A tour across the changing culinary landscape of Ireland

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The orchard at Zwartbles. A few weeks from now, the trees would be beautifully flowered, but here they’re still waking from the winter.

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Me and the irresistible Wonky Wobbler.

The Land of Zwartbles

We left the fetching Olly’s Farm behind us as the sun arrived on the initially grey day and our rental car drove over the mountains to reach Kilkenny. An hour and a half later we neared our next destination: Zwartbles Ireland. I was about to meet the infamous Bodacious (aka The Cat Shepherd), Ovenmitt, Wonky Wobbler, Bear, Pepper, The Big Fellow, and their human, Suzanna. Suzanna breeds Zwartbles Sheep and runs the best Twitter account in the Twittersphere. Zwartbles are a breed of sheep that originated in the Netherlands but are gaining popularity in Ireland and the United Kingdom.

We drove down the road and I kept an eye out for the signature white face blaze of the otherwise black/brown sheep. We turned into a drive that matched the directions, and there they were, dotting the “so green it looked unreal” grassy hillside. I screeched out loud. After watching them on the Internet for so long, my heart lurched seeing them live and in person. These sheep are my new rock stars. Gone is Bono (my friends are laughing), replaced by a friendly herd of fuzzy grass munching cuties.

Suzanna came out to meet us, followed by Bear, a little dog with big ideas and loads of energy. And The Big Fellow, who barked for a minute, then easily joined in the fun. He continuously baited Bear by grabbing a stick and running away as Bear tried to to grab it. Two teenagers showing off for the guests, while their human scolds them. My first thought was: “ I am going to like it here!”

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The Big Fellow, top, and Bear, bottom, in between teasing each other.

In a few minutes, we ended up in Suzanna’s cozy farmhouse kitchen, complete with a large, warm Aga. She immediately offered us lunch, which was so generous of her. Especially since it was more like a three course restaurant meal of soup, lamb stew with potatoes, and rhubarb crumble – my stomach actually growled as I wrote those words. While we discussed lunch, Ovenmitt, the cat, ended up on my lap, acting as if it was simply the most likely place for him to be. I agreed.

I must confess to a dislike of lamb in general; however, in an effort to expand my palate, I dove in and was surprised to find it so tasty. Suzanna used apples, fennel, and butternut squash to create the perfect blend of flavors. I’d never had lamb with apple and it hit just the right note.

I gazed at the sheep eating grass out the kitchen window while eating stew, and again, the reality hit me: I love the sheep and here I am eating one. Yet as long as animals are treated so well, I am at peace with using them for food, as I mentioned during my Olly’s Farm post. Suzanna and Olly are both truly dedicated animal caregivers; I hope all animals one day are treated to such a life.
The potatoes rounded out the stew. She cut the potatoes, sprinkled them with caraway seed (genius), and then roasted them with oil in the Aga. Those were a huge hit as well - our friend travelling with us fell in love with the use of caraway with potatoes. He has made them three times since we returned.

Before eating, we ventured up to the orchard in search of stinging nettles for the soup. Suzanna stressed the importance of gloves during the process. They really do sting- she warned. I had no desire to find out how much! Chicken stock, peas, and nutmeg rounded out the ingredients in the robust soup. The nettles tasted earthy and are quite complex for a plant, at least to me.
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Suzanna picks nettles for lunch while Pepper keeps an eye on her.

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Up close and personal.

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Wonky Wobbler Gets a Belly Scratch

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We finished off the meal with a lovely, delicious rhubarb crumble. One of my father’s favorite things in the world is rhubarb: it grew like weeds in the garden at the side of our house. I hated the stuff as a youngster and grumbled whenever he put it in anything. Our palates change and now it reminds me of him in a comforting way. Dad turns 80 this year, and I plan on making him my first ever strawberry rhubarb pie.

Suzanna shared her vast knowledge of nutrition and farming as we delved into our meal (her background is fascinating- she should write a book!). She recommended sheep’s milk over goat or cow since people find it easier to digest. I admit to not trying it yet; however, I did search for the Velvet Cloud sheep’s milk yogurt she mentioned during the remainder of our trip with no luck. Most likely, I will find some other brand to try here.

After lunch, we officially met the sheep. Following Olly’s Farm and lunch, I thought the day could not keep being so perfect; but it did not disappoint. The sheep ran towards us, and they were so thrilling, the moment brought tears to my eyes. My love for animals has always been a significant part of my life; nonetheless, as I age, I am more present to truly beautiful experiences like thirty or so sheep baaing loudly and hurtling my way.

We rounded out the day with buying a few items from Suzanna’s new shop. I still dream of owning one of the amazing blankets, so check them out online at the Zwartbles website. And just before we departed, I realized, after mistaking another cat, Marley, for the elusive Bodacious, that The Cat Shepard himself was not going to make an appearance. He is a legend on Twitter with his own account @1CatShepard. In some ways, it made him all the more intriguing. And as we drove away, I kept looking behind me at the sheep, hoping to catch a glimpse of the shadowy cat: a fitting end to a great day.
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Suzanna, left, introduces us to some of her sheep.

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The rock stars of the sheep world!

About four months ago, I launched Irish Food Revolution and jumped into Twitter with both feet. Never one to love social media, I nonetheless gave it a go. And what fun! One of the earliest accounts I followed was @ZwartblesIE. Suzanna uses humor and plenty of videos to immortalize the animals on her farm. If you are feeling down, head over to her Twitter account and watch a few of the short Vine videos – all will be well again as a smile spreads across your face.

This past year, Suzanna hit the news around the globe with Little Dorrit – an orphaned lamb who thought she was a dog. Her antics gained Suzanna even more social media followers, and the secret was out.
Unfortunately, Little Dorrit passed away this spring before my visit; however, her legacy lives on and people have fallen in love with all the dogs, sheep, cats, and horses at Suzanna’s farm.

Please consider following her on Twitter, liking her on Facebook, and checking out her website (along with Olly’s Farm).

Thank you again to Suzanna and Olly for the best day of the trip! We all agreed that our two farm visits could not be topped. The rest of the trip was still amazing, of course- just different and we could not be more delighted with the entire experience.
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