“By God, I think we’re lost,” said my guide, Brian Kennedy. Daylight had yet to pierce the thick, humid cloud cover, but we had already been driving south more than two hours since I landed at 4 a.m. in Dublin. Slowly, as we drove on, the Irish countryside awoke to a foggy, dreamlike autumn morning.
I was sleepy, but it wasn’t coffee I was craving; it was a tall glass of hard apple cider, deliciously fermented apple juice. Ever since I heard from my friend Gay Howard, co-founder of United States of Cider, that Ireland was in the midst of a craft cider swell, I vowed to hop over and sip my way through the apple orchards.
Just the thought of crisp, tangy apple cider transported me back to my childhood summer vacations in Brittany, where my French cousins thought nothing of pouring sparkly (fermented) cider to accompany the crepes oozing salted butter that we devoured at snack time. Perhaps it was the hazy happy mood that ensued — my first highs, no doubt — but I always loved that drink.
Even in New York, where I live, hard apple cider is gaining traction since the opening last year of Wassail, a restaurant and cider bar that features more than 100 ciders on draft and by the bottle. But the love story between apples and Ireland is far from a hipster fad.
“Apples have been linked to Ireland since Celtic times,” said Daniel Emerson, who, with his wife Geraldine, runs Stonewell Cider, one of more than 15 new “cider start-ups.” It’s unclear when cider making started, but historians agree that the first written mention of apple cider in Ireland dates to 1155. Since then, many liters have been gulped down, most of it in recent years made by Bulmers, a commercial brand that controls about 94 percent of the market.
But commercial anything was the furthest thing from my mind when we finally spotted a sign for Longueville House on a windy lane near Mallow in the Blackwater Valley. In my mind, the words of poet Patrick Kavanagh sang:
On an apple-ripe September morning
Through the mist-chill fields I went . . .
On our right, two gold-rimmed pheasants ran along a meadow. On our left, my first Irish sheep, as plump and fluffy as the clouds above us, heralded our arrival. We drove to the pink Georgian mansion at the top of the hill.
“Welcome! Hope you’re hungry!” called Aisling O’Callahan, the vivacious blond proprietor, standing on the porch. In the O’Callahan family since 1938, the stately home has been turned into a cozy inn despite the grandeur of the rooms, the height of the ceilings and the scintillating chandeliers.
“Why don’t you join the group that’s touring the garden? That way you’ll see the trees,” O’Callahan said. “You need wellies?”
“Excuse me?” I answered.
She was referring to the very first waterproof boots, invented in the 19th century by the Duke of Wellington, famous for defeating Napoleon at Waterloo.
“I have those,” I said, pulling my camouflage $15 plastic pair from Payless.
“Lovely,” she answered.
It was unseasonably warm, and the earth smelled of sweet summer rain. Of the 450 acres that make up the property, 25 are planted with apple trees from which the family produces what I had heard was one of the best craft apple ciders in Ireland.
We were in the middle of harvest time, and there were apples everywhere: on the trees, on the ground and in the hands of William O’Callahan, tan sweater and pants tucked into knee-high wellies, his eyeglasses high on his head.
“Our cider is a blend of Michelin and Dabinett varieties,” he announced as the press crunched behind him, before introducing Dan Duggan, the rugged resident brandy and cider maker.
“What’s your secret?” I asked.
“There’s no recipe,” Duggan said. “Cider just happens.”
Finally, it was tasting time. Amber-colored and slightly carbonated, Longueville House struck a fine balance between dry and sweet.
Later at the house, a massive rack of pork ribs roasted in one of the sitting rooms in front of a majestic fireplace. I watched as William O’Callahan, who trained as a chef in France, poured homemade apple brandy on the meat, instantly creating the kind of fragrant crust culinary legends are made of.
Almost everything in the lavish lunch buffet came from the farmland: from the free-range pork to the venison pâté to the vegetables. And we drank cider, of course, a perfect pairing with the crispy, caramelized pork. My thirst was quenched, but not my curiosity.
The next day, we drove about an hour north toward Tipperary, pausing in Cahir to take in the quiet, fully restored 12th-century castle that belied the violent history of the area.
But during this busy season, there was nothing quiet at the Apple Farm, where owner Con (short for Cornelius) Traas cultivates 40 acres of apples, among other fruit trees.
Traas, a horticulturist, farmer and professor, baby-faced and wearing a khaki jumpsuit, was waiting for me in front of the large farm shop filled with bottles and apples of all colors and sizes.
