AT the end of the sweeping gravel laneway, a bee-friendly flower meadow bursting with red poppies and sunflowers appears to my left and Longueville House rises majestically to my right.
I feel a sense of deep regret that I have chosen to arrive not by Model T or horse-drawn carriage, but by a Ford of an altogether later vintage. The mantel of the large imposing door, painted in a dusky blue, is adorned with seasonal squashes of all shapes, sizes and colours. It is the perfect autumn scene.
A marble fireplace commands the drawing room where, every Sunday, a crackling wood fire is host to hulks of locally-reared meat, sometimes from their own lands, slowly roasting for their traditional lunchtime service.
My guide for the afternoon is Rubert Atkinson, and a finer ambassador for this house you could not find. I came here for the drink, so to speak, but what I also found was something far more nuanced: an approach to growing, producing and hosting seated in the old ways of doing things. It’s very Downtonesque.
Now a hotel, restaurant and boutique distillery, Longueville House was built in 1720 and houses one of only four original examples of Turner Conservatories still in existence. Outside, the wild flower meadow is punctuated with two rows of ancient looking trees.
“Those are beech and oak trees,” explains Rubert, “Oak for England, beech for France each representing a battalion lost during the Battle of Waterloo. The middle represents a no man’s land, and in the background is the remains of Dromaneen Castle.”
That castle being one of three built by an old Irish chieftain, Donough O’Callaghan; one of the landowners to whom Oliver Cromwell delivered his infamous ultimatum ‘To Hell or To Connaught.’ The house was returned to the O’Callaghan family in 1938, and today it is in the hands of the third generation, William O’Callaghan.
We head off down the ‘Smoke Walk’, so called because the length of it is said to be the distance required for smoking one’s after-dinner cigar, and veer off through a stone gateway.
Emerging on the other side I find myself at the entrance to a vast walled garden. Built nearly 200 years ago and containing 2.5 acres of fertile growing land, the walled garden supplies the on-site restaurant year round with a variety of fruits and vegetables.
“Nothing is bought in,” says Rubert, “all our seeds are collected from what we have; we take clippings, cuttings and grafts and grow on everything ourselves. What we can’t serve fresh in the restaurant, we turn into pickles and preserves and we sundry tomatoes in the Conservatory.”
As we wander through the garden, I spy walls covered with fruiting trees: pears and apples of course, also grapes. I pick and taste my first ever mulberry and pluck one of the first ripe figs, tearing it apart and gorging.
The apple trees here are for cooking, eating and dessert only; the trees are heavy with fruit but they are not ready yet. A long, dry summer has left the fruits smaller than they should be for the time of year. A bit of rain and they will start to plump up, Rubert assures me.
Some fruits have started to fall, ‘by God’s hand’ but nothing is wasted; whatever can’t be used are served to the pigs.
All the eating apples are heritage varieties, and about 50% of what is grown is sold. What remains is kept for use by the restaurant; juiced for back-sweetening the cider or frozen ensuring a year- round supply to guests of fresh apple juice with their breakfast.
As we round into one of the cider apple orchards that make up 30 growing acres in total, there is the distant rumbling of a tractor. As it swings around a row of trees, the driver parks up, turns off the engine and climbs down from his apple-strewn cabin. It’s Dan Duggan, head distiller and blender at Longueville House where he has worked for the past 40 years.
He wears a warm smile and a flat cap, and still, after four decades of service, refers to William O’Callaghan’s mother, Jane, as Mrs O’Callaghan.
It was William’s father, Michael, who had the idea to plant a cider orchard and distill brandy. There is a field on the estate called Orchard Field pre-dating the earliest estate records and hinting of a history of apple growing and cider making on the land. Twenty-five years ago, Michael O’Sullivan re-established the orchards once more.
“Apple trees take about 10 years to reach maturity”, says Rubert, and they are planting more and more trees all the time, establishing new orchard fields ensuring a gradual growth in production.
“It was with huge foresight that Michael decided to only grow cider apples.”
They started harvesting in October and continue until Christmas.
Longueville continues to be Ireland’s only brandy distillery, born of a vision by Michael O’Callaghan to create an Irish Calvados. Only two varieties of apple are grown in the cider orchard in equal number: Dabbinett (Somerset) and Michelin (France).
“He had absolutely no interest in making cider to sell,” says Rubert, “it was always only about the brandy!”
On Michael’s return from Calvados, where he studied the techniques of cider distillation using copper pot stills, he began planting the orchard and taught Dan Duggan everything he had learned about distilling. The pair worked together on perfecting Longueville House Brandy up until Michael’s death in 2010.
Dan has continued on, and now oversees the maintenance of the orchards, distilling, aging and blending brandy and cider.
Longueville House Cider is made by fermenting pressed apple juice for two to six months. Nothing else is added: just juice and natural yeasts from the apple skin. Some cider is bottled and the rest is distilled for brandy using three antique copper pot stills, after which the brandy is aged for four years in French Oak red wine barrels adorning the brandy with its distinctive amber colour.
“Each barrel will provide us with five ageings, so it has a lifespan of 25 years. After the barrel is spent, we take some of our cider and age it for one year in the brandy barrels to create ‘Mór’ – our brandy cask aged cider with an 8% kick!”
Both the cider and brandy were recently guilded with a Great Taste star, an achievement that underpins Michael O’Callaghan’s legacy to produce the best brandy and cider possible.
As we leave the distillery, at one end of an orchard field nestled on the edge of a wooded area is a pig paddock. Here live a semi-wild herd of pigs free to roam, act and live in accordance with their wild natures. The paddock is empty, not a pig to be seen. Rubert, who frankly is a strapping man over six foot tall with hands like paddles, stands calling out “Here, Piggy, Piggy!” All of a sudden there’s one, followed by another and another! Boars, sows and piglets from the tiniest to the largest come to his call.
We throw some windfall cider apples into the paddock and their delight is evident in squeals of joy and boisterous jostling. Rubert has no idea how many pigs there are these days, but for sure these are animals living the best days of their lives in their element. And when the time comes? Well, that’ll be one delicious piece of pork cooking on the open fire in the drawing room and perfectly paired with a snifter of Longueville House Brandy.
Orchard and distillery tours daily, open fire lunch every Sunday, hotel open year round.
Next week we visit Mark O’Riordan of Hive Mind in Myrtleville.