Restaurant Profile Summer 2018: Blackwell House, Scarva
Joyce Brownless, owner of the five-star luxury guest house with her husband Steve, shares her passion for cooking, local produce & warm Irish hospitality with Alyson Magee
WHEN DID BLACKWELL HOUSE OPEN?
We opened about three and a half years ago. Neither my husband nor I had any experience in the hospitality industry or food trade before that. I qualified as a home economist, working for Sharp Electronics and then Vodafone as head of talent and development in London. But I always said I was an executive working in London, when I really should have been making jam or shortbread or something.
My husband and I are total foodies, and live and breathe food. We love food and finding producers. We’d go on holiday and go to markets, cookery courses and eat in different restaurants, and always fancied working in the food or hospitality industry.
We’d been to South Africa on holiday a couple of times and they have lodges which are just unbelievable, these boutique guest houses, and that really gave us the idea we would want to do something similar. So, about six years ago, we found this house and it took me two years living under dustsheets with builders to renovate it and get it to a situation where we could actually open Blackwell House and it has just gone so well for us.
Within three months, we were accredited five-star and we’ve won various awards ever since and really love it. We just wish we’d done everything earlier. It’s like a second career.
WHAT INSPIRED YOUR INTEREST IN COOKING?
I’ve been totally interested in food and cooking all my life, and come from a family where my mother, aunts and grandmother were all great cooks and bread makers. I have the most wonderful cookery books including one of my Great Aunt Maggie’s, which is over 100 years old.
Just before I opened, I was feeling a bit nervous because I’m not chef trained and it suddenly hit home that people were going to be buying my food and, much as I’d entertained all my life and cooked for large numbers, it was suddenly ‘oh my goodness’. I was in London at a dinner with Raymond Blanc sitting beside me, and eventually I sheepishly told him I was opening a small business. He was so humble and helpful and said he would like to send over his head chef to work with me for a few days before I opened and he did.
And I have some of those recipes I still cook with from those few days but, more than the recipes and cooking, it was the confidence he gave me, and the understanding that you create your own food identity as a restaurateur and cook from the heart.
WHAT GUEST ACCOMMODATION DO YOU OFFER?
Four rooms – three double rooms with super king beds and one single room but, by next summer season, we’ll have seven rooms. The building that is now the garage, we’re going to turn it into a kind of a cottage with two huge rooms downstairs and one massive room upstairs.
TELL US ABOUT THE DINING SPACE YOU HAVE
We have two dining areas and two additional seating areas. For afternoon tea, we can seat 18-20 around one table or 25-30 using the whole space.
For evening meals, it would again be 18-20 round the one big table but, if it’s canapés, up to 50 with the whole house open including the kitchen.
WHAT FEEL ARE YOU AIMING FOR?
It’s probably quite an eclectic mix of old and new. I’ve had furniture made by a guy down in Newry in this industrial look. I think we’ve managed to mix industrial with antiques and contemporary pieces, and marry the whole lot together.
In my job, I travelled a lot globally so I know what it’s like as a business guest staying away, and try to have all of the things I wish I had had. What we want to create more than anything is a very relaxed, chilled-out atmosphere both for staying and also for people dining.
We sometimes put a table down in the Garden Room for a totally private experience or, when we have various guests from different countries arrive in the summer, we put them all at the one big table so everyone dines together and you end up with fantastic conversations; of course, we only do that with their permission.
WHAT’S ON YOUR BREAKFAST MENU?
My breakfast menu is a mixture of traditional and more fashionable foods. We have the traditional Ulster cooked breakfast with all the homemade breads that make the big difference to that breakfast – soda and potato bread. I cook my own breads on my Great Aunt Maggie’s griddle and often, when I’ve guests staying from overseas, I bring the griddle out and show it to them and explain how the breads are made.
I also do things like crushed avocado with chilli flakes, black pepper and poached egg. We’re lucky enough to have our own hens here so our eggs are absolutely fantastic.
