120-year old walled Cork garden helps business to evolve through the decades

In the final part of our ‘Food Curios’ series, KATE RYAN talks to the people behind The Lettercollum Kitchen Project
120-year old walled Cork garden helps business to evolve through the decades

Karen Austin and Con McLoughlin of The The Lettercollum Kitchen Project

THE Lettercollum Kitchen Project has been quite the adventure.

Since 2004, it has been best known as a well respected and loved artisan bakery, deli and shop in Clonakilty, but since its inception in 1982 it has also been a hostel, a guesthouse, a restaurant and a cookery school.

Above all else, it is an organic market garden growing an array of vegetables and fruits all year round in a one-acre, 120-year old Victorian walled garden in the little townland of Lettercollum, near Timoleague.

The Lettercollum Kitchen Project is the creation of Karen Austin, 63, originally from Kent in the UK, and Con McLoughlin, 68, and originally from Bray, Co Wicklow. For nearly 40 years, they have been the curators of a food philosophy that began with a vision of self-sufficiency in West Cork and has continually evolved into a business that not only sustains three generations of family, but also a food business that serves a loyal cohort of customers from the local community.

I arrive at their homestead after a night of heavy rain; the gardens and trees looking alive and verdant despite the pinch of autumnal crispness in the air. I hear Karen’s daughter, Hazel, teaching some smallies about countries of the world in one of the workshop buildings in the yard — today they are learning about Africa. The kitchen is filled with the aroma of hot-out-of-the-oven Chocolate and Hazelnut cake — it is hard to resist diving in, but it needs to cool, and anyway, we should take advantage of the break in the weather to head out to the garden to see what’s growing.

The engine room of the garden is a one-acre plot inside a Victorian walled garden. All around, the walls are lined with ancient apple trees — many rare old Irish varieties. A newer orchard plantation of apple, plum and cherry occupies a plot where chickens are free to roam, living off scraps from the shop and picking off pests.

A series of beds, plots, greenhouses and polytunnels ensure that growing can happen year-round. We duck into a large polytunnel as a heavy shower passes over, and I am greeted with the sight of hundreds of red and ripening tomatoes (all grown for flavour, Karen assures me, and not for uniformity of shape!). A plethora of chillies in hues of green, red, orange, yellow and even purple — some grown from seeds collected from a recent pre-lockdown trip to Mexico, and tart, green Tomatillos, the essential ingredient in Salsa Verde.

Large, black-purple aubergines flower and fruit simultaneously; apricot and peach trees climb the centuries-old walls, and vines grow thick and gnarly with bunches of red and white grapes hanging invitingly from the branches.

One of the tunnels at The Lettercollum Kitchen Project
One of the tunnels at The Lettercollum Kitchen Project

Tucked away at the back is a banana tree that never fruits but the leaves are useful in steaming fish, donated by a dear friend since passed away; and a Kiwi hiding its fruits under thick undergrowth.

Such diversity in just one tunnel — who says its difficult to grow fruits and vegetables in Ireland!

In the outside beds grow a mix of kales, cabbages and other brassica, spinach, kale and leeks, beetroots, courgettes, sprouts, beans, peas and herbs. Just some autumn-fruiting raspberries remain of the soft fruits, which include blueberries, gooseberries, red and black currants.

Amongst all this edible goodness, splendid specimen trees show off their autumn regalia. I ask about a Golden Ash, ablaze in bright yellow foliage. This, says Karen, is one of a number of Memory Trees the family planted some years ago at a time when they experienced loss of loved ones and some difficult times. Planting the trees were a way to remember those lost, and remind themselves that better times would come again.

There has been a steady planting of nearly 1,000 trees over the years across their land, some food producing and some not. All help to build a biodiverse environment, and to create a forest for the future.

We return to the kitchen, and the smell of chocolate cake and freshly brewed coffee. There is a small room off the kitchen — Karen’s office. The walls are lined with shelves full of cookbooks collected over the years; a desk scattered about with notes, snippets and yet more books and a small stove ready for lighting. A buff brown book, covers missing and held together by three or four strips of Sellotape across the spine, is hardly noticeable amongst the faded colourful covers of books in what she refers to as “the old section”.

The Complete Book of Vegetarian Cooking may have been Karen’s first cookbook, but her love of cooking took off from school and the weekly Home Economics classes, rebelling against the sedate class curriculum and instead choosing to cook dishes such as Moussaka — tricky at a time when aubergines were almost as rare as hens’ teeth.

“I’ve always cooked, and I’ve always worked in restaurants — from the sink up, I’ve never had any formal training. Before the days of the EU, there was a huge sort of black market for work — especially in the food industry — and I would travel to different countries, pick up work in restaurants and only leave when I’d be kicked out of the country for not having the right paperwork! I’d go back home to England, and then just head out to another country!

