At end of November I was invited to attend a French fine food and wine evening at Belleek castle near Ballina in County Mayo. As this is a considerable trip from Dublin (by Irish standards) I was lucky that my wife Jess was able to come with me and we quickly made childcare arrangements.
Disclosure: the cost of food, wine and accommodation was covered by our friends at nightoutireland.com. Opinions are all our own!
Located within its own wood near the town of Ballina (pronounced Bally-nah if you weren’t sure), Belleek castle is a magnificent stately home-cum-castle. Since being restored it has been run as a boutique hotel – and by boutique I really mean that – it only has 11 rooms of which one is taken by the owner and his better half.
Every effort has been made to modernise without affecting the old world romantic style of the original castle. On our arrival in cool weather we were greeted with a roaring fire in the front hall, bedecked with beautiful tapestries, suits of armour and stunning wooden antiques.
Our “superior room” was furnished with a huge four poster bed and overlooked the beautiful gardens to the front of the castle. It was large, warm and comfortable with original window shutters and heavy damask curtains to help you sleep in the morning. The en-suite bathroom had twin sinks which certainly helps domestic harmony. Fancier toiletries and big fluffy towels would be more in keeping with the high standard on the rooms, but those are minor concerns.
The Armada Bar
We went to the bar before dinner and had a wonderful conversation with the barman who was both knowledgeable and entertaining. The “Armada Bar” is a recreation of the Captain’s Ward Room from a galleon of the “Spanish Armada”. It was constructed from salvaged timber from the galleons of the ill fated “Castile Squadron” wrecked on the Atlantic Coast of Co. Mayo four centuries ago.
We even managed to snap a picture of the Belleek ghost!
Oh yes, the drinks were pretty good too!
Dinner was served in the “Tween-Decks”, a split level dining room also constructed with salvaged Spanish timber. It really made the meal an occasion.
Head Chef Stephen Lenahan is supported by committed and skilled staff. The team have received praise from critic Georgina Campbell, we have won the “Just Ask” Restaurant of the Year 2014 Award, and the prestigious 2 AA Rosettes award from the AA (given to the top 4% of hotel restaurants in Ireland and England). Also, our Restaurant have been awarded “Best Hotel Restaurant Connaugh 2014” and Daniel Mayr has been awarded “Best Restaurant Manager Connaught 2014” by the Restaurant Association Ireland (R.A.I.) at the “Food Oscars” in Dublin.
The Tasting Menu
The main event was of course the six course tasting menu with matching wines. The kitchen accommodated my wife’s fish allergy and my hatred of cheese with absolutely no fuss.
A quick overview:
Starters: on a black slate place: cooked oyster in the shell, cured wild sea bass, milkshot flavoured with oyster infusion
Steamed lamb served on a savoury dumpling and a grated pear salad
Fish Course: Surf on turf – a clever play on this dish. Black pudding wrapping an oyster truffle and a Beef truffle wrapped in lobster – beautifully presented and very balanced seasoning. amazing flavours showing excellent technique without sacrificing the food.
Soup Course: Beetroot soup with horseradish ice cream – I’m not a fan of horseradish and my wife isn’t a fan of beetroot but we both wanted to lick the dish clean!
Main course: 2 dishes:
Quail crinette and seared breast served with a minature poached egg in a nest. The combination of the 2 different cuts of quail added another level to the dish the nest melted in your mouth it also had fresh brushsprout leaves for colour.
Connacht Venison, confit of shank. This was served in a high sided bowl and was surrounded by an intense broth with loin tartare. Our one quibble about this was the high sided dish made it harder to eat. You were presented with a knife but a spoon was more useful in reality.
Cheese Course: Cream of goats chees with caramalised nuts, cranberries and a cheese crisp – wonderful mixture of tastes and textures (thankfully I was given a delicious alternative)
Dessert: vanilla foam and pannacotta tea soaked prunes and pear and crumble. lovely balanced pudding and not too heavy after the prior dishes. A perfect final note to an food opera.
The wines were sourced by Blakes Fine Wines of Derrylin, and introduced by JohnnyDonnelly of the associated Café Merlot of Enniskillen.
For aperitif in the bar we were treated to a few glasses of Prosecco. Everyday Prosecco isn’t a big favourite of mine, but this was bottle fermented, so closer to Champagne and Cava than regular tank-method Prosecco.
The main event was a series of mature Southern Rhône wines from Blakes’ own cellars.
The only thing that fell short of perfection was that some of the courses weren’t an absolute perfect match with the wine – and focusing on a single producer makes this incredibly difficult.
Château Pesquié Quintessence Blanc 2005
Still amazingly fresh, though maturing…so much texture! Brilliant match for the plumped up oyster and scallop.
Château Pesquié Prestige Rouge 2005
Soft and supple, fruity and spicy, with a dash of cracked pepper. Shows a little oak influence on the finish. I’d enjoy this now rather than laying down for any longer.
Château Pesquié Les Terraces Rouge 2005
I wonder if the name means that this comes from more southerly facing terraces – because it shows more intensity and power than the Prestige. There’s still fruit there, it’s just a bigger wine overall – without being overbearing.
Château Pesquié Artemia 2004
Absolutely fabulous! Served from magnum, this was still young. It’s a big wine, but not shouty or overblown. Something as well-flavoured as venison needed a wine like this to stand up to it. One of the best wines I tasted in 2014.
Clos du Portrail, Graves Supérieures 2005
A little sweeter than I would have expected from a Graves Supérieures (which is no bad thing!) and nicely developed. It’s definitely more of a late harvest style than botrytis character.
The important question is, would we go and stay again? With the caveat that we’d probably stay for more than one night, the answer is a resounding YES!