Grove House is a gem in the lovely environs of Schull, West Cork. If it ever emerged those venerable elders of the Irish hospitality world, the grand old country houses, the Ballyvolanes, the Ballymaloes, the Dunbrodys, the Delphis of this world, had a black sheep sibling who’d long since cut loose from the Blue Book brigade opting for a more adventurous life, then I suspect you’d find a suitably prodigal candidate for the role out on Mizen Head, in the lovely little seaside village of Schull. It goes by the name of Grove House.
Mind you, there’s no indication from the outside of anything remotely renegade about this demurely handsome Georgian house enjoying fine views of Schull Harbour and Mount Gabriel. Not overly large and currently rather shorn of vegetation while being re-landscaped, butter wouldn’t melt in its mouth.
The approach is utterly unassuming, through the front door and immediately into a long hallway running the length of the house. Some would be tempted to play on its illustrious cultural history and up the retro-chintz factor to Downton proportions but Grove House is as comfortable and lived in as your favourite old coat. After a day tramping up and down the highways and byways of Mizen, you’d be hard pushed to better the pleasure of coming ‘home’ to Grove, kicking off those muddy boots in the porch (yes, it is that casual) and sprawling back on the old leather chesterfield in front of a roaring turf fire in the drawing room.
The five rooms are named after writers: Carberry, Somerville, Ross, Shaw and Yeats. Big deal, says you, that’s one of the oldest tricks in the Irish hospitality playbook, a short cut to a little cultural credence. The difference is many of those same writers stayed here: you can view George Bernard Shaw’s scrap of instantly composed doggerel in the fascinating visitors book, if you ask nicely, and Edith Somerville and Violet Florence Martin (aka ‘Martin Ross’, of Somerville & Ross/Irish RM renown) and W.B.’s brother, Jack, were also regulars. Save some discreet and essential modern touches, the clean, comfortable, light-filled bedrooms might well have remained unchanged in the 100-plus years since the aforementioned last pulled cosy blankets over their ears and squirrelled toes down under the hot water bottle. That literary tradition appears unbroken to this day: one wall of the landing corridor is entirely book-lined and a Japan-based author takes a room for two whole months every year without fail.
The dining room to the rear of the house at the end of the hallway was previously a sumptuous though intimate space but the addition of a new conservatory has more than doubled the eating area and makes for a lovely, bright, morning breakfast. But on the night we arrive, a fiercesome gale and driving rain throwing us through the front door, the conservatory may be humming with several larger parties but we are delighted to have a table in the original dining section, almost entirely lit by large candles in tall silver holders, shadows dancing up into the cornicing, a piano in the corner just crying out for a gentle tinkling. A most glorious haven from the storm, indeed.
The evening menu is tidy, simple and very straightforward: seven starters, five mains and four desserts at €25 for two courses.
G has the Prawns in Katafi Pastry with chilli dipping sauce and a simple, refreshing green leaf salad, the leaves from the polytunnel out back. They are plump and juicy and the Katafi is a bit of fun but she is soon helping herself to an overly-generous portion of my Blue Cheese and Leek Tart, the flavours, perfectly balanced, and excellent pastry, a buttery dissolution on the tongue.
Pork Medallions flambéed in whiskey sounds attractive as does a Lamb Rack Provencal but I opt for a Duck Breast, pink, tender and flavoursome, a simple jus for company. There is little or no fish to be had on the menu (in this instance, no bad thing, as the local boats haven’t been out for almost three weeks because of foul weather and Grove House prefer fresh and local when it comes to fish) but G’s two generous (farmed) salmon fillets are perfectly cooked and served with a saffron emulsion. Both come with a large portion of perfectly sautéed courgettes and delicious, crisp roast potatoes.
There’s a decent and thoughtful wine list, a point further emphasised by the quality of the two half-bottles we order: a Chateau Tour du Pas St Georges St Emilion, balanced, fruity and supple and a feisty Chablis from Domaine Seguinot-Bordet, a nice bit of bite with a smooth buttery finish. Two full bottles of this pairing would have gone done just as easily.
There is little or no fiddle-faddle with the desserts, no modernist architectural whimsy on the plate, just generous portions of old school classics. A silky chocolate mousse is lightened with a hint of mint while a chewy meringue with citrus fruit segments is also given the gossamer touch, this time with a sprinkling of cinnamon. A wonderful Pear and Almond tart is leavened with a little Scandinavian intrigue, a biscuity concoction with poppy seed and, again, that wonderful sweet cinnamon. A ball of creamy vanilla ice cream is the perfect dance partner as it waltzes down the gullet without a pause.
Chef Nico Runske is still very young, just 21, but has long had a passion for cooking and did the Ballymaloe cookery course, aged 15. He is very committed to using excellent local produce in the best traditions of his old alma mater and, already turning out decent, wholesome fare, he can only get better. Certainly, all and sundry tonight are tucking into their plates with great gusto.
So, what was all that about the renegade spirit, the rogue element? This all sounds a whole lot of rocking chair and very little rock’n’roll, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Well, the secret ingredient is Swedish (though long since Hibernicised) proprietor Katarina Runske, the human dynamo who runs the place with her sons, Max and Nico.
When the wind lifts markedly at one stage and the lights begin to flicker, I have no doubt you’d simply plug into Katarina’s reserve supply to power the entire Mizen hinterland. Not only does the house function as a B&B with all the early morning starts that entails but it can be well into the small hours before the final guests are disgorged from the restaurant. Yet Katarina further piles on the workload by staging regular concerts in a marquee out the front, calling on her impressive Rolodex of musical chums to fetch up and sing for their supper. Grove House also host regular private parties: birthdays, anniversaries, weddings for anything up to 150 people. I certainly have plans to return, especially for one of those concerts, but is there any way at all of wangling a two-month pass? I could handle that and then some.