We have a one acre walled vegetable garden at Lettercollum. It’s very old and has been used as a kitchen garden for the past one hundred and twenty years. We have grown fruit and vegetables there without the use of chemical fertilizers or insecticides for the past 26 years.
At one point there were two very large glasshouses at the top of the garden. When we inherited the garden the frames that held the glass were so rotten that they had to be dismantled.
We have built tunnels over the original glasshouse structures. The tunnels are where we grow tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, beans and herbs and also home to peach trees, grape vines and a beautiful bougainvillea, which flowers for about ten months of the year.
Having a tunnel in Ireland gives a perfect climate to be able to grow all year round The walls of the garden are surrounded with apple trees, many of which are original varieties and some newer trees that we have planted over the years. There is a blackcurrant, redcurrant, gooseberry and rhubarb plot and last year we planted blueberries but we are waiting for results. We use the soft fruits to bake sweet tarts and make jams and jelly.
Half of the garden is used as beds where we grow vegetables and the other half is shared between the fruit and chickens. When we had a restaurant the garden supplied the kitchen. These days the garden supplies the kitchen at our shop in Clonakilty. We concentrate on growing the main ingredients that we need for the shop and then grow small quantities of more exotic or difficult to find vegetables for our home kitchen and cooking classes.
We give cooking classes that are a combination of garden and kitchen. These take place in the spring and summer. Our garden has been planted with supplying a kitchen in mind and is often the beginning spot for menu planning.
We are two chefs: Con McLoughlin from Bray, Co Wicklow and Karen Austin from Kent, England.
The production, cooking and consuming of food has been central to our relationship since we first met in Antwerp in the 1970s where we both had apartments above a bistro called “Het Pottenbrug” and where we both ended up working together.
Eventually we came back to Ireland where a group of us bought “Lettercollum House” a Victorian manor house on 12 acres with an acre walled garden. We opened a hostel for which we cooked vegetarian food and which morphed over the years to a guesthouse and very popular restaurant which won many of accolades. We used the products of our walled garden as well as pork from our pigs, eggs from our chickens and milk from our goats to make a cuisine that was unique at the time and one of the first in Ireland that worked in an organic way to produce food from seed to plate.
In 2004 we opened our shop “The Lettercollum Kitchen Project” again using the produce of our walled garden to make seasonal and delicious food. We use the same techniques as our restaurant to make pastries, tarts and cakes.
We still live in Lettercollum (we sold the house in 2003 but kept the walled garden and 5 acres) with our offspring and grandchildren. We continue to experiment with growing and cooking food in new and exciting ways.