Cook up a treat at Irish castle

DO you get recipes from the TV and cook them up at home, only to despair of your failures?NAOMI CASSIDY jumped at the chance to learn some secrets to culinary success, in a fabulous setting.

DO you get recipes from the TV and cook them up at home, only to despair of your failures?

NAOMI CASSIDY jumped at the chance to learn some secrets to culinary success, in a fabulous setting.

MY weekends just wouldn't be the same without the BBC's Saturday Kitchen with James Martin.

For the past year or so I have become increasingly interested in cookery programmes which have shown me a life beyond takeaways and chicken 'ping'.


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That's just one of the reasons why I jumped at the chance to attend a day's cookery course at Ireland's Castle Leslie, run by chef Noel McMeel, who featured on another top programme for 'foodies', Great British Menu.

I figured that if Paul McCartney and Heather Mills chose this castle for their wedding venue, I couldn't go far wrong. Just over an hour's drive from Belfast airport, the Castle Leslie estate is set in 1000 acres of rolling countryside in the heart of County Monaghan. On the way you'll cross the border from the north to the republic, but thankfully gone are the days these were marked by soldier check points, leaving only ultra-observant folk to see road signs change from miles to kilometres.

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When I visited, the castle was undergoing major refurbishment work to transform it into a private member's club but that has since opened.

As well as the castle, the estate, which has been in the possession of the Leslie family for more than 300 years and is now run by their direct descendant Sammy Leslie, also consists of a spa, a four star hotel, planned real estate, a cookery school, an equestrian centre and self-catering cottages.

I stayed at the hotel on the estate, called The Hunting Lodge, which is designed to appeal to those on a slightly stricter budget than the exclusive guests of Castle Leslie.

It is hard to go wrong with a double room for 95euros (£63) a night, particularly since I had a room with a huge balcony overlooking the newly built equestrian centre, and a stand-alone bath as part of the ensuite.

The first priority was to sample a pint of the black stuff - arguably Ireland's most famous export Guinness - in the Hunting Lodge's traditional bar Connors. I could have happily stayed in the comfortable enclaves of the bar all night but was whisked off to have a treatment at the on-site spa.

Faced with the stressful choice of treatments such as a chocolate truffle body wrap (I was afraid I would eat myself) and an organic facial, I opted for a more holistic therapy-an Indian head massage. I was told by my therapist that the treatment can bring on a range of emotions, from laughing out loud to bursting into tears. Half an hour later, I felt thoroughly relaxed and a little tingling around my feet - apparently a sign that my body was detoxing itself.

I had a herbal tea afterwards and contemplated my experience in the relaxation suite, feeling thoroughly cleansed and refreshed. An hour later, and my new detoxed self was but a distant memory as the tempting menu and extensive wine at the lodge's restaurant Snaffles proved irresistible.

A sumptuous dish of prawns to start, and a delightful melt-in-the-mouth venison as a main course confirmed my suspicions that life without detox is much more fun. My companions unanimously agreed that the food, overseen by chef McMeel who was spotted sweating it out in the kitchen, was first class. I couldn't wait to learn his tricks of the trade in the following day's cookery class.

The next morning it was straight over to the cookery school next to the castle for a light breakfast, during which Noel told us about his background in cooking and vision for the castle.

Sammy, whose main passions are cooking and horse riding, indulged the requests of both Noel and the equestrian centre manager Julie Sargeant for the best equipment in their field.

In Noel's case, this included a chef's luxury molteni range-the first one in Ireland.

We were all summoned to the demonstration table and watched as Noel effortlessly made bread rolls in less than eight minutes- an impressive feat by anyone's standards. In true Generation Game style, it was then our turn and even though it was not as easy as he had made it look, we all turned out some pretty tasty creations with various toppings.

The cookery course is designed to cater for individual needs and courses can be adapted to suit one's own tastes and abilities. Eventually Noel wants to take students of the cookery course to the castle's walled Victorian garden and pick the ingredients they will use later that day, supporting his enthusiasm for locally produced goods.

None of us were experts in the kitchen, so our menu for the day was fairly simple dishes made interesting. An herb-crusted cod with a smoked salmon risotto was next to prepare and this had to be good because we were going to have it for lunch. Again the recipe was easy to follow and due to the small group size (classes are a maximum of 12), Noel was able to go to each of us and give us some tips.

We all chipped in to 'plate up' (as they say in Masterchef) and then sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labour.

The post-lunch menu was definitely one for those with a sweet tooth. All-butter shortbread and white chocolate soup with glazed bananas topped with meringue were heavenly and will certainly be rolled out for my future dinner parties.

An informal graduation ceremony at the end of the day was the icing on the cake as Noel presented us with certificates of achievement. We all agreed that the enjoyable day wasn't just down to the tasty yet simple meals or the individual attention we got, but the overall advice and guidance from Noel whose philosophy was to make the cookery school special.

Before we left for the airport, there was a chance for a quick tour of the castle and its grounds, which included the walled 'secret' garden that had, lay undiscovered until recently for 40 years.

Extensive building work on the castle meant that I only got a glimpse of what it will become but scaffolding aside, the sheer grandeur of the rooms which are all steeped in centuries of history, makes it easy to envisage how magical an experience it could be.

There is an air of excitement at Castle Leslie about what they have there and what the future holds, and after my short visit there, I can certainly see why.

Where: Castle Leslie, Glaslough, County Monaghan

How to get there: An hour from Belfast airport, 90 minutes from Dublin Airport

What to do: Horse riding, spa treatments, cookery courses, walks, and fishing.

Cost: One night's full board accommodation in the Hunting Lodge plus one day cookery course starts from 325 euros (£218) double occupancy. Bmi flies to Belfast City from London Heathrow from £34 one way including taxes

Contact: www.castleleslie.com, email: infor@castleleslie.com, or phone 00353 4788100

Hospitality: the author was a guest of Castle Leslie Estate and bmi.

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