Name: Ardtara Country House Hotel
Location: 8 Gorteade Road, Upperlands, BT46 5SA
Late August, given heavy rain and sun
For a full week, the blackberries would ripen.
At first, just one, a glossy purple clot
Among others, red, green, hard as a knot.
You ate that first one and its flesh was sweet
Like thickened wine: summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue and lust for
(Blackberry-Picking, Seamus Heaney)
Heading towards the heartland of mid-Ulster where Seamus Heaney lived, Robert and I couldn’t help but reminisce about our English literature classes at school. I loved studying Heaney’s poetry and how the he used his everyday countrified experiences to explore topics close to his heart. So we thought it only appropriate, given our love for all things food, that we start our review with his famous poem, Blackberry Picking.
Our drive through the country roads of Upperlands to Ardtara Country House was pretty, despite it being a bit of a gloomy day. Not knowing the area, it took us about an hour to get there from Belfast but we enjoyed weaving through the country roads catching up on our week. We wouldn’t normally venture in this direction but we were excited to see what Ardtara had to offer. The hotel has received so many awards, for example in 2015 it was voted Best Hotel Restaurant in Northern Ireland in the Irish Restaurant Awards. The hotel has also been endorsed by National Geographic, the AA, Ireland’s Blue Book and the Restaurant Association. More recently the place has been taken over by the award-winning restaurateurs Browns of Derry, so needless to say our expectations were heightened.
Ardtara is a beautiful country house inside and out. From the minute you walk into the house you feel like you are at home (though a grander version of it)! The original fireplaces, baby grand piano, worn patterned rugs and small parlour bar made this hotel seem like a real hidden gem. Our warm friendly welcome from Leah and Val also really enhanced our experience at Ardtara.
The afternoon tea was really delightful as we sat in the pretty conservatory overlooking the garden. Our first course was my favourite – we had parsnip and honey soup, goats cheese gougeres and ham hock terrine with orange puree. The soup was so light and frothy I would come back just for that alone! Next up was our sandwiches which included smoked salmon on homemade Guinness bread (our favourite), egg mayonnaise, chicken with mustard mayonnaise as well as ham (from the local butcher, Crawfords) and cheese.
Our final course was a wonderful selection of sweet treats including homemade scones, passionfruit donuts, chocolate fondant bites, lemon drizzle cake and panna cotta with a balsamic gel. The panna cotta was beautiful, though truth be told I would have preferred some sort of fruit jelly on the top! We had several top-ups of tea which I loved as I am the ultimate tea addict!
Before we left we were offered a tour of the hotel. The recently redecorated rooms were still in keeping with the overall era of the property.
Although, we did note some nice mod cons like the coffee making facilities and power showers – next time we visit we will have to stay! We won afternoon tea at Ardtara Country House as part of a Twitter competition on Food NI Hour – we always love the foodie chat on Monday nights from 9/10pm so if you are free you should check it out.
Best bits: Service was exceptional – attentive and friendly. Love the kitchen garden and the focus on local produce.
Worst bits: More could be made of the gardens as the views from the conservatory could be a bit more interesting.
Opening hours: Wednesday – Sunday (please enquire with the hotel directly as these hours may change)
Instagram: Ardtara Country House
Rating: 4.5 out 5
Cuisine: Traditional Irish
Food hygiene rating: 4 out of 5 (Oct 2016)
Price/Special offers(£ – £££££): *We won the afternoon tea as a prize on @FoodNIHour, otherwise £££