To my surprise, it wasn’t the cockcrow at dawn that woke me in Old Farm. No, it was the rustle of an early morning breeze through the huge weeping Beech tree outside my bedroom window. After a few moments of coming to, realizing where I was and smiling while recalling the craic of the previous evening, its cadence lulled me back to sleep.
#burgerton was the hashtag for the occasion. Some twitter exchanges about the best burger in Ireland led to Alfie McCaffrey’s (@pigoftheday) issue of an invitation (or throwing of a gauntlet) to come to his and Margaret’s (@OLDEFARM) home for lunch last Sunday.
And so we came, seventeen adults and eight children, if I’m not mistaken.
Burgers for the occasion included
– Beef and Pork (50/50) burgers with red onion, Dijon mustard, Worcestershire sauce and oregano, fresh from Maggie’s garden.
– Beef burgers stuffed with a mix of three cheeses, feta, cheddar and mozzarella, with chopped red onion….also from @butcherlimerick
I had a little taste of all of them and they were absolutely delicious.
Tables were groaning under the bounty of dishes to accompany (and balance) the burgers;
– Salads from Sunny Meadow Farm, Portumna
– Vlaa’s from Arún Bakery, Stonybatter, Dublin
– Cheese brought by Jonathan and Jessica from Mossfield, Birr, Co.Offaly ( not far from Old Farm)
A spectacular cake made and brought by Móna and Ron’s children became a birthday cake when we discovered that it was Bríd’s birthday. Like any experienced hostess, Margaret had birthday candles stowed away for an unexpected celebration.
After lunch, Alfie hoisted it on a branch of the beech tree and all the children had a go at bashing it until it burst, spilling sweets and bars all over the lawn.
There’s only one word for what we all experienced at Old Farm- Hospitality. Generous, hearty, attentive, relaxed hospitality. We sat at tables on the verandah and on the lawn, moving and re-mingling when a raincloud passed overhead. Later on, Alfie lit the cheminée and Margaret provided cushions and rugs for all who stayed over. Conversation and craic went on into the early hours.
Old Farm is situated on rich, fertile land in North County Tipperary, near the centre of Ireland.
Mother Nature was generous here, laying down a bedrock of limestone, providing good drainage via the Little Brosna and the mighty Shannon, and laying on a moist, temperate climate which makes everything grow so well.
Margaret and Alfie were not the first farmers to spot this. Driving by Redwood Castle en route to Old Farm, on spotting the huge, unlikely edifice which seems to be in the middle of nowhere, you think ” Why?” Well, putting on the shoes of our forebears, Why Not?
Why did the MacAodhagáin family, chieftains under Brehon Law, build a stronghold in this place? Why did the Anglo-Normans fight to wrest it from them? Why did Oliver Cromwell gift so much of the neighbouring land to his Generals in the Cromwellian Plantation of Ireland? What did the North Tipperary Flying Columns fight so hard for in the Irish Civil War? Not far from here is the place where they forded the Shannon in 1601, those few survivors of the Battle of Kinsale, returning northwards to the lands of O’Neill and O’Donnell, starving, depleted and defeated. They may not have known that the Brehon way of life was over, forever, in Ireland. What was it that mattered so much to all these people over several centuries of recorded history? Land is the answer. Rich, fertile agricultural soil; the giver of life, the mainstay and identity of a people.
Looking south from Old Farm, the horizon is marked by the Devil’s Bit. To the east, pasture and tillage rise gently towards the foothills of the Slieve Bloom Mountains. To the north and west, the land falls away towards the Shannon, still a narrow river before it passes under Portumna bridge and spreads out to become the vast expanse of Lough Derg. When barges plied their trade on the inland waterways of Ireland, up to the late 1950’s, this land was, among other things, a grain belt. Every autumn the precious cargo was loaded onto barges to go south to Limerick and north via the Royal and Grand Canals, to Dublin.
At Old Farm, British Saddleback pigs are reared for meat and for breeding. Polonius the boar presides in his own paddock, keeping company with any one of the five sows at any given time. Each sow bears a litter of piglets (or bonhams) once or twice a year. They live outdoors…as the expression goes, ‘ Happy as a Pig in….’ with sties and old spreading trees for shelter. Their feed is organic and completely free of any genetically modified foodstuffs. So far. Alfie worries that GMO’s are being introduced insidiously into the food chain and insists that everyone needs to be vigilant about it. Right now, these beautiful pigs live happily, well cared for and breeding by the rhythm of the seasons. They go to a local butcher in Portumna for slaughter.
Terroir is what you taste in Old Farm Pork and Bacon. The taste of North Tipperary. We had it in Alfie’s pork burgers- succulent and full of flavour. Bacon rashers at breakfast next morning lacked a certain something…yes, additives! After breakfast, Margaret brought us out to see the pigs wallowing in their element. Underfoot, the scent of chamomile rose to meet us. Gentle grunts filled the air.
” You should hear the sows murmuring to their babies” said Margaret. We were all delighted. And so were they.
All around here the land is well farmed, well minded. The word ” tasty” is used to compliment a good farmer. Its produce is the best- it has to be, given its provenance.
Go on, if you haven’t had free-range pork or bacon before, try it. It’s part of what we are.