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Q&A

Darina Allen feeds the renaissance in Irish cuisine

Darina Allen.

Kyle Books

Darina Allen.

Darina Allen has been called the Julia Child of Ireland by everyone from the San Francisco Chronicle to WGBH for good reason.

From the kitchens, organic farm, and greenhouses of the inn and residential cooking school Allen runs out of converted farmhouse buildings at Ballymaloe in Kinoith, she has helped put Ireland on the international food map. Like Child, Allen, with her trademark glasses, is a familiar television presence in Ireland.

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Long before farm-to-table cooking was a full-on trend, Darina and her mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen, were doing “Irish country house cooking” at Ballymaloe. Arriving with a degree in hospitality management in 1968, Darina found a kindred spirit in Myrtle, who was preparing seasonal menus, very much an oddity, at the restaurant in her rambling country house in East Cork. In 1970, Darina married Myrtle’s son Tim.

To the family’s inn and restaurant, Darina, along with her brother Rory O’Connell, added the Ballymaloe Cookery School. The internationally recognized school offers a 12-week professional program, as well as shorter courses for visitors. In her book “30 Years at Ballymaloe,” Allen, now in her 60s, chronicles the school’s history and the evolution of Irish cuisine in essays, photos, and recipes that range from her mother’s scones to Moroccan stew.

Q. What brought you to Ballymaloe after finishing your hospitality degree?

A. I just wanted to cook. I wanted to learn more about fresh herbs. I wanted to make homemade ice cream and soufflés, the sort of things that sounded very exotic in the ’60s. At most restaurants, the chef wrote out their menus when they opened and it was the same 10 years later. For someone to revise a menu every day depending on what was fresh and in season and in the garden, to be making homemade ice cream and using lots and lots of fresh herbs, getting fresh catch from the little harbor, it was extraordinary.

Q. How did the cooking school begin?

‘I realized we were in the middle of an organic farm. . . . The penny dropped. We were in the perfect place to have a cooking school.’

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A. Myrtle used to give cooking classes just to try and fill the place in the winter and I would assist her. Then she became too busy to do that. There were no residential cooking schools in Ireland at that time, the early 1980s. I realized we were in the middle of an organic farm. We had an acre of greenhouses. We grew loads of vegetables, herbs, fruit, and other things. The penny dropped. We were in the perfect place to have a cooking school where all the food is produced on the farm.

Q. Who is the typical clientele for the cooking school?

A. We literally have students come from all over the world. We do Indian food, Moroccan food, Italian food, Mexican food. Of course, the basis of what we do is Irish country house cooking where we use fresh food in season, literally different every single day.

Kyle Books

Q. In your Mother’s Sweet White Scones recipe, you don’t cut them in circles as is typical. Why’s that?

A. Mummy used to always cut them into squares or triangles. We would dip them into an egg wash and sugar. They kind of had sugary tops. But the great thing about not choosing a round cutter is that you don’t have to re-roll the mixture. The first one is always lighter.

Q. What do Americans misunderstand about Irish food?

A. The word’s getting about that we don’t live on corned beef and cabbage. There’s a real renaissance now. We’ve woken up to the fact that we can grow wonderful produce because our little island has a high percentage of fertile land. We have a long coastline and a very long growing season. In the end, those of us who cook know it’s all about the ingredients. My food isn’t Michelin food. My food is simple and I don’t spend ages painting pictures on plates.

Q. What will be on your menu for St. Patrick’s Day?

A. I’ll be in New York for St. Patrick’s Day. I’m doing a dinner at Auden in the Ritz-Carlton for Les Dames d’Escoffier [a professional organization for women in the food and hospitality industries].

Q. So, no corned beef and cabbage?

A. You do some very traditional things over there. I want to do things from the book.

Allen’s planned menu includes smoked wild Irish salmon with horseradish cream, cucumber salad, and pickled red onions, and chicken with chile and rosemary oil.

Interview was condensed and edited. Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.
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