“We cultivate 60 different varieties of apples,” he said.
We walked up and down the neat rows of small apple trees. Traas chose to have smaller trees to make the picking easier.
Once again, I was grateful for my wellies.
“We got to cider because we wanted to make cider vinegar,” he said. Con’s Irish Cider is “a blend of four different kinds of Irish apples, without added sugar or water.” We sat in his tiny office, away from the frenetic bottling machinery, and I tasted the sharp, tannic drink, enjoying a slightly bitter bite. “Real cider,” Traas said proudly.
Real? It was time to dig deeper, so I called Emma Tyrrell, who works with Cider Ireland, an association that represents 13 apple growers and craft cider makers.
“You see, apple juice wants to be cider, but cider wants to be vinegar,” she said. “That’s where the cider maker steps in.”
Many, like Simon and Emma Tyrrell, farmer Angus Craigie and two wine buddies who launched Craigies Cider in 2011, don’t have their own orchards, but they make up for it with their taste buds. “We ferment, we blend, we taste, we wait,” she explained.
Simon Tyrrell, a veteran vintner, added: “We make vintage cider. We’re not into consistency. We’re interested in what was the expression of that terroir that year.” (That’s wine speak for the specific taste of a drink or food associated with the unique soil, climate and location it is made in.)
Others see the process differently.
James O’Donoghue, the Longways Cider maker and a beekeeper in South Tipperary, studied for years until he was confident he had a recipe he could replicate. Waiting served him well, as he’s been winning all kinds of awards this past year. “We make wine with apples,” he said.
From the Apple Farm, we took the back roads through sleepy villages and ancient walled fields towards Kilkenny, but suddenly, at the entrance of Grangemockler, a fuchsia door beckoned.
“Stop!” I yelled, making my friend jump first and then brake.
“What? Everything’s closed,” he said.
But it wasn’t, and I was hungry. From inside the Auld Mill Bakery, a sweet, yeasty aroma wafted into the street. I bought black pudding, thickly packed and slightly gamy, and (how could I pass?) a whole apple pie that we shared with the good-humored truckers who were stopping to buy bread.
It wasn’t easy, but Highbank Orchards was well worth seeking out. Located just outside Kilkenny, the 55-acre domain is the largest organic apple orchard in Ireland. The whole experience felt like a dip into history: A long lane toward the 17th-century stone courtyard, the low farm buildings and even the cozy farm shop spoke of tradition and know-how.
“In the last 1,500 years,” said Rod Calder-Potts, who owns the property with his wife, Julie, “the farm has only belonged to four families.”
To the sound of the geese and under a bright sun, he took us on a tour of the fields, showed us the warehouse, where he caressed the massive plastic cubes that held his beloved cider, and then opened the door to “the smallest legal distillery in Ireland.” The estate produces gin, brandy and vodka all from apples, as well as sweet apple syrup, but I was there for cider. All three — Highbank Proper, Highbank Medieval with honey and the Dessert Cider — were developed to go with food, not as summer drinks or an aperitif.
“We recommend serving the Proper chilled, with a fish course,” said Julie Calder-Potts. “The Medieval with pork, maybe.”
The couple are very creative in attracting visitors, and as they told the story of their land, I learned that they present performances at the farm and welcome overnight visitors in search of peaceful agritourism.
Dinner at Zuni in the center of medieval Kilkenny, after strolling along the castle and the cathedral, was a delicious exercise in Irish farm-to-table. But the next day, I was craving some seaside action, so we bypassed Dublin and drove to Howth along the water.
I wanted to meet Donal Skehan, the bubbly celebrity chef who graced the cover of the national TV guide that week.
“Meet me at the house!” he had said, but when we arrived in the postcard-pretty fishing town, famished, we spotted a restaurant called “The House.”
“Do you think it’s what he meant?” I asked Brian. Never mind, we had to eat. I savored a delicate seafood chowder filled with haddock, mussels and clams topped with a poached egg. We were far from the sad potatoes-and-cabbage stories I had heard back in the States. Ireland’s palate was booming.
“Craft Irish cider?” the young chef asked. “Well, that’s what we served at our wedding a few months ago, instead of champagne.”
That did it. Craft Irish cider was hot.
In Dublin the next day, I headed to the Chop House, the perfect choice to try the famous Irish beef. I grabbed the last stool at the bar, discovered Mac Ivors cider from County Armagh and chatted with Joe Doohan, the manager. “I drink cider all the time,” he said.
