This is a big year for Darina Allen and all the family and staff at Ballymaloe, in Cork. While visiting New York to promote her newest book “30 Years at Ballymaloe” Allen spoke to IrishCentral about the Cork food empire’s success, celebrations and philosophies.
“This is a bit of a year for celebrations. It was Myrtle's 90th birthday and we had a great big family celebration for that, with past and present staff. We’re also celebrating 50 years of the restaurant and 30 years at of the cooking school. It’s a big year and we’re delighted.”
Visiting New York around St Patrick’s Day I asked Darina what she thought of the usual “Irish fare” associated with the celebrations. In New York every March pubs and restaurants abound with corned beef and cabbage and shepherd's pie.
Allen quickly responds by saying “What are we like! It’s like the leprechauns and all that…hello, can’t we move on. Ireland is a very sophisticated cosmopolitan country now and in a way this is what we need to be reflecting.”
In saying that, the beauty of Ballymaloe’s cooking school and restaurant is that it marries the new and the old. At the Cork school you can take a lessons in foraging for food and fermentation and then learn how to make sushi or learn about making food for babies and toddlers.
Her new book includes 100 new recipes which Allen says reflect “what’s happening at the moment. I think people often think people considered Ballymaloe to be more traditional stuff but our food is very multi-ethnic and always has been.
“It reflects where I’ve been on my travels, what’s out there, and what’s on trend, without following them slavishly. There are things that really appeal to me like the whole Nordic food movement and the interest in foraging and forgotten skills and fermentation.”
Allen explains that the center of the gastronomic world has shifted away from Spain, and Ferran Adria’s El Bulli, toward the Nordic food movement with a focus on Rene Redzepi at Noma, in Copenhagen.
She said “Ferran Adria has El Bulli and he is a genius, he’s an alchemist, but a lot of what he was doing was very technical and you needed a lot of machines to do it.
“Noma based the whole Nordic food revolution on the food of the area and ingredients that are unique to there. Instead of always looking south and copying them.
“That really appeals to me. This kind of cooking has to reflect the seasons.”
Cooking with the seasons and foraging has been part of Ballymaloe’s philosophy for over 20 years. As Allen points out foraging is something we have always done in Ireland but now we know much more about food. It’s simply a forgotten skill that we’re tapping into.
She explains “It’s just about looking when you go for a walk. You could do it here in Central Park. Where other people see weeds I see dinner. It’s just being able to identify the things in the wild that you can eat, which were always things that people did eat.
“When I was a child we used to go down to a little stream and collect watercress and wild garlic and cowslips and nettles for soup, there’s chickweed and they’re so good for you. So many things are edible. And then in autumn you’ve the nuts and berries it’s such an abundant time.
Now the cookery school does foraging courses not only in the autumn but in the spring too. You can forage in Ireland in all four season because of our climate.”
From ancient forgotten skills to Ireland’s modern tastes the courses at Ballymaloe cater for the every taste, literally.
“We have a very cosmopolitan audience and we get people from all over the world anyway but basically Irish people are very adventurous now they want to know more.
“Irish people can’t get enough of Middle Eastern food, they love the flavors.
“Sushi has become and international fast-food now but we’ve been doing it for ten or fifteen years. Recently the more new courses we’ve been doing are food truck and fermentation courses. For the last couple of years we’ve also been doing food for babies and toddlers courses for mothers who are bamboozled by all the conflicting market stuff being thrown at them. That’s something that really concerns me and it’s been hugely successful.”
Always slightly ahead of the curve Allen and Ballymaloe are always looking to the future in the food world in Ireland, and abroad, but they’re also very aware of staying away from fads.
All adds “Because I travel so much and know what’s happening all over the business. I’ve always had a fairly good nose for something that will endure. If something resonates with me and it’s something that will link into my basic philosophy then I will explore that further and pass that on.”