The Ballymaloe Literary Festival held its inaugural festival in 2013 and instantly became the premier cooking writers’ global convention. In New York this week to announce the second festival in May, Cahir O'Doherty talks to Darina Allen, the woman who put Irish cooking on the map.
Whenever you're abroad and you think of Ireland, sooner or later you're going to think about baked brown bread. Or a fruit scone with butter so rich and creamy that no other country can even hope to reproduce it. It's amazing how much these little things can end up meaning.
That's why, toward the end of the 1980s, Allen (who had already established a cooking school and a successful country house restaurant) decided she needed to extend her own cooking repertoire to make her business a greater success. Far away hills are greener, she thought.
“I went on an Italian cooking trip to learn more about their skills and I absolutely loved the experience, but I kept noticing that their ingredients were not necessarily any better than what we had at home in Ireland,” Allen told the Irish Voice during a recent interview.
“I went to the Italian markets, I tried all the food and in fact I realized that many things in Ireland were actually better. By the end of the week they were telling me to prepare for a big seafood dinner that would amaze me. But I was actually underwhelmed. The fish caught in Ballycotton, Co. Cork was every bit as good.”
What we simply hadn't done was to understand that our homegrown skills could also delight a global audience. Allen was the first to truly grasp the implications of this discovery.
“That was an incredibly important moment for me, because suddenly I realized that what my mother-in-law Myrtle Allen (a renowned cook and author in her own right) had told me was true. I suddenly deeply knew it was the case, and that the produce we have in Ireland is better than anywhere. Instead of just saying it, I knew it.”
“I come from a long line of mad women, but that's another story,” she laughs. She's well aware of what an act of daring it was to open her now famous cooking school in Ireland in 1983.
“Ireland wasn't the center of the gastronomic world,” she deadpans.
Ireland wasn't the center of anything at the time. Recession hit, often teetering on the brink of economic and political chaos. It was a visionary act of the highest order to think that a cooking school could not only survive but thrive in such a backwater.
Allen remembers the time vividly. “Labor costs continued to rise, there was 25 percent inflation, and then there was the oil crisis,” she recalls.
“At the time we employed over 100 people but from being a very successful business the costs went so high we were looking at a situation where we simply had to change course because the writing was on the wall.”
Ballymaloe House started 50 years ago as a restaurant, and last year Allen celebrated 30 years of her now world-famous cooking school. But in the early days it was not at all clear to her local bank manager that her venture would succeed.
“At the time it looked like things weren't going to improve for us anytime soon,” says Allen. “We had four small children at the time and we asked ourselves what are we going to do? What talents have we got, what resources?
“I loved cooking in Ballymaloe and I had loved attending cooking classes with my mother-in-law Myrtle Allen. But when she opened a restaurant in Paris she got too busy to continue with the classes.”
“That's when she said to me, ‘Why don't you do them?’” Allen adds. “We really needed the money. But I told her they were all coming to see her because the name Darina Allen meant absolutely nothing at that stage.
“In the end though I picked up the courage and put an ad in The Cork Examiner (Ballymaloe is located in West Cork) and people came.”
You just have to pick up enough courage the first time, she says, then if it works you build on it. “That's when it was suggested to me I should think about opening a residential cooking school.”
Again she had a crisis of confidence. Here, she thought? Out in the sticks? Wouldn't people be bored stiff?
“But we thought about it a bit more and decided to do it. We converted some old farm buildings into residences. And we started in September 1983.”
If they laughed in the beginning – and one bank manager did – no one's laughing now. These days Darina Allen is often called Ireland's Julia Child, but in fact her accomplishments surpass America's foremost cooking queen.
What Allen has done isn't just to put Irish cooking and baking on the map. She has reminded a generation of Irish people the world over how to get in touch with the forgotten skills of Irish cooking that their ancestors practiced.
In this way Allen has successfully put her global Irish audience (and her international admirers) in touch with the traditions of their homeland in a way that no other Irish public figure has ever accomplished.
“The answer to the question how are we going to make a living turned out to be right under our feet. We were in the middle of a farm, the sea was right beside us, we had our own produce. Sometimes you have to go away to really see what's right under your nose, or someone needs to tell us what we have,” she says.
Allen's great and enduring gift to Ireland is that she reminds new generations of young chefs there that we have a tradition. We have the soil and the climate that all good food is based on.
On holiday in Sri Lanka, a friend suggested to Allen that she should run a literary festival at Ballymaloe connected to food and wine. Over the years her rolodex had filled with the contact details of the elder statesmen of cooking, and suddenly she knew what to do.
“We started with the top writers and were amazed when they all immediately started saying yes,” says Allen.
Not only were cooking writers like Stephanie Alexander and Madhur Jaffrey delighted to participate -- they also reminded Allen that a visit to Ireland is very high on most serious food writers' to-do lists.
“Not only had such a list of distinguished speakers not gathered together in Ireland before, there had never been anything like it anywhere,” says Allen. “It's a reminder that in Ireland we can do as well or better as anywhere else. All you need is the confidence.”
The next Ballymaloe Literary Festival is scheduled for May 15-17 in Cork. For more information visit litfest.ie.