poached pears stuffed with figs and laced with caramel sauce.

As we arose from the table, the sun finally split the clouds as if on cue and we were able to take a look at the gardens.  By the side of the Vartry river, they are simply beautiful and worth a visit in themselves.  Well tended and a mix of vegetable, formal and informal they presented a lovely setting for a post-lunch ramble and evoked memories of past afternoons, enjoying a drink or afternoon tea in their fragrant embrace.  A gentle stroll in such surroundings provided the perfect ending to a delightful meal. [Hunter’s Hotel, Newrath Bridge, Rathnew, 353.404.40106, Lunch: Daily 1:00PM-3:00PM, Dinner: Daily 7:30PM-9:00PM, Lunch from U.S.$25, Dinner (2 courses) from U.S.$39.00, www.hunters.ie]
(Eidin Beirne)

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