Darina Allen: Simply Delicious

Darina Allen offers advice to one of her students.

By Sharon Ní Chonchúir,Contributor
December / January 2008

Irish chef, TV personality and founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School, Darina Allen’s enthusiasm for food has brought the Allen family to prominence and made her a true celebrity in Ireland. But it all started with her mother-in-law, Myrtle.

Irish cuisine… Now there’s a thought.  But is it an appetizing one?  Traditionally, it conjures an image of the once ubiquitous bacon and cabbage, served with the requisite bowl of boiled potatoes.

You are bound to have encountered such unimaginative fare on previous trips to Ireland.  After all, it’s renowned as a country that has little or no food culture of its own.
Until now, that is. In recent years, the Irish attitude to food and cooking has begun to change.  And much of this is due to the passion and commitment of one particular family.

The Allen family of Ballymaloe House and Cookery School in East Cork have almost single-handedly revolutionized the food culture of Ireland. Myrtle, its 80-year-old matriarch, has been its driving force.

To this day, Myrtle supervises the running of her renowned guesthouse and restaurant, from where she has reshaped the values of Irish cooking.  She is helped by her six children and their partners, one of whom is Darina Allen, her formidable daughter-in-law who runs an internationally-acclaimed cookery school in which she teaches the values she learned from Myrtle to the world.

Myrtle and Darina make quite a team. Both are impassioned advocates of Irish cooking and food. “I love a good Irish stew,” says Myrtle, with gusto. “Then there’s brown yeast bread, an Irish breakfast, good floury potatoes, apple tarts… All of these are good things.”

Darina is just as keen to suggest some favorites of her own. “I’m so fickle and it all depends on the season,” she says. “I love the first rhubarb tart of the year, fresh strawberries in the summer, fresh mackerel, damson jam and of course Irish stew with young lamb, floury potatoes, new season carrots and onions.  What could be better?”

Indeed it’s this enthusiasm for food that has brought the Allen family to prominence.  What started with Myrtle has been passed down to Darina and others in the family.  It has resulted in several generations of the Allen family working on a national – and sometimes international – scale to promote Irish food and to revitalize the food culture of Ireland both at home and abroad.

It all began when Myrtle and her husband Ivan bought Ballymaloe House and Farm in 1947. At that stage, the now charming property which retains such architectural features as a 15th-century Norman tower and is surrounded by carefully tended farmland, was suffering from years of neglect.

“We wanted to farm and that’s what we started to do,” says Myrtle. While Ivan was busy farming the land, Myrtle was preoccupied with looking after the couple’s growing family – a task that included cooking.

“I’ve always cooked,” she says. “If you can’t cook, you can’t eat.  The food on my table has always been the food of the farm, based on the local produce and what we could grow ourselves.”

Through a combination of talent and trial and inevitable error, Myrtle became a good cook.  She began to establish a reputation for it and was eventually encouraged to set up what would become a world-famous restaurant in her home.

She is modest about this achievement. She claims that she would never have become a cook had there not been an element of necessity – “we needed the extra money” – and credits the success of her dishes with the quality of her ingredients.

“I had such good raw materials, what with my husband growing such marvelous produce on the farm,” she says.  “And I also had a gourmet husband who appreciated good food. That encouraged me to improve my cooking.”

Improve it did, and more and more people began to frequent her restaurant.  This attracted the attention of The Irish Farmers’ Journal, a weekly newspaper that had a wide readership at the time.

“They asked me to write a weekly column and it was this that really crystallized my attitude to food,” Myrtle recalls. The task kept her busy testing recipes and led to her defining her personal food philosophy.

“My attitude to food comes from living in the countryside,” she explains. “I was the first person [in Ireland] to write about cooking on a farm using seasonal ingredients. Whether it’s blackcurrants, rhubarb or carrots; there’s always a glut of something that needs to be used in the countryside.”

Myrtle was several decades ahead of her time.  Her seasonal approach had always been a tradition in the countryside but 1950s Ireland had already been seduced by the concept of processed, year-round ingredients.  It’s a trend that has only really begun to reverse in recent years – long after Myrtle first suggested it.

She was also pioneering in other ways. She and her husband Ivan ran their farm in an organic fashion and were members of the English Soil Association from the outset.

“It was something we both believed in,” she says.

What with her newspaper column, her popular restaurant and several best-selling cookbooks, Myrtle Allen was beginning to make an impact on Irish eating habits. However, perhaps her most enduring legacy was to be the effect she had on members of her own family.

“I’ve got six children and they all grew up around food,” she says. “Today, all of them and their partners work with food.”

The most famous of these partners is Darina, known to many Americans from her regular appearances on TV food programs. Darina’s first foray into the world of professional food production came in Myrtle’s kitchens in Ballymaloe.

As a young chef who had been raised on a farm, she wanted to cook in a traditional way that prioritized seasonal and local food. When she married Tim Allen, she found in Myrtle a culinary mentor.