Restaurants now offer craft cider paired with food. For our last meal, Brian and I chose the epitome of the gastropub, L. Mulligan Grocer in Stoneybatter. Under black pudding on the menu, the recommended beer was . . . Dan Kelly’s craft cider! It also matched my scotch egg perfectly, adding a clean buzz to the luscious yolk.
Artisan cider makers are sprouting all over Ireland, spurred by the craft beer movement but also by foodies’ interest in all things artisanal.
“If you don’t see cider on a menu,” confided Kristin Jensen, co-author of “Sláinte: The Complete Guide to Irish Craft Beer and Cider,” “ask for it. Chances are there are bottles hidden under the counter.”
Bigar, who is on Twitter as @frenchiefoodie, is a food and travel writer based in New York.
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Mallow, County Cork
Driving through the extensive grounds, Longueville House feels like the fantasy country retreat you always wished your family inherited. Bucolic scenery (sheep and all), a historic mansion/castle and plump comforters welcome any traveler in need of some TLC. Rooms from about $92 per night.
Cuffesgrange, County Kilkenny
A cozy, rustic two-bedroom apartment nestled in the former stables off the century-old cobblestone courtyard, framed on one side by the distillery and on the other by the fields. If you decide to shop at the farm store next door, the modern open kitchen will come in handy. Rooms from about $120 per night.
Zuni Restaurant & Boutique Hotel
26 Patrick St.
At the heart of the lively medieval town, close to boutiques and pubs, a sleek, contemporary hotel with small but well-laid-out rooms. No need to go out for dinner; chef Maria Raftery prepares delicious farm-to-table seasonal fare, from roasted venison to cured local salmon, and even carries craft apple cider on her drink menu. Rooms from about $82 per night.
Mallow, County Cork
1-800-323-5463 or 011-353-224-7156
When the master of the house happens to be a chef who worked under Raymond Blanc at his Michelin-starred Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, it’s best to let him lead a dance that can include heritage pork roasted in the drawing room fireplace, duck pâté made from locally hunted birds, and all manner of vegetables from the three-acre kitchen garden. Entrees start at $25.
4 Main St.
Howth, County Dublin
In this fishermen’s village, the House could just focus on fresh catch but instead offers warm hospitality and a wide selection of tasty Irish fare. You can’t go wrong with Connemara black pudding, smoked beer-battered haddock or a lamb rump. Entrees start at about $19.
L. Mulligan Grocer
When you sit down at this epitome of a gastropub in the hip Dublin neighborhood of Stoneybatter, ask the cool-looking lad to pair your picks with cider. Whether it’s a beef braise with Dan Kelly’s or Free Range Chicken Kiev with Mac Ivors, it all goes to show the versatility of the drink and the talent of young Irish chefs. Entrees start at about $17.
Many apple growers and cider makers welcome visitors for tours and tasting. Call to make sure they’re open.
The Apple Farm
Cahir, County Tipperary
It’s worth stopping at the Apple Farm to pick up cider as well as cider vinegar, apple juice and a whole slew of apple varieties. The well-organized shop is open April-October from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. and November-March from 8 a.m.-5 p.m, except Sundays from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. The Apple Farm also runs a camping and caravan park nearby open May-September. Check the website for directions.
Cuffesgrange, County Kilkenny
Besides their tannic, somewhat bitter organic apple cider, Rod and Julie Calder-Potts produce a wide array of creative spirits, from gin to brandy as well as a celebrated syrup, all made from apples. They welcome visitors during the week for tastings and tractor train tours of the orchards. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday and by appointment only on Saturdays. Products for sale beginning at around $8.
Mallow, County Cork
1-800-323-5463 or 011-353-224-7156
There are myriad seasonal activities available at Longueville House, including orchards, distillery tours, fly-fishing, falconry and clay pigeon shootings. Some are included in the price of the stay, and others are extras. Longueville House Artisan Cider is one of my favorites, medium dry and not too sweet. I like it chilled and loved sipping it throughout the meal. Daily nonresident activities available on website, starting at about $70.
A visit to Craigies Cider in the summer or fall, while the team is knee-deep in apples and cider (they buy apples from several growers), leads to fascinating insight into the process of cider making. While there are no fields or orchards to stroll through, watching the crushing and blending practice can be enlightening. Call for an appointment.