Belleek Castle is situated on 1000 acres of woodland, just outside Ballina in Co. Mayo, on the banks of the river Moy. Approached up a long drive through the woods, this small but perfectly formed castle appears across a lawn, romantic and splendid in its isolation.
Romantic break, gourmet treat and a hell of a lot of fun, Belleek Castle is the antithesis of corporate hospitality; it’s more Errol Flynn than Padraig Flynn and is utterly charming for it.
Off to the left as you approach is the old courtyard, now the setting for Jack Fenn's Cafe, which serves beautifully cooked meals for breakfast and lunch and is the new go to spot for locals and visitors to Ballina alike.
Paul Doran and his lovely partner Maya Nikolaeva are your hosts in this small hotel and restaurant that is as individual as the couple who run it. Once the ancestral home of the Earl of Arran, Belleek was saved from state sponsored destruction by Paul’s father Marshall in 1964. He changed it into a small boutique hotel and it’s been doing its own low-key thing ever since.
Inside, Belleek is full of collected treasure; wonderful tapestries adorn the walls, the Armada Bar is a re-creation of a Captains wardroom of the Spanish Armada, and constructed of timbers salvaged from the ‘Castile Squadron’ that foundered on the Mayo coast four centuries ago.
Below in the dungeon there is a museum quality collection of fossils that would have even the more fervent Creationist scratching their head, while alongside is one of the biggest private collections of armour assembled anywhere today. They’re not big on rules here, so you actually get to touch these items, which in the case of a 100 million year old sharks tooth, is a singular delight.
Food is served in baronial style, with handmade tables and fine chairs. The menu reflects the surroundings; locally sourced ingredients, carefully chosen and treated with respect and not a little flair. Chef Stephen Lenahan and his team are growing in confidence, and the food is more precise and displays an elusive depth of flavour, with some flights of imagination and flair.
They’re big on tasting menus, so each day there is a market menu offering five courses, or the Gourmet menu which has eight. If you really feel you can’t face that much, wimp out and go A la Carte, but you can do that anytime, so go with the flow and enjoy. We have been regular visitors to Belleek, and it just keeps getting better and better.
Dinner is the Galleon restaurant is always a treat, but on this visit it is the end of November, and the castle is gearing up for Christmas, so the decorations are out and it looks truly magical. The market menu is great value and four or five courses seem just right.
Stephen’s food has been evolving constantly, and it is a testament to a combination of consistency and experimentation that it is now as self assured and concise as it is.
Paul has a well chosen wine list, but if you’re in the mood, ask about some of the bottles in the private collection for a real treat. Rumour has it there is a Petrus lying around somewhere.
I am not drinking, so \Spethen sent a few jugs of his homemade cordial to the table; elderflower, lemonage and ginger beer were all equally good, and a selection of homemade breads were nibbled. First up was an amuse bouche of seared foie gras, with a foie gras granola and pear brioche, which was beautifully rich, and certainly woke up the taste buds. Our first dish proper brought scallops and prawns in a small dish, carefully arranged and with a shellfish reduction with samphire and oink pepper, with a little cumin profiding some heat. tangy broth or sauce. They had a real depth of flavour and left us wanting more.
Next came a cup of potato foam with cured Dexter beef. This almost dainty dish had the look of a confection about it; it really resembles a cup of creamy cappuccino with coffee beans on top, but of course doesn’t taste of that. Light foam really does taste of potato, and the little beans are slivers of the dry aired Dexter chorizo, made in Killenore Castle in Tipperary .I wouldn’t be in the least surprised to find this dish on a tasting menu in a Michelin star restaurant.
A taste of the sea was next, with a fillet of pan fiend plaice, simply served with deep confit capers and baby pak choi. Beautifully cooked fish treated with care and allowed to shine, a fish dish doesn’t get any better.
Our main course for the evening was a late addition, wild pigeon breast on a bed of truffled potato, impossibly creamy and with more than a hint of truffle. It was delicious, and as rich and sinful as it is possible to be while eating a bird.
We really couldn’t manage dessert so after a nightcap in the bar it was up to the splendid room for a good night’s sleep. The following morning I went across to Jack Fenn's for some tea after breakfast and decided to return for lunch, which was a wonderful spiced beef pie and some more of the excellent cordial.
Belleek Castle is a truly magical spot. The hosts and staff are wonderful and if it was possible to package all that is great about Irish hospitality you would do well to bottle some of what has been created here. Love it, a sparkling jewel amongst hidden gems.