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Ballymaloe’s Darina Allen Puts Ireland on a Plate

Beverly Stephen - March 17th, 2014

Don’t tell Darina Allen there’s no distinct Irish culinary tradition. The co-founder of the 30 year old Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland, is an enthusiastic missionary for the Emerald Isle.

“The image has been corned beef and cabbage and Irish soda bread,” she told a Les Dames d’Escoffier dinner gathering at Auden Bistro & Bar at The Ritz-Carlton New York, Central Park the Friday before St. Patrick’s Day. “But there’s an incredible culinary revolution now in Ireland with passionate young chefs.”

Ballymaloe practiced the farm-to-fork philosophy way before those words entered the popular lexicon. “It’s not a conversion on the road to Damascus,” she says. Ballymaloe is on the farm with cows, pigs, and chickens, an extensive garden, and, of course, bees. It actually started as a farm when Myrtle and Ivan Allen bought the Ballymaloe house in 1948. Ivan was practicing farming methods ahead of his time and was one of the first to grow tomatoes and cucumbers in Ireland.

“Our produce is better than anything because of our climate. We have lots of rain. We have a long growing season. We can grow grass like nowhere else.” It’s that grass, eaten by the cows, that flavors their milk and hence the butter and cheese made on the farm.

She extols the virtues of her country’s small family farms. “When you see something from Ireland, you know you can trust Ireland,” she says.

The way things are done has not changed much since Myrtle Allen, who just turned 90, opened her dining room to the public in 1964—except the growth of the school. There are now 14 teachers employed for the 12-week certificate courses held throughout the year, and over 60 short courses ranging from half a day to a week. Plus, there’s a stylish shop and a conference center. In addition, they’ve recently introduced their Gourmet Irish Ketchup along with other relishes, in the United States, which are available both for the consumer and foodservice. Darina Allen’s nephew, Sean Hyde, is head of sales and marketing. The launch was inspired by the fact that the original Ballymaloe Country Relish was the third most requested item for tourists visiting Ireland to bring back to relatives in the United States.

Allen couldn’t resist a pedagogical moment before dinner service began. Her lightning fast demo of Irish soda bread gave new meaning to the words quick bread. She incorporated the few ingredients—buttermilk (“If you’re doing this here, you’ll need to add a little cream”), flour, butter, baking soda, salt, and a pinch of sugar—with her bare hands (”none of those plastic gloves”) and shaped a tidy loaf, which she scored to make a cross and then pricked a tiny hole into each of the four corners “to let the fairies out.”

As soon as the bread came out of the oven, guests began eagerly slathering it with the Kerrygold butter (who sponsored the event along with the Irish Dairy Board). Breadbaskets were empty in a flash. But there was plenty more food to come—smoked Irish salmon with pickled red onions, Kerrygold Dubliner cheese/thyme leaf soufflé, spatchcock chicken with pickled carrots, salad of lamb with green beans and fennel, rustic roasted potatoes.

In case the food wasn’t enough to inspire a visit, Tourism Ireland, an event sponsor, projected scenic photos of the Green Isle throughout. Allen wrapped up the evening with a signing of her latest book, 30 Years at Ballymaloe.