“There are old mushroom hunters, there are bold mushroom hunters, but there are no old, bold mushroom hunters,” our expert guide for the day, Bill O’Dea, half-jokingly told us. I was part of a group gathered at Kinnitty Castle in County Offaly for an afternoon of mushroom foraging, but not before a few facts* were impressed upon us. (Did you know that more people die from mushroom hunting than extreme sports in Europe? Or that some of the most expensive food in the world are mushrooms (think truffles and morels)?) Some of the mushrooms we were hoping to find were ones with pretty names like wood blewit, parasol, penny bun or honey fungus. Poisonous ones we were a little afraid to even touch after Bill’s talk, and with names that would put you off if nothing else, are death cap, destroying angel, sulphur tuft and false chanterelle.
But before the talk and our forage in the woods, we were welcomed into the Library Bar after the long drive down for tea and biscuits, because no adventure could get off to a good start in Ireland without a cuppa first.
After lunch in the castle’s Slí Dála restaurant, we broke into two groups, with my group (including Aoife, Donal and Nessa) heading up into the mountains behind the castle, while the other group headed into the woods closer to the road. After a few hours of tramping around and trying to train our eyes to spot the mushrooms camouflaged amongst the fallen leaves on the forest floor, the rain eventually got the better of us and we headed back to let Bill identify what we’d found.
One of the nicest things about Kinnitty Castle is the extra effort and little touches — like stacks of towels and slippers waiting for you inside the front door once you’ve come in out of the rain and shed your wellies…
…and a roaring fire blazing in the library, where hot whiskeys and hot port were being served to take the chill off.
When everyone was back and had warmed up again, Bill talked us through our finds.
Of the 50 different types of mushrooms we’d found, about five were edible, which the kitchen cooked simply with some butter and tarragon. What I hadn’t realised before Bill’s talk was that poisonous mushrooms aren’t just poisonous, they’re actually lethal, with no known antidotes — it seems downright medieval in this day and age.
Our dinner, prepared by executive chef Anthony Holland, was an eight-course feast featuring seasonal, locally sourced ingredients with five matching wines that needed 12 pieces of silverware to eat it all: mushroom and spinach roulade, butternut squash soup with rosemary and sea salt focaccia, baked rabbit loin wrapped in puff pastry, Boulabán Farm apple cider sorbet, seared supreme of halibut, Slieve Bloom venison loin, warm apple and blackberry filo parcel and a local cheese board with port to finish.
The next morning, despite the mist that had settled in, I went exploring around outside a little. Like something out of a fairytale, this thatched cottage is behind the castle, at the foot of the Slieve Bloom Mountains and with a Celtic ring of stones in the foreground (the castle is located on ancient druid ceremonial ground). You half expect Snow White to be singing in the woods nearby somewhere.
An original gate still stands, though these days it leads into a new courtyard and banqueting hall. There has been a castle on this site for hundreds of years (all the way back to the 4th century) as well as an Augustinian abbey, and in fact the castle is said to be haunted by a monk named Hugh, which I’d inadvertently read about before my trip. I’ll be fine! I kept telling myself on the two-hour drive through the rain with a broken car stereo, alone with my overactive imagination. I’ll just sleep with the light on. As it happened, the only thing that went bump in the night were the people eventually going to bed at 5 a.m. after the Irish trad music session in the castle’s Dungeon Bar.
I’m always cold at the best of times and, expecting to be downright freezing in an old castle, I’d packed four pairs of thick socks for my overnight stay. But the rooms were toasty and very comfortable, from the rich heritage colours they’re painted to the spa-worthy toiletries in the bathroom to the crisp white duvet covers on the bed and the plate of fruit on the table, not to mention the big claw foot bathtubs in most of the en suites. There is lots on offer at the castle itself, including horse riding, clay pigeon shooting, tennis or just an easy looped walk on the castle’s extensive grounds, which cover 650 acres.
From the atmospheric castle and grounds to the good food to the friendly staff, it’s easy to see why Kinnitty Castle Hotel is a popular wedding venue as well as a place to get away from it all for a weekend — which I certainly felt lucky to be able to do.
*Bill emphasised again and again to us that you should never, ever eat a wild mushroom unless it’s been identified as safe and edible by an expert.