Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, close bosom-friend of the maturing sun… – John Keats
It is officially the first day of Autumn and the lovely people at ely are celebrating their fifteenth birthday. An excursion to the Burren in Co. Clare has been arranged as part of a calendar of events to mark this milestone and it is clear that a packed, informative day lies ahead.
The somewhat quirky itinerary entails a journey to the geographical source of ely’s passion for providing real, fresh and natural food. The plan includes a visit to the family farm on the outskirts of the Burren National Park from which ely source their famous organic beef, a pit-stop for tea at the neighbouring Fr.Ted’s House, in real life an organic farm which supplies “Craggy Island” lamb to all three ely restaurants, followed by a field-visit to a butterfly sanctuary on land donated by the family to the Burren Life project. Executive chef Ryan Stringer has travelled on ahead to prepare a stunning farmhouse lunch to be enjoyed later that afternoon, of which more anon…
From the get-go the ambient mood is typically ‘ely’ – relaxed, friendly and enjoyable. Following a deliciously fortifying breakfast of fresh fruit, sausage rolls, brownies and a selection of tea and coffee the group sets off on a cross-country journey to Co. Clare during which each member of the ely family generously shares their knowledge of food and drink in an engaging and hospitable manner.
The occasion affords a welcome opportunity to pause and reflect on the influences and values that have sustained Erik and Michelle Robson since first opening ely Wine Bar in 1999. From the very beginning ely promised an experience that placed great, locally produced artisan food and drink centre-stage and adopted a careful, considered approach to sourcing produce from suppliers who were ‘simpatico’.
In this regard the support of family and neighbours proved invaluable and while transactions with the nearby organic farm run by Cheryl and Patrick McCormack were initially undertaken in a gesture of mutual support between neighbours, by happy coincidence the meat proved so excellent that it defied any notion of sourcing it elsewhere.
The first stop of the day for tea and scones at the fabled Fr Ted’s house was a somewhat surreal experience which more than met expectations. Sitting in a rocking chair by the fire, recalling various vistas witnessed by the show’s characters whilst gazing out the window was, as experiences go, unique. Savouring the taste of hot scones and tea infused with Burren water, the exhortations of the fictional Mrs Doyle to “Go on, go on, go on…” made perfect sense – especially when the tea tasted so delicious.
Patrick McCormack, the present incumbent of Fr Ted’s, patiently explained the vital importance of adhering to 7,000 year old principles of good husbandry, common sense and balance in working the land. Waxing lyrical on the extravagance of the Burren with its dramatic light and landscape, he observed that farming there was an incredible experience.
Much of what he said was underscored later in discussion with representatives of Burren Beo, the Burren Life project at the Butterfly Sanctuary, on the subject of Burren fauna and landscape preservation. Indeed, for an area that at first sight seems so apparently barren, the Burren offers a surprising abundance of high quality produce and there is a strong sense that the extended local community network living and working in the area enjoy a unique and special connection with the land.
Ely’s longstanding and productive partnership with the artisan producers who eke out a living in the limestone-dominated landscape has, over the years, resulted in a bumper Burren bounty. It was a privilege to enjoy a sample of the collective fruits of their labours later that afternoon.
Executive Chef Ryan Stringer prepared a sumptuous farmhouse lunch in the Robson family kitchen in anticipation of the group’s arrival – and what a lunch it was! The mouth-watering spread consisted of a series of interesting and inventive dishes showcasing the best of local produce. The kitchen table was festooned with an eclectic array of tasty morsels including artisan Burren cheeses, pickled eggs with beetroot, sweet pickled onions and potato cakes from Deirdre O’Mahony and the Burren Potato Project.
An unusual and winning combination in the midst of it all was a beautifully rich and eggie quiche filled unexpectedly with parsnip, which the assembled foodies pronounced decidedly ‘more-ish’. Neighbour Birgitta Curtin from the Burren Smokehouse was on hand to talk about the work done to ensure sustainability in fish farming and came equipped with a duo of her renowned organic salmon – one cold-smoked with dilisk in the traditional Irish way, the other hot-smoked with a drier flakier texture. Both were absolutely delicious.
The menu also featured ely’s famous Burren beef, local porchetta slow-cooked for twenty-two hours at sixty degrees and – in an unexpected touch of genius – organic beef tongue with black truffles. To borrow a phrase from the poet Austin Clark, the latter was ‘music in mouth’ producing a startling burst of flavour that remained pleasantly in the memory long after it was consumed. Ely’s Guinness Bread provided a simple complement to the richness and variety of the flavours on offer, and it goes without saying that the wine (Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage Blanc and Thalran Syrah Castell d’Encus) was sublime.
A quick ramble in the rain to visit the pigs in the farm-yard and walk off the effects of seconds (sure it would have been rude not to) was quickly arranged, following which steaming hot cups of freshly brewed coffee were imbibed at the farmhouse before embarking for home.
All in all it was a most memorable day and a generous, lovely way to celebrate fifteen years of a job well done. We wish Erik, Michelle and the extended ely family a very happy fifteenth birthday and look forward to celebrating many more of them. Congratulations to all involved!
Words: Martina Murray
Pictures: ely & Burren Beo