A Hidden Ireland gem you simply must uncover…
In this country of hidden gems and uncovered treasures, hopping in the car and taking the road less traveled is always a fantastic idea. That road, for me, veered off the familiar N7 to Mountrath, a tiny County Laois village about which I had heard very little, apart from whispers from ardent food lovers of uncharted culinary territory.
After a surprisingly painless drive, just an hour and a half after leaving Dublin, I navigate a winding tree-lined driveway through an enchanting forest to arrive at what can only be described as a Palladian villa, the 300 year old Roundwood House awaits. A member of the prestigious Hidden Ireland portfolio, I was about to find out just why the 33 member properties are so sought after.
Owner Hannah greets you at the grand double doors and children’s shoes line the entrance way, you are being welcomed into someone’s home, but certainly not your neighbour’s two up two down. A double height entrance hallway is breathtaking in baby blue, with a mahogany round table centre-piece of fresh cut flowers and goodies from local artisan producers proudly on display in every corner.
The personal touch, that genuine warmth, is an element of a property which can’t easily be faked and within minutes of my arrival I’m perched by the open fire, settling in and drinking in the ambiance of a historical house bursting with character and charm. Handmade oat flapjacks and coffee follow swiftly and the phones are set aside to simply unwind in the moment.
Paddy, Hannah’s husband, co-host and chef, comes to greet me and tells me enthusiastically that he has been hard at work in the kitchen, with a group of chef friends helping him put together tonight’s five course surprise feast. I can’t but peruse the menu ahead of visiting a restaurant, but Paddy is giving nothing away about what will appear on the list of locavore delights later in the evening, building quiet anticipation.
As Paddy and co work their magic in the kitchen, an afternoon of wandering the grounds and lounging without the white noise of modern life lay ahead of me, and I couldn’t have been more content. Roundwood has ten guest rooms, four of which are in the main house, and my Yellow Room, just up the grand staircase which dominates the entrance hall was true to its heritage in every way, lovingly restored rather than renovated.
The presence of a fireplace harked back to the room’s original state and as would come to be a theme throughout my stay, a selection of books sat atop a handsome dressing table, willing me to dive in. The entire house is dotted with bulging bookcases rather than plasma TVs and wifi routers, reminding you that pleasures of the past can be just what the doctor ordered to escape the pace of life we all tend to keep these days.
As it was a mercifully dry day, strolling through the cobbled courtyard, stopping to pet Rococo the golden retriever, admiring ducks and being mildly terrified by a plucky and inquisitive hen was the perfect way to while away an afternoon in nature.
Roundwood’s extensive grounds are storybook beautiful, I sigh to myself, even before I clap eyes on the piece de resistance – A Beauty and the Beast-esque library. Spread over two levels, with ample armchairs in cosy corners, The History of the Evolution of Civilisation library is packed wall to wall with everything from Fisk’s tome on the Middle East to the Book of Kells.
This enchanting space is couched in exposed brick, with beautiful brass lighting fixtures hanging from exposed beam-lined arched ceilings. I couldn’t help but feel like this space, in its sumptuous solitude, was luxurious in a way no hotel, five star or otherwise, has ever compared to.
Reluctantly leaving the library, the aroma of all kinds of deliciousness greeted me at the doorway and filled the main house, beckoning guests to the dining room for the centerpiece of our stay – a dining experience to remember.
As a Hidden Ireland property, guests can sit at a communal table to further the homely ambiance and in this case, despite being dotted all around the grand red-walled dining room, conversation flowed between guests immediately, something you just don’t get in a hotel dining setting.
A couple who married at Roundwood mere months earlier and a family of four, their children now teens whose childhood holidays were spent here, were fantastic gauges of Roundwood’s enduring charm. “There aren’t enough superlatives, it must be my 10th time here” I’m told, and they speak of Paddy, Hannah and their kids like old friends and reminisce about many a session in the drawing room post dinner.
Unburdened by choice, our starter was one of the most more-ish lamb dishes I have enjoyed in recent times- a wispy crisp of lamb crackling sat atop melting slow braised Lamb Cheeks with sweet velvety parsnip and a herbaceous mint chimichurri. Simple and ample as this was, every mouthful was to be savoured and I would have eaten it four times over – a triumphant start indeed.
For our second starter, meaty Oyster Mushrooms are crispy fried and umami rich, and the heady scent of truffle lingers in the air. Leaves shouldn’t be exciting, but here they shone, freshly plucked from the garden hours before. Finished with a Mossfield cheddar crisp, which added to the intense savoury edge of the dish as well as providing pleasing crunch, this was a plate of simple ingredients with incredibly tasty results.
Clever balance and emphasis on fantastic ingredients becomes the obvious order of the day by the time an ample main course of Sirloin of Beef arrives. Homegrown produce is a common theme, but Paddy tells me one of the girls who works here grew the asparagus – I’ll allow it, charred and grassy against blushing pink beef and magenta sweet beetroot puree with a dash of piquant horseradish. Seductively simple and entirely satisfying.
The sound of greedy scraping of plates punctuates the evening – although each of the five courses are generous in size, there is a shared feeling that leaving any go to waste would be a travesty.
“Does anyone feel like cheese?” chimes Paddy, emerging from the kitchen once our demolished mains are cleared – that most wonderful of propositions. What a happy girl I was to be presented with a quadrant of quality Irish Artisan Cheese alongside homemade sesame crackers and a pot of Hannah’s mother’s own green tomato chutney.
Mossfield Cheddar (Bruce Springsteen’s favourite, Paddy tells me) sat next to one of my favourites, Crozier Blue, Little Milk Company brie and the jewel in the crown of Irish farmhouse cheese, the ever distinctive and ever enjoyable Milleens made up an expertly curated cheeseboard worth lingering over.
A final flourish of a Chocolate Cup, filled with a scoop of homemade craisin and Cognac ice cream – that’s rum and raisin with added oomph – put my sweet tooth to bed and ushered me towards my room after what had been a thoroughly enjoyable dinner which alone was worth booking in for.
The fact that Paddy is not a formally trained chef baffles me, but not unlike the gifted Kevin Murphy of ídas in Dingle, he is innately connected to his ingredients and committed to helping them shine. This carries through to a simple yet scrumptious breakfast, which begins with stewed rhubarb from the garden with local curd and granola and freshly squeezed orange juice.
A French press of good coffee later (something which has proven elusive to even the finest hotels), and having sworn I was still full after last night’s extravaganza I had made good inroads into one of the better full Irish breakfasts I’ve enjoyed, all sourced from local farmer and butcher Mick Keegan, with two plump and perfectly poached eggs and more of that excellent green tomato preserve. Worth it.
Lamenting that the rest of my day couldn’t include lingering in the library and saying my goodbyes, I reflected on the words of a fellow guest, he who comes year in year out – “three days at Roundwood is worth a week anywhere else in the world.”
Utter tranquility, inimitable original charm and a welcome as warm and inviting as an open fire after a winter’s trek in the neighbouring Slieve Bloom mountains combined with an exceptional culinary offering, Roundwood is a feast for the eyes and the (hungry) soul – a Hidden Irish gem you simply must uncover.