The story behind Lettercollum

Posted on: 10th February, 2014

Category: Food & Wine

Contributor: West Cork People

Con McLoughlin and Karen Austin from Lettercollum Kitchen Project in Clonakilty gave an entertaining talk and slideshow to Clonakilty GIY last December about how the couple came to be where they are today in life and business.

After cooking together in Antwerp in Belgium in the 1970s, Con and Karen decided to move back to Ireland in 1979. The couple purchased a takeaway van and began selling vegetarian food inspired from around the world at festivals.  At the time, foods like tacos and falafals were almost unheard of in Ireland.

Eventually a group of seven people, including Con and Karen, came together to buy Lettercollum House in Timoleague, near Clonakilty. After the purchase, there was very little money left for renovations. The property was however blessed with a Victorian walled garden, which unfortunately was full of couch grass, an enemy to gardeners with its wiry, underground stems and creeping shoots. The group began the mammoth task of clearing this weed and starting some beds to organically grow vegetables.  In those days, there wasn’t as much emphasis on organic growing in Ireland as there is today. So, with the aid of a Ferguson 20 tvo tractor and plough, and advice from locals, the group grew crops of barley and potatoes on their two acres of land.

In 1985, WWOOF-ers (volunteers who work on organic farms in exchange for food and lodgings) arrived from Germany and the USA. The families at Lettercollum were growing, by now there were 11 adults and six children at Lettercollum; so, when repairs were needed such as the glass house falling down, there were plenty of hands to help rebuild it. The animal world had also expanded to include goats, ducks and pigs.

One rule at the collective was that each person had a domestic day, which involved bringing lunch and dinner to all the workers and cleaning the house. By 1985 however, the group of friends and families were finding it difficult to live communally for so long and the collective started falling apart.

There were so many potatoes, onions, cabbages, tomatoes and cucumbers grown at Lettercollum, but they were all difficult to sell; the local shops wouldn’t stock them because they were not perfect in size or shape, which they said is what consumers wanted. Some of the specialist produce was sold through the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association.

At some stage an idea to open a hostel was born; secondhand beds were bought and rooms were painted. At that time, it cost £1.50 for breakfast, £3.50 for a bed for the night and £2.50 for dinner. All meals were cooked with the vast amount of produce grown in the garden.  The guests spent money in the local village of Timoleague and word got around of the wonderful food being served up in the hostel.  When people not staying in the hostel  started asking if they could they come and eat too, the decision was taken to rebrand the vegetarian hostel and Lettercollum House restaurant opened.

In 1988, Seamus O’Connell, a well-known chef today,  joined the team in the kitchen for three years. The menu revolved around what was grown in the garden. As the restaurant grew, baby vegetables, salads and herbs were offered on the menu. Each day, the chefs walked around the walled garden to plan the menus. Eggs, pork, jams and breads were all home grown or made.

Con recalled the author Pete McCarthy’s frequent visits to Lettercollum, where a lot of his book ‘McCarthy’s Bar’ was written. McCarthy also writes about Lettercollum house in the book.  Amazingly, 72 people stayed at one time in Lettercollum House!

By 1989, lots of people had left the collective and Con and Karen considered selling. Unable to make a decision, they got a feasibility study done on Lettercollum House. It was a huge and expensive house to live in, so they converted the stables to live in and moved out of the big house, spending about €200 on labour and doing most of the work themselves. Eventually the time came to sell the big house but the walled garden was kept to farm in and the stables as living quarters.

In 2004, Con and Karen opened their latest venture — the Lettercollum kitchen Project at 22 Connolly Street in Clonakilty. This led to a rethink about the way produce was grown in the garden; WWOOFers were brought on board again to work in the garden, and produce that could be used in the shop, such as spinach, courgettes, leeks and tomatoes to name a few, were grown. Lettercollum Kitchen Project also  offers a variety of healthy cooking classes, including Thai, Fish, Vegetarian, Italian, Gluten Free and Bread Making — these are held in Con and Karen’s own kitchen using produce from the garden.  Cooking for Health holidays to France and Spain are also on offer, please see www.lettercollum.ie for more details

A selection of breads, croissants, cakes, sweet and savoury tarts are sold in the shop. There is also a range of gluten free tarts, cakes, burgers and bread and the soup is always gluten free.

Con, explained that their winning formula “is doing things as good as you can”. He also said “there is too much bad food out there”.  Other products in the shop are organic flours, Chinese and Thai products for cooking, jams and chutneys to name a few.

Con is also a Nutritional therapist and available for consultations by calling 087 9009079.

The next GIY meeting will take place at O’Donovans Hotel in Clonakilty on Monday, February 10 at 8pm. The guest speaker is Anthony Creswell from Ummera Smoked products of Timoleague talking about Worm Beds. There will also be a general question and answer session about fruit and vegetable growing and if you have any spare seeds you could give away or swap with others please bring those along too. Feel free to email clonakiltygiy@gmail.com to be added to the mailing list or for any general information. A world of information about all things green can be found at www.giyinternational.org.

 

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