"The poorest man in Ireland knows what good potatoes and butter are," Peter Ward told me last spring at Country Choice, his café and market in Nenagh, midway between Dublin and Kerry in County Tipperary. "They're here for everybody." Ward, a big, friendly man who could have succeeded as a busker, speaks memorably about his mission to save and serve great farmhouse food—and, as an admiring friend told me before I visited, "he doesn't draw breath."
Country Choice is a "railroad car of a shop," as Ward says, behind an unassuming façade in a small town of extreme charm that somehow manages to skirt self-consciousness. The restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch, and tea every day except Sunday, is a generous room up a few stairs at the back. There I learned about a potato dish with the appealing name of champ.
Nenagh was once the site of an important cattle market, and is still an important crossroads. ("It's hard to describe the Irish relationship with the cow," Ward says. "It's not unlike the Masai.") The town's dairy business remains strong: a large cooperative behind the shop produces butter for export to Europe. Farmhouse cheese has joined smoked salmon as Ireland's calling card in the world of gastronomy, and Ward ages the selections he brings home from his visits to cheese makers. The morning I visited, a Country Choice worker had gone to the bus stop to retrieve a round of Cashel blue, a mild but authoritative cow's-milk cheese. Jane and Louis Grubb, the Tipperary farmers who created Cashel blue, had entrusted the cheese to the bus driver, who knew both them and Ward. ("Food production in Ireland survives on friendship.")
Ward, who grew up on a farm in County Meath, opened his shop in 1982 after marrying Mary D'Arcy, who had grown up on a Nenagh farm. He began going to agricultural shows and calling on local farmers and cooks, and advertised in local papers saying that he would happily buy excess fruit, vegetables, and eggs. A welcome source was the kitchens and gardens of the Palladian villas around Lough Derg, a lake formed by the River Shannon that draws many tourists; two centuries ago the second sons of Anglo-Irish families with large inland estates built the houses, which are now largely the retreats of merchant princes. Peter began selling chutneys (a legacy of the Raj), from the great kitchens' annual production, and Mary began putting up jams and jellies with the "buckets and buckets" of damson plums, gooseberries, and other fruit gardeners brought by. Now she makes 15,000 jars a year.
The buckets of berries, and dripping crates of lettuce, and sacks of potatoes all arrive through the front door. Ward encourages what he calls the French practice of buying from the top of the counter and the supplies meant for the kitchen rather than from the glass case and the shelves. When I visited, customers were vying for the season's first fat asparagus. ("With our eggs and our butter they can make the mother and father of all Hollandaises.")
As we spoke, I was finishing a second helping of rhubarb crumble, made with rhubarb Ward had brought in that morning from his garden at the stone millhouse he shares with Mary, their three children, and five dogs. The crumble was a great example of its form (no oatmeal or nuts or trick ingredients in the crisp topping), but the real reason I had to have seconds was the cream on top—unwhipped and unclotted but still so thick you could faint from it. This was after a vegetable soup with a strong homemade chicken stock as its base and carrots, leeks, onions, and potatoes from local farms (I had a second helping of soup, too).