Sam Moody is making the most of his unique location, digging deep into the kitchen gardens to create seasonal fare suited to every guest. Lisa Jenkins pays a visit
Things are done differently at Ballyfin, a grand Regency mansion located in the Slieve Bloom mountains in County Laois, Ireland.
The mansion was built in the 1820s and has been home to a host of families, including the Poles, the Wellesley-Poles, the Duke of Wellington and the Cootes. The Cootes sold it to the Patrician Brothers in 1928, and it was used as a school until 2002.
In 2008, the house, which is set in 600 acres of woodland, was bought and restored by Fred Krehbiel and his wife Kay. Now, Ballyfin welcomes overnight guests, occasional dinner-only guests and private house-hire bookings.
"You are welcomed like an old friend here and the butlers are all characters. We describe it as a measured informality," explains head chef Sam Moody, who is supported by a team of 12 plus three kitchen porters.
Acorn Award winner Moody started his career under the tutelage of Steve Crane at Ockenden Manor in West Sussex before joining Gidleigh Park in Devon under Michael Caines. When Caines moved to the Bath Priory, he brought Moody with him, where he was executive chef for seven years, before making the leap to Ireland.
You are welcomed like an old friend here. We describe it as a measured informality
Moody has taken inspiration from his time under the tutelage of Crane and Caines. "I hope I've taken on some of Michael's unapologetic perfection and Steve's unrivalled kitchen organisation," he explains.
Asked about his personal food style, Moody explains "I'm just trying to create good food" – and says he simply cooks for the people who are staying. "You're a fool if you try and do it any other way and setting yourself up for failure in my opinion."
The kitchen's willingness to adapt is vital for guests staying in the house, who don't book dinner but simply arrive at any time between 7pm and 9.30pm. Moody explains: "We have residents who stay for a week or two. We have lunch and dinner menus, but sometimes they just want something simple, or bespoke.
"We share clientele with places like Gidleigh Park and they ask for dishes like bass with Thai spices (from chef Michael Caines' time) and a palette of sorbets that we used to do there."
Guests can choose between a three-course à la carte (£90) or an eight-course tasting menu (£107), with an optional wine flight at £67 with most opting for the tasting option. Full board at the house is from £1,200 per night.
During the week covers average 18-20 for dinner and 30-40 at weekends. For five months over the summer, the restaurant is full most nights with 30-35 people for dinner.
The kitchen makes the most of its location, enjoying access to Ballyfin's two eight-acre walled gardens, which feature 150 apple trees. All main dishes are accompanied by vegetables from the gardens, and "a side of potato is always expected," laughs Moody.
Example side dishes include mashed potato flavoured with Parmesan, mustard and caramelised onion, or traditional Irish champ. When The Caterer visits, a dish of pork tongue, ear and loin is served with mashed potato made up of 40% butter, 20% milk and 40% Rooster potatoes with another side of artichoke á la crème
Potato and smoked Gubbeen ravioli is made daily. The dish is made with smoked cheese, lemon and a seasonal vegetable – chard, kale or young spinach – with shavings of bresaola on top and a rich butter sauce, In autumn the ravioli is filled with Shepherd's Store cheese from Irish cheese producer Cashel and ceps foraged from the grounds, again with salads from the garden and bresaola.
Moody also uses local suppliers, including his regular butcher Mick Kegan, in Mountrath, La Rousse Foods; Mary Walsh for free-range duck and Patricia Butler for chickens; Glenilen Farm in County Cork for butter and Adrian Meuller in Mountmellick for seeded sourdough. Fish is landed on the south coast and delivered by the Duncannon Fish Company. Goatsbridge trout caviar is used in a sauce served with turbot, accompanied by mini vegetables from the gardens.
While Moody is hopeful for accolades, his goals are more well-rounded: "Michelin stars are a byproduct of a happy restaurant and that's what we have – our guest satisfaction is 98%."
Ballyfin House & Demense, Ballyfin, County Laois, Ireland
From the menu
- South coast haddock, beluga lentils, lime, pistachio
- Potato and smoked Gubbeen ravioli, coppa, wild leaf garlic, lemon
- South coast turbot, vanilla parsnip purée, ginger, chicken jus
- Native Dexter beef, confit potato, onion, wild garlic, Madeira jus
- Truffled Little Milk brie, apple jam, walnut toast
- Spiced poached pineapple, crispy rice, watermelon granita
- Bitter chocolate ganache, hazelnut crunch, milk sorbet
Eight-course tasting menu, £107
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