By Lisa Gosselin, March/April 2008
For Allen, the “garden” can mean her family’s 400-acre estate, hotel, “cookery school” (as the Irish call it) and rolling green farmland outside of Cork. It can mean the formal rectangles of gardens hidden behind ancient hedges, some 20 feet high, where globe artichokes, fennel, rosemary and lettuces are arranged as neatly and beautifully as tulips and daffodils. It can mean the greenhouses lined with fragrant sweet peas and delicate baby arugula or the pots full of lavender, basil, rosemary and other herbs that grow near stucco walls covered in climbing roses. But in this case, Darina Allen means a small two-foot-by-ten-foot plot of earth where students are digging. It’s where the cooking lessons at Ballymaloe’s 12-week program start.
“If you teach people to grow their own food, they appreciate it more,” Allen explains matter-of-factly as she tucks a lock of blond hair behind one ear and peers at some speckled eggs in the incubator she uses to teach students to raise chickens. “They start to understand the value of eating seasonally, eating locally and organically. I try to explain that if you pick food at the right time, it should taste perfect—it shouldn’t need a lot of other flavors.”
It is spring in Ireland and for lunch the 35 or so students are preparing soups and salads with not just what’s in the garden but what some might call weeds: nettles and dandelions. There’s also a roast duck (the subject of today’s cooking demonstration), an asparagus soup with lemon zest and lovely gooseberry and rhubarb tarts. Blue-checked tablecloths cover the outdoor tables where family-style meals are served on large platters and in big bowls. Not a speck of food is wasted—in an afternoon cooking demonstration, leftover gravy from the duck becomes the base of soup. All other scraps are composted or fed to the livestock.
The food that is coming from Ballymaloe might seem a long way from the corned beef and boiled cabbage we traditionally associate with Irish cooking, but thanks to the Allens, and a rocketing economy, the Emerald Isle’s new cuisine has prompted the creation of a number of world-class restaurants and hotels. “Our country had to live without ample food for so long, we learned to appreciate it and where it comes from all the more,” explains Darina Allen, referring to the potato famine that decimated Ireland’s population in the mid-19th century.
It hasn’t been this way for long. In 1948, when Myrtle Allen and her husband, Ivan, a Quaker fruit farmer, bought Ballymaloe at an auction, the country was still largely on a meat-and-potatoes diet. “It was hard to find really good fresh food in markets,” Myrtle explains, “and my husband was a farmer and gourmet so we began growing our food and preparing it ourselves or buying directly from other farmers.” To help pay the bills, the Allens began serving dinner to guests, then putting them up overnight, and the hotel was born.
Myrtle Allen managed to grow the farm and her family of six children at the same time. One son, Tim, a farmer, married one of the chefs, Darina. Together, along with Darina’s brother Rory O’Connell, they run the 25-year-old cooking school. Another Allen son, also named Rory, manages the estate and plays traditional Irish music in the elegant sitting room in the evening. Granddaughter Lydia brings pickled vegetables and marmalades to the local farmers’ market the family helped to start in 1996. Grandson Cullen launched Cully and Sully, one of Great Britain’s leading manufacturers of prepared, locally sourced meals. Another grandson, Darren, is making boilers that use woodchips as an alternative fuel source. Perhaps the best-known member of the family is Darina’s daughter-in-law Rachel Allen, the Martha Stewart of Ireland with her own TV show, line of cookbooks and cookware.
It seems none of the Allens stray far from the two places that have made them: the garden or the kitchen. One morning I come across Tim, hands dirty, hair disheveled, pulling garlic from the earth. Myrtle is there, along with the chef from Ballymaloe, and a discussion ensues about what to put on the menu that evening. “We grow organically, of course,” explains Tim, gesturing toward the rows of produce. “And because we don’t have the transport issues, we can pick everything at its absolute ripest—that’s how we determine what’s on the menu each night, by what is picked that day.”
That evening at the five-course dinner in Ballymaloe’s formal dining room, the light filters through the tall windows. A field of rapeseed (to be used for biofuel, Rory Allen explained) is rustling outside. Course after course arrives: a thyme-infused onion soup, pan-fried scallops with Jerusalem artichokes and beurre blanc, guinea fowl with fresh herb stuffing, and a decadent raw-milk crème brûlée with shards of caramel. Darina and Tim mop their plates; Myrtle, now in her eighties and still ever-vigilant, comes by to find out how the meal is. “Tomorrow,” she adds to Tim, “we must do something with all of that arugula we have—it is the season.” At Ballymaloe, it is always the season for something.