“She was somebody whose philosophy I could immediately identify with,” remembers Darina.  “She was serving parsnips, turnips, carrageen moss and tender spears of rhubarb at a time when they would have been considered far too humble for most restaurant menus. The confidence she had in her own local produce, used in season at its best, was an inspiration.”

The pair worked together in the restaurant at Ballymaloe House, where they continued to convert diners to the potential of Irish food. Darina, like her mother-in-law, fervently believed in the quality of Irish produce and she started to attract a following of her own.

She was asked to present cookery shows on RTE (Ireland’s main television channel), began publishing cookery books and was soon traveling the world spreading the good news about Irish food. Her international excursions included planning the menu for the New York St. Patrick’s Day Ball and giving cookery demonstrations in Macy’s.

She also found the time to start up her own cookery school – with her mother-in-law’s help of course. “We started out in 1983, teaching afternoon classes to about nine students,” recalls Darina. “I’m glad we started small because it gave us the chance to find out what we really wanted to do with the school.”

And what she created was something truly unique – a school that attracts students and chefs from all over the globe who come to cook using produce from the surrounding farm and the local food-producing community: fruit, vegetables, herbs, eggs, home-cured hams, beef, lamb, artisan cheeses and much more.

“I think what makes us so special is that we are a cookery school in the middle of an organic farm,” says Darina. “Most of what we use is our own produce or locally sourced. Our students regain a sense of connection to their food. They can help out in the garden, feed the hens, milk the cows, butcher the animals – it all adds an extra dimension.”

As well as reintroducing students to the source of their food, Darina also aims to teach them the importance of using top-quality ingredients. “That’s the main thing I want them to learn,” she insists. “Shopping (or sourcing your ingredients) is the most vital step of all. If you’ve got fresh, natural, local and seasonal food, all you need to do is cook it simply and it will taste wonderful. If you don’t have that, you’ll need to be a magician to make it taste good.”

This is an attitude Darina has also brought to bear on her cooking programs and in her cookbooks – which go under the title of Simply Delicious.  Simple food that is also delicious – there couldn’t be a more apt description.

Darina and Myrtle may have spearheaded the revolution in Irish cuisine but many more have followed.  This is a development that gives them cause for hope for the future.
“We have the climate and resources to grow the best food in the world,” says Darina, adamantly.  “We have wonderful soil and plenty of rain. We should try to produce real food that delivers on its promise of taste.  We have it and we should flaunt it.”

Darina is prepared to go even further than that. She admits that Irish cuisine may not be internationally respected but thinks this situation is unfair.  Instead, she maintains that Irish cooking may rank with the best in the world.

“So many people think we have no culinary tradition worth talking about,” she says.  “But there is far more to it than bacon and cabbage and Irish stew.”  She goes on to cite from a seemingly endless list of examples – countless potato dishes with infinite regional varieties, an encyclopedic range of breads and cakes, vegetable dishes – what she describes as “the sort of wholesome, comforting dishes that nourished our ancestors for generations and are just as delicious today.”

The Allen family believes wholeheartedly in the value and potential of Irish food. Darina and Myrtle have inspired the third generation in their family to follow in their culinary footsteps. Darina’s daughter-in-law Rachel is the latest Allen to have a cooking show of her own and unsurprisingly, she too promotes the use of locally sourced fresh food cooked simply and deliciously.

This is the sort of food that has always been served in Ballymaloe House and these are the sorts of dishes you can learn how to cook in the Ballymaloe Cookery School.  Over the years, many famous visitors have savored the taste of such delicacies. Hugh Grant, Liz Hurley, Jude Law, Sienna Miller and Lady Sarah Ferguson are just some of the celebrities who have sampled the fare.

Both Myrtle and Darina remain committed to the cause.  Myrtle continues to supervise the kitchens and the guesthouse.  “I need to be here just in case something happens,” this sprightly 80-year-old says.  Meanwhile Darina is kept busy running the cookery school.

Both are actively involved with small food producers, groups and organizations that promote the use of high-quality ingredients. Together, they continue a mission that started 60 years ago – a mission to bring the best Irish food and traditional Irish recipes to a wider and more appreciative audience.

So, have you rethought your idea of Irish cuisine?  You may still find bacon and cabbage on many menus but these days, it’s more likely to be home-cured bacon accompanied by locally grown cabbage, a tasty parsley sauce and the flouriest of organic potatoes.  And it’ll be up against the likes of mutton pies, freshly grilled mackerel and homemade scones with damson jam and cream.

You can thank Myrtle and Darina Allen and the many generations of cooks that went before them for such simple deliciousness.

For more information about the cookery school (where courses are held throughout the year and where afternoon demonstrations are held most days), visit www.cookingisfun.ie

For more information about Ballymaloe House (restaurant and guesthouse), visit www.ballymaloe.ie

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