Pancakes are a big favourite, which I make fresh on the griddle and often I ask the guests if they’d like to come in and make their own pancakes. I have an Aga stove and can’t tell you how many photo opportunities there have been with guests making their pancakes to have with bacon and maple syrup or fresh fruits and crème fraiche.
Omelettes would be a big favourite for international guests, or scrambled eggs with smoked salmon.
WHAT’S ON YOUR EVENING MENU?
Before guests arrive, I find out if they have any food intolerances, allergies or major food dislikes and can create a menu on the night to suit the guest. Of course, we have some specials that seem to appear again and again like a slow-cooked blade of beef, using beef from Limousin cattle supplied by Quail’s in Banbridge. It’s a shoulder cut with a gelatinus piece that runs through the centre of the cut and, when you slow cook it, it keeps the meat beautifully moist. I let it marinate in a reduced red wine mix with star anise, juniper berries, orange peel, garlic and bay leaves until it falls apart.
One of the dishes I cooked with Raymond Blanc’s chef was confit duck legs and, again, that is a firm favourite. I often serve it as a starter with a lovely sweet chilli sauce with a nice kick to it; fresh coriander, ginger, spring onions and the base made with white wine vinegar and sugar.
We have a very select menu with a choice of three starters, three main courses, a dessert and always cheeses from Ireland.
For private events, I literally create a dinner party and the guest is able to have input. If they have a favourite, I’ll try to accommodate them.
WHAT ABOUT YOUR AFTERNOON TEAS?
Afternoon teas are becoming so popular. We have quite a lot of groups of ladies who come along and spend the afternoon totally relaxed in their own private space.
We do an amuse-bouche starter, usually a little shot glass of soup, and then savoury bites, for example little blinis with smoked salmon pate and tiny blue cheese and pear quiches. All the little bites and nibbles are teensy, because I found when I went for afternoon tea, you want to taste everything but it’s almost impossible because it’s all carbohydrates and you fill up quite quickly.
Then there are the sweet bites, and we’ve mini chocolate eclairs, chocolate strawberry and orange cupcakes, candy striped meringues and my all-time favourite is mini apple creams; they’re so simple and old fashioned. Then you have a dessert such as lemon posset but it all might change.
It really is a true luxury afternoon tea with starters, savouries and scones made from my mother’s recipes; everybody says they’re the lightest scone you’ve ever tasted and they’re only put into the oven when the guests arrive. I make my own homemade jam, with the two favourites raspberry and rhubarb & ginger. I’m probably going to sell my jams because everyone keeps asking.
We’ve done christenings where it’s all canapés, which went down really well. One of the favourites is a little spoon with some of our beautiful champ, fantastic sausage from Quails and caramelised onion.
DOES YOUR MENU CHANGE OFTEN?
We’re heading to Tuscany and I have cookery courses booked; making gelato ice cream, pasta making and pizza making. Being able to do that keeps you fresh in your thinking and you come home inspired with new ideas. My menu changes every night, depending on the food available and what I want to cook, so it’s not static at all.
WHO ARE YOUR CUSTOMERS?
Our guests are mostly international, and that’s a mixture of business guests and holidaymakers. While my customer base for afternoon teas would be from Northern Ireland.
For private events, we’ve had birthday parties, christening and engagement parties, baby showers and also corporate entertaining, which offers a more authentic experience of Northern Ireland because you are staying in a country home and not a hotel.
The other thing we’ve been asked about but haven’t done yet is small weddings. The normal Northern Ireland wedding is 200 people but of course there are people who just want a small intimate wedding so it is something we’re looking into, especially when we expand and have more rooms.
33 Mullabrack Road, Scarva
TEL: 028 38832752
Opening hours: Breakfast & dinners for guests & private bookings only, while Afternoon Tea is on Saturdays only and open to public booking.
If you’ve enjoyed this article and currently don’t subscribe to Hospitality Review NI, please contact us or fill in our online subscription form