Avoca is a family-run company that has come a long way since its birth 300 years ago in the remote Irish village that gives its name. Avoca Handweavers is renowned for beautifully woven fabrics and clothing. But as well as knitware and fashion, Avoca also means entrancing household goods and gifts, alluring foodhalls, gorgeous bread and cakes and irresistible cafes in appealing settings.
Set in the grounds of the old Jameson (of whiskey fame) estate, surrounded by ancient trees and rolling gardens, the Avoca store at Kilmacanogue (Kilmac to regular visitors) just south of Dublin is – to quote the marketing pitch – ‘simply Ireland’s best retail & food experience’.
We tested out two of the stores close to Dublin – there are six others including one in Belfast – at significant personal expense. Kilmac, set in lovely gardens on the outskirts of the city, conveys the sense of cornucopia, with display racks laden with dangerously desirable clothes and household goods, alongside tables spilling over with the trademark Avoca lambswool blankets. Close by is a mouthwatering display of ready meals, meat, cheese, wine and chocolates as well as a comprehensive range of the most appealing foods ever to be bottled or tinned from all over the world. The Sugar Tree Café, with a verandah leading onto the garden terrace, offers an agonisingly delightful range of cakes, pastries and savoury dishes. The Fern House Restaurant has tall windows leading out onto its own paved terrace. Built in the style of a Victorian fern house, it is plant filled and perfumed by orange and lemon trees. There is also a garden centre and nursery.
Bewildered by the range of delights on offer, I left bearing just two take away meals and a soda loaf, all of which turned out to be a sound investment. We ate the lentil stew with cous-cous a couple of days later, heated on our little camper van stove, as we gazed out at the Atlantic. And the soda bread kept us in breakfasts all week.
But on the return to Dublin, after a few days down in the far south west, we had to test the Rathcoole store. Just off the N7 motorway about 40 minutes from the capital, the building is utilitarian rather than romantic but once inside we found the retail experience as captivating as before. We exited with a multi-coloured throw for us and a soft as fleece baby blanket for a friend’s baby. After we had tried the café, naturally, and thumbed the growing range of Avoca cookbooks.
Let’s talk about food in Ireland. It’s more than 30 years since I was last there and the transformation is profound. In the late 70s, there was little eating apart from in bars and the repertoire there was basic. Soup – invariably oxtail – and flabby sandwiches – habitually ham – was the offer. The Allens’ heroic and legendary Ballymaloe House in East Cork had just opened but its impact was not to be felt for another decade or more. Avoca demonstrates the change, and the growing foodie expectations of the Irish. But it is far from on its own. Shops, cafes and restaurants in even the smallest towns proudly display the best local produce, especially meat, cheese and bread. In Clonakilty, the Lettercollum Kitchen Project (www.lettercollum.ie/shop.htm) supplied us with a delicious picnic lunch whilst in Goleen, a tiny village almost at Ireland’s land end, Mizzen Head, we dined at the water’s edge at the head of a glorious little inlet as night fell. The Heron’s Cove, a hotel with an elegant restaurant with sea views (www.heronscove.com) offered us local crab, scallops and hake and a sophisticated array of bottles from several continents. A mile or so down the road is Barley Cove where the tall reeds sway gently in the wind and the sea crashes on a surfer’s beach. Am I being carried away by Ireland’s charm? Yes, because of its beguiling beauty and because of the national pleasure in conversing with perfect strangers, and not just when there is a glass of Guinness in front of you.
Let me mention, finally, two other waterside eating places in the same small area: Caseys in Baltimore, a charming little port (famous for the snatch of 200 locals by barbary pirates in the 1600s), where fresh fish and Irish beef were the stars of the show (www.caseysofbaltimore.com) and the Crookhaven Inn, an informal all day venue on the quayside where we ate more fish (homepage.eircom.net/~ojk/goleen/crook.htm).
Follow Avoca on Twitter: @AvocaIreland
Martin Yarnit: www.tasteforbologns.blogspot.com
Follow Martin on Twitter: @martinyarnit