Whisper it softly.
Please don’t tell any member of the Allen family. And please do not tell anyone from Kerrygold. But for anyone fortunate enough to be invited to this year’s Kerrygold Ballymaloe literary festival (15-17 May) and staying there, there is one ulterior, self-centred and purely delightful reason for accepting the invitation to participate.
It’s the Ballymaloe breakfast.
Now I will in due course make reference to the single drawback that comes with this meal but for the moment I will simply concentrate on the obvious array of the overwhelming pleasure on offer.
The most immediate is all that is on display not just on the buffet but also on the walls. The former is home to half a dozen different home-baked breads including my personal favourite, the Irish brown soda bread. Next to that is a mound of yellow butter. And alongside these are bowls of the seasonal jams and marmalades. Then there is an enticing bowl of fruit compote near a bubbling pot of Macroom oat porridge, complete, of course, with a bowl of Jersey cream.
I always spend a considerable amount of time giving these items the once over because it provides a useful pretext for re-acquainting myself with the paintings hanging on the restaurant walls. Since they first opened Ballymaloe near Cork, the Allen family has astutely and with great judgement enhanced all the walls of their seven dining rooms with distinctive, mainly modern, paintings. Enjoying these while keeping an eye on the weather outside through the dining room’s tall windows is another hidden pleasure of this meal.
A few minutes’ recollection is necessary preparation for the imminent decision: what to choose for the cooked breakfast. What makes this particularly tricky is that, not having the appetite I did as a young man, I have to establish the correct balance between what I am going to help myself to from the buffet and what will come from the kitchen. And this is made more difficult – and honestly, by now, I do not expect any sympathy – by the fact that this particular menu reveals just the right amount of information.
It is an extra pleasure to know that the Mr McCarthy who makes Ballymaloe’s sausages is known as Jack. I find the name Roscarbery, the farm in West Cork where the Allshire family make their black and white pudding, to be onomatopoeic in conveying the atmosphere of the windswept countryside in which it is produced. If Sally Barnes’s kippers are as delicious as her smoked salmon then they are bound to be very good indeed. And then there is the opportunity to enjoy all this with a cup of Barry’s tea, blended in nearby Cork, the kind often referred to in Manchester, where I grew up, as ‘strong enough to stand your teaspoon in’.
That’s it, my secret reason for heading back to Ballymaloe and its Literary Festival is its breakfast, and, of course, on the downside, all the consequent indecision that such an extensive menu induces at what is, unquestionably for most people, the most indecisive time of the day. But there is one overriding consolation: we do hope to return – again and again.