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Billy and Ging welcome you to Geel, Belgium

Dream of escaping to the countryside and a simpler home-grown style of life? Test-drive your dream on the Quinn’s smallholding in Geel, where you can learn a skill, meet some animals, and eat locally produced food.

We love living in the city centre. The hustle and bustle keeps us energized. But we both grew up with plenty of space around us, and sometimes it’s nice to escape back to country. Last weekend we were able to do exactly that, thanks to Debbie and Stuart Quinn and their lovely smallholding in Geel, Belgium.

I first discovered Debbie and her farm via Bookalokal, back in the spring. She was running a goat cheese making workshop which I sadly wasn’t able to attend. Due to our busy summer schedule, we’ve had to pass up Debbie’s countless fascinating workshops: soap making, sewing, sausage making, even an edible walk.

Finally, after yet another scheduling conflict, we were able to organize a visit, and Debbie and Stu welcomed us into their home for a weekend of mincemeat and chutney making, great food, hilarious conversation and lots of time with their furry friends.

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Getaway from it all at the Quinn’s smallholding in Geel

In addition to being warm and friendly hosts, the Quinns are just plain interesting people. They’ve been living at their current smallholding for over three years, but have been expats (originally from the UK) for more than twenty years.

With absolutely no farming background, Debbie and Stu decided to turn their backs on the rat-race. Debbie left her high-stress job managing a team of social workers, they packed up their house in the Netherlands, and moved to rural Flanders.

Debbie has moved from pushing papers at a desk, to milking her goat, feeding her collection of critters, and making as much of her own food as possible. In fact her goal is to not have to set foot in a supermarket and she’s pretty close to self-sufficient.

Debbie’s enthusiasm for her new life is infectious. Scattered about the house are books on all of the things she wants to do – from making her own beer, to curing the hams from her wooly Mangalitza pigs. But unlike most of us, who only buy the books and dream, Debbie is actually living her own personal bucket list.

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A few things on Debbie’s personal bucket list: curing hams, making honey and raising rabbits.

The goal of Debbie’s workshops is to rekindle interest in skills that are rapidly disappearing from our society today. That’s how Andrew and I ended up elbow deep in mincemeat and chutney – and we loved every minute of it.

While my Mom and Grandparents made preserves and pickles, when I was growing up, it wasn’t something I ever tried for myself. With our current tiny kitchen, it’s not practical for us to attempt it at home (although I’m now seriously considering being impractical). Taking part in Debbie’s workshops gave us the skills, and space, to make our own holiday goodies from scratch.

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Getting busy at Debbie’s mincemeat making workshop

Along with the other participants, we made quite a big mess, laughed a lot, and enjoyed Debbie’s casual and relaxed style of teaching. If you are after rigid classroom-style instruction, this probably isn’t the place for you. If, like us, you prefer to get your hands in and get messy, while having a good laugh, get yourself to Geel!

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Making chutney with Debbie

And while we’re sure our attempts are not quite as good as Debbie’s, Andrew and I came home with two jars of mincemeat and three jars of picallili, a spicy, vegetable chutney.

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Our mincemeat doesn’t look half bad…

As we were staying for the weekend, we also got to feast on Debbie and Stu’s incredible home-grown food. While we toiled in Debbie’s workshop, Stu whipped up an incredible feast for dinner.

We started with a spicy pumpkin soup, followed by fresh pasta with an amazing ragu of the Quinn’s meats, and wrapped it all up with a pear, poached in wine, and topped with Debbie’s goat-milk ice-cream. Heaven! [If you’d like to try a similar meal, you can book a 3-course dinner via Bookalokal for €40]

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Our 3-course meal with Debbie’s bonus profiterols

Even though I had to miss out on the goat-cheese workshop (for now) Debbie didn’t let me miss out on her cheese. Our lunch was a veritable feast of fresh, incredible goat’s cheeses. It’s no wonder Debbie has neighbours turning up at all hours on the prowl for cheese!

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Heaven on a plate – a selection of Debbie’s goat cheeses

Of course, beside the amazing food, my highlight was spending time with Debbie and Stu’s flock of unique animals.

It all began with official greeter dogs Gina and Dolly (an enormous Irish Wolfhound lapdog).

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Meeting the doggies – Gina and Dolly.

In the field, we visited with the rabbits, ducks, turkeys and goats. Debbie has one lovely milk goat, named Ging, and a rather amorous Billy goat.

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Billy and Ging – Debbie’s gorgeous milk goats

Then there are the woolly pigs – I really tried to run off with one of the red-haired piglets, but they noticed her under my jacket.

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She was almost mine!

Right behind the house are a pair of rams (handy for lawn mowing duties) and more ducks and chickens. I almost made it home with an adorable (slightly confused) duckling that was being raised with some baby chicks, but alas, I was busted again.

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Chickens and a slightly confused duckling

If you fancy learning how to do some work with your hands, Debbie holds workshops most weekends. You can find the schedule on her aptly named Facebook Page – Love and Living the Good Life. Prices vary depending on the workshop you choose.

If you want a full-weekend getaway, like ours, Debbie also offers basic B&B rooms, with a shared bathroom, in her house. The weekend package we tested cost €135 and included all of our meals and the two workshops.

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Our cosy room in Debbie and Stu’s home

Our weekend away from the city restored us in ways I didn’t even know needed restoring. We learned a couple of forgotten skills, made some friends, got our furry critter fix, and enjoyed a more down-to-earth style of life.

We won’t be chucking our city life and buying a farm anytime soon, but we will definitely be back on the Quinn’s smallholding in the very near future. We hope to see you there!

We would like to thank Debbie and Stuart for hosting our fantastic weekend. Although we were their guests for the duration, as always, we were free to express our own opinions.