Food & Drink · Travel

Ro’s Recipes: Upstairs Downstairs at Crom Castle & Irish Whiskey-Cured Salmon

I had never been to Northern Ireland, that contentious-riven part on the north eastern section of the island. So when in the Spring of 1973, Chris, a boyfriend, invited me to spend a long weekend visiting his family, I was excited.

We drove west from London across England to northern Wales to catch the ferry from Hollyhead to cross the Irish Sea to Dundalk, then on to his cousin’s house in Belfast for dinner. We spent the night and moved on to County Fermanagh the next morning.

I knew his family was old and aristocratic, but I did not know that his elder brother lived in a castle on the edge of Lough Erne. When we drove through the gates, past the gatekeeper’s cottage to enter the 1400-acre estate, I was awed. It took a good fifteen minutes to reach the castle itself.

We were greeted by friendly people, who took our luggage to our respective rooms, while I was introduced to our hosts, his brother, Lord Henry, the Earl of Erne and his (then) wife, Lady Camilla, Countess of Erne.

I spent four days in an idyll of Edwardian England – wandering through the woods, orchards and farmland of the property; being a guest at a small dinner party at a mini-castle on an island on Lough Erne; feasting on self-help buffet breakfasts of fresh juice, eggs, bacon, mushrooms, and sausage; enjoying relaxed served luncheons, informal afternoon tea in the ‘drawing room, and formal dinners with fascinating, educated, entertaining conversation in the grand dining room, overseen by Corduroy, the butler and served by footmen.

All was very English proper and rather grand – especially given that Lord Henry would be appointed by Her Majesty as Lord Lieutenant of County Fermanagh and their mother, Lady Davina was a lady-in-waiting to HRH at her coronation.

Having been told I was an eager amateur cook, I was invited to visit the kitchen and speak with Mrs. Boyle, the family’s cook. Everything was made from ingredients grown on Home Farm on the property. There were frequent guests at weekends, befitting an important family with social duties to perform nationally and internationally. Mrs. Boyle and her cooks didn’t ever seem to stop working – preparing a breakfast tray for Lady Camilla, breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner for the guests, as well as lunch and dinner for the staff.

I loved the strawberry shortcake that Mrs. Boyle made for afternoon tea. She very kindly gave me a hand-written recipe, since lost. But I remember it was a revelation of light, fluffy, fruity and delicious!

The kindness and humanity in inviting me to her very important domain so we could speak was the gentle surprise gift of the weekend. She heard, read, respected and honored my personal individuality and was uncowed by my purported status as a guest. She bestowed the generosity of her gift just as my hosts had shared their hospitality with me. It reflects that mutual trust and respect of these old, many years and even centuries’ old relationships can be attained by employers and employees.

In our 21st century, where we are often distanced from cultures not your own, people may lack understanding of the ancient, mutually interdependent rural societies and systems essential to the functioning of the pre-industrial world. Given the harsh worldwide realities of the early 20th century, these systems changed dramatically, but lingered like a nagging, scabbed itch into the latter part. Many grand family lands and houses, under the increasingly stringent tax laws of the United Kingdom in the mid twentieth century, were threatened into abandonment, even after they had been owned and cared for by the same families for over 400 years in many cases.

The National Trust, a not for profit organization was created in the late nineteenth century by philanthropists who were concerned that uncontrolled industrialization would wipe out unique historically valuable sites, cultures and land. On invitation, it takes over the land and properties to preserve the ancient heritage – like the historically important Stonehenge (protected by English Heritage) and the land around it.

The foundation is supported by visitor fees and private donations, (in the US as The Royal Oak Foundation), taking ownership of buildings, bridges, lighthouses, mills, pubs, even historic villages for the British public. The Crom Estate, owned for over 350 years by the family, was given to the National Trust by the 6th Earl of Erne in 1987. It has been developed gracefully into a very elegant wedding and party venue, as well as a film site, and introduced to a wide chic public to experience, share in and appreciate the beauty of its glorious, historic place. I am blessed that I had the opportunity to experience it myself within the embrace of the family as well as the other residents and dependents of the well-being of the estate.

Next Page: Ro’s Recipe for Irish Whiskey-Cured Salmon and Boxty Pancakes

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