Taste Kilkenny – Episode 1: Discover Highbank Orchard
Taste Kilkenny launched in April. I’ve been a big fan of Goatsbridge Trout and the work they do at their farm for quite some time, but I would have never thought of Kilkenny as a destination for food lovers. Having looked at the Taste Kilkenny website a bit closer, I realised that, in fact, Kilkenny has many an interesting food producer.
The main reason I started learning to drive a couple of years back was so that I could get into my car and explore Ireland. Naturally, by exploring I mean eating. As I had a week off booked and no particular plan, decided to head to Kilkenny to meet some of the producers mentioned on the website and see what I could learn. And taste of course.
I had a very happy couple of days and I wouldn’t do justice to the places I visited if I crammed them all into this post, and so for today, I will focus on the first of the producers: Highbank Orchard.
Highbank Orchard is nestled on the side of the main road between Kilkenny and Clonmel, a mere 15 min drive from the city centre. I arrived straight from the motorway, stressed and hassled with the traffic and flustered because I was late for the appointment I’d made with Julie. But the instant, I turned into the small country lane and rolled down my windows, I felt a great sense of peace descend on me. The blazing sunshine certainly helped with the bucollic first impression the orchard made on me, but it was not a patch on the warmth of the welcome you will receive from Julie and Rod. I’m quite shy at best but they know just how to make you feel at ease.
The visit started with a ride in the sunshine around the orchard on Rod’s mini carrier. There I learned that High Bank orchard sprawls across 20 acres. Rod and Julie are passionate about all things organic, and are keen to pass on their knowledge. Everything they do is organic to the strictest measures. They have even linked in with Shumei farming monks in Wiltshire and are allowing about 1200 trees to grow and fruit according to their spiritual farming ways. It makes for a fascinating story, especially when you see how the trees thrive. Rod is also very fond of his solitary bees and has built them little gaffs all over the property. They sway gently in the evening breeze and add a quirky charm to the place.
Back at the farm, Julie gave me a tour of the distillery and talked me through everything they do with apples. Nothing goes to waste. Their varied range of products is all apple and some may have some water or grain alcohol added to it. Every step of the process is self contained and happens on the farm.
The tour then takes me to the small shop where you can taste the products and purchase what you want. The sheer variety of what you can do with an apple is simply hard to wrap your head around and there are many products to choose from. The Calvados is smoother than any I’ve had in France and the organic vinegar is a stunner. I’m also very keen on the gin, it has a clear sharp apple taste and would be wonderful on ice with a good tonic and some apple slices and a few leaves of fresh thyme. I came away from my first Taste Kilkenny visit with a bottle of the vinegar and a bottle of the wonderful syrup. Julie wouldn’t take my money and so I swapped her products for a fancy wild boar cured sausage. And yes, of course I travel with my own sausages. Don’t you?
The tour ended with a nice long chat around Julie and Rod’s kitchen table. They were kind enough to educate me some more in all things organic and slow food. Even better, we swapped stories and had a great sing song. They were amused that my favourite tattoo is that off that an apple blossom branch and I had a mad laugh at the fact that they knew about the Onion song my granny used to sing to me when I was little. The connections made over food are solid ones and never disappoint.
Here’s the onion song. It dates from Napoleon and the granny would sing it behind the kids to make you walk a bit faster and stop messing.
I’ve come away with a better understanding of the amount of work smallholders have to do to make a living. The work is hard but clearly fuelled by passion. Rod and Julie do not cut corners or sacrifice quality to price which ensures the integrity of what they produce.
Apart from learning about the life cycle of an orchard, Julie and Rod also chatted to me about Taste Kilkenny. It’s a smart enterprise by all accounts. Instead of competiting against each other, the food producers and food venues of Kilkenny have joined strength and created a strong community. This was apparent from the tour I had been given as both Julie and Rod had mentioned other local producers and how their products can all fit in together. I love the idea that someone who is essentially there to sell you something, can still take the time to recommend visiting another farm or tasting someone else’s produce. This fits in with my lefty idea of society. Together, we are stronger.
Another thing which I loved, is that through Taste Kilkenny, there is a strong farm to fork link. It is simply wonderful to see that you can go and visit HighBank Orchard of an afternoon and then go out for dinner and find their products on some of the city’s finest restaurant menus (looking at you Anoch, La Rivista, Langton’s and Rive Gauche). And this is precisely how it should be.
Julie and Rod sent me on my way with a strong recommendation to go visit Suzanna Crampton of Zwartbles , which is exactly where I went the following day. But more on that soon.