“But I wasn’t supposed to end up in Ireland — I came here because I met Con!”

Karen moved to West Cork in 1982 with Con, looking for their version of the good life, and purchased what she describes as “The Big House” with 12 acres of land at Lettercollum, in a co-operative with other like-minded people. But that ultimately didn’t work out.

“Back in the ’80s, there was no money, and I wasn’t used to that — working in Europe, there were lots of jobs and lots of money — you could have as much work as you wanted, and then we came here and there wasn’t any work; and being a woman in Ireland at that time, you’d only earn pin money anyway — if you managed to get a job.

“It was a difficult and messy time, but Con and I stuck it out. We had had three children along the way too, so we had to find a way to make a living.

“When we came here, we planted the garden with vegetables to sell, but no-one would take them because the cucumbers weren’t straight or the tomatoes were all different sizes!

“So, we opened the Big House up as a hostel and started to feed everyone from the garden. Guests would book in for dinner, it was always vegetarian food. The starter was usually houmous or soup, main course and dessert would be made from whatever was in the garden. We made things like Rhubarb Fool with toasted brazil nuts, or big bowls of strawberries with cream.

“People from around heard the food was very nice and they wanted to come, so we opened a restaurant and upgraded the accommodation from a hostel to a guest house because people wanted to come for dinner and stay the night too. It just sort of grew with us, there was no business plan!

“We had our own pigs and had them butchered locally and made into sausages and rashers for the breakfast. We had hens for eggs, and goats for milk, which we also made into cheese. We even grew barley at one point! We wanted to be self-sufficient,”said Karen.

“We did the restaurant for years and got well known for it, but it was so much work: seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner. In the end it was pure exhaustion that put a stop to it, and I wanted to reclaim my life. It was unsustainable, and the stress of working so hard. We decided to sell the Big House in 2003 but kept the gardens and outbuildings, including the old milking parlour, which we renovated ourselves in 1993 and is our home.”

Karen doing cooking classes in Spain.
Karen doing cooking classes in Spain.

Selling The Big House meant putting an end to the restaurant and accommodation business, but the decision to keep the gardens meant that pretty soon the family were buried in vegetables and wondering what to do with it all. In 2004, they leased a small shop on Connelly Street in Clonakilty and called it The Lettercollum Kitchen Project.

“We built a kitchen in the shop and, as with everything we’ve done, just leapt into it. But we’d never done food production before, it’s completely different to putting food on plates, and it took quite a while for us to grow into it and for Clonakilty to grow into us. We had our followers from the restaurant, but it did take quite some years before it got really busy.”

Soon after, Karen combined her love of cooking with her love of travel, and began to offer cooking classes abroad in France and Spain, but yet again, the work required to make them a success, coupled with the work required to ensure the business and garden were all well-minded while away, meant that, despite being fun, they weren’t really adding to the financial pot.

“In the end, I just realised I’d prefer to go on holiday! We’d travel to Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Beirut, India, Mexico, Cuba, France and Spain, and while there, go rooting around looking for new recipes that we could bring back home. That was when we began running cookery classes from home in small groups.”

The cookery classes have the added advantage of seasonal produce grown in the walled garden. Since March, the classes haven’t taken place, but instead a selection of their delicious tarts, salads, cakes and heat-and-eat meals — all the shop favourites — will be sold through a new Neighbourfood in Timoleague.

“It’s just another opportunity for us, and we’ll see how it goes, but Timoleague is our original stomping ground, and we do feel it’s right that we should support it.”

Karen Austin.
Karen Austin.

This organic, feel-your-way through approach to business that has sustained them for the last four decades won’t be changing anytime soon — and if it is working, why should it change?

“It’s always what we’ve got growing that inspires what we make for the shop. We make our menu around what we have. That was a big part of our food philosophy right from the beginning. For me, the garden is really important: we’ve been here for 38 years and we’ve grown organically the whole time, so we have an incredibly healthy, fertile garden. In this day and age that is of enormous value.

“I say to people: this is so valuable, and they look at me as though I’m nuts, but I really think, especially in these insecure times, we’re really fortunate to have this,” she said.

In 2014, Karen authored her first book: The Lettercollum Cookbook — Recipes from the Kitchen Project.

“I’d been writing a column for West Cork People for years, and people kept telling me I should write a cookbook. I thought it would be a nice fun project to do, pitched the idea to Roz Crowley of On Stream Media and she said she’d love to work with me on it. I started writing it in the February, early in the morning at 6am when there was no one around to distract me. It was published in November, 2014, and we’ve sold 2,000 copies of the book to date.”

Karen is working on a new book project, still a work in progress.

“I suppose the lockdown would have been the perfect time to finish it,” she says, “but I spent it in the garden instead!”

See www.lettercollum.ie

You can catch up on our full ‘Food Curios’ series online at EchoLive.ie

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