Ballymaloe Litfest: The little fest that could

Litfest is entering its fifth year – and there’s a lot to celebrate, says Joe McNamee.

The weekend had kicked off with a terrific party the previous night and with an exultant sun already riding high in the sky, early one Saturday morning in May 2013, the omens were promising for the inaugural Ballymaloe Litfest.

The organisers — Darina Allen, Rory O’Connell, and Rebecca Cronin — had certainly put in the hard yards, working morning, noon, and night in the lead-up to the festival. 

Having filleted Darina’s little black book of contacts, they assembled a gathering of national and international culinary stars unlike any ever seen before. The ingredients were in place for a fine weekend but no one realised just how far it would exceed expectations.

There were myriad magnificent events, little and large, and celebrity guest chefs served up some superb food in pop-up venues. 

The Big Shed, a functional barn, was transmogrified into a food and drinks market and social centre, becoming the festival’s beating heart. Most Litfest extraordinary of all, though, proved to be greater than the sum of its parts, as food icons and ordinary punters crossed barriers, coming together to create a great synergy of ideas and enthusiasms that would live long after the festival was over.

Even before the closing ceremonies, the decision was made to change what had been planned as a biennial event into an annual gathering, and on Monday morn, all attendees, from ordinary paying punter to some of the biggest names in world food, recognised they had been part of something truly special.

The Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine had arrived fully fledged as one of the very best culinary events to be found anywhere on the global circuit and all left determined to spread the gospel.

“Litfest was Darina’s idea, really,” says O’Connell, “I was slightly peripheral to start off with but thought I needed to get involved, to give a hand — even from the point of view of logistics alone, there was so much to do — but once I got involved, I got very involved and it was immediately very interesting. 

“We hadn’t done any thing like that before so it was very much about learning as we went along. Then after that, I started to get into what the whole thing was about.

“Rebecca has been hugely important from the very beginning, she had an arts admin background and has the same creative input that we all do.

“These days, it’s mostly her and I rattling away, coming up with ideas, sometimes the finished package or sometimes just an idea that needs more input and we’d talk to Darina.

“We value Darina’s address book but we value her opinion, knowledge, and wisdom equally. It is incredible to have someone like her to hand to run an idea by, someone as inquisitive, as well travelled and whose finger is so on the pulse. 

“So, it’s a real team effort between the three of us, but these days, the day-to-day running is very much me and Becks.

“The first festival was tremendously exciting and nerve-wracking. We felt we had such huge responsibility: to guests invited from all over the world; to Ballymaloe; to Cork; and to Ireland. 

“The reason we’d brought these people was to show them what we can do here in Ireland, what we’re proud of and we didn’t know whether we would be able to pull it off. 

“Madhhur Jaffrey and Claudia Roden were the big stars but we were very excited to get [fermentation guru] Sandor Katz. 

“For a lot of people in Ireland and those who had travelled over from Britain, it was their first introduction to fermentation. 

“We all love a party, but the festival was meant to be about more than that, an impact of some description is crucial — his presence has had a lasting impact.

“There was an informal nature to the event which we were really determined would be the case from the very beginning. 

“You could say hello and possibly chat to a personality from the food world. Equally, the reverse of that, the food personalities were able to cruise around, to be invisible to a certain extent, to be part of the gang.

“The big dilemma in year one was what about those people who just rock up to see what’s going on. There were free events as well as ticketed events but there were only so many seats and what would all those extra people do? 

“Then I walked down the yard one day and it hit me, ‘Sweet mother of divine mercy, this is it, the Big Shed’. I had my space for the stallholders who were going to feed people, a space for people to chill, where we could have music. All of that became possible without putting up a great big ugly blob of white tent, the last thing I wanted.

“That took on its own life, a functional, ugly structure with a most thrilling atmosphere. It just goes to show that people create atmosphere. Each year, we’ve always looked at streamlining, improving and not stagnating. 

“The first year was about books and authors, but so many people coming to the festival were younger, incredibly vibrant, particularly the young Irish people involved in food. 

“I decided we needed to loosen our strategy as regard published authors because what these young people had to say was as relevant if not more so than what some of the great icons might have to say. 

“Last year, we introduced the symposium, short presentations, like TED talks. We were still talking about books, but it had also evolved to talking about what’s happening with our food. 

“It was a literary festival that expanded into being a festival about food literacy, to explore the world of ideas around food, sometimes beyond the books.

“The festival has grown to a point where, this year, the European commissioner for health and food safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis, is coming. 

“For those of us wanting to effect change in food policy, well, you have to meet these people and talk to them and give your opinion and viewpoint to effect change.”

Litfest begins May 19. www.litfest.ie

CLAUDIA RODEN: Bringing Middle Eastern food to the West

 

Five years ago, before Ballymaloe Litfest took flight, there was far less newspaper space afforded to an untested event and I had to use it wisely. 

It took me ten seconds to decide to alight on Claudia Roden to interview for a preview.

Roden was born in Cairo in 1936, to a wealthy Jewish merchant family, leaving at 15 to attend school in Paris. It was her first experience of ‘exile’ and, eating with relatives at the weekend, certain dishes from home became the distillation of all ‘the glories and warmth’ of her birthplace.

 It has remained a recurrent theme in her work: Food as an emotional touchstone, evoking time and place, particularly for nomads and exiles.

Subsequently moving to London where she still lives, her marriage to businessman Paul Roden ended after 15 years but as she was raising her three children, she learned to cook and then began the exhaustive research that would yield her classic, A Book of Middle Eastern Food, published in 1968.

 It has never since been out of print and launched Roden’s career as one of the greatest food writers of all time — and the locus for the enduring popularity of hummus in the West.

It is worth revisiting a quote I included in my original article, from historian Simon Schama: ‘Claudia Roden is no more a simple cookbook writer than Marcel Proust was a biscuit baker. She is, rather, memorialist, historian, ethnographer, anthropologist, essayist, poet…’

Roden returns to Litfest this year for three events, including a food demo and one of her food ‘stories’.

“The demo is about Mediterranean ingredients, shared ingredients between the 25 or so countries, with a shared food culture, so I will be looking at what makes them different, the kinds of spices, herbs, aromatics.

“I was also asked to speak about every cuisine telling a story. I used that phrase in my Jewish cookbook. Jewish food is a story of the wandering people and their vanished world, for other people it is a story of terroir or land.”

With three grandparents originally hailing from Aleppo, the ongoing war in Syria has resonance for Roden. 

“I’ve been at events were Syrian refugees cook what they miss and it makes them long for their identity, their rules, who they are. Food is the last thing exiles or emigrants lose. 

“They stop wearing the clothes, they stop speaking Arabic, they no longer listen to the music, but the importance of food remains.

“Right now, there are echoes of the 1930s, when countries started to demonise the ‘other’, like with this ‘America first’ movement. Everyone knows you have to think of your own, but the way the ‘other’ is demonised is terrible. 

“In London and Britain we keep hearing about people being attacked in the Tube, on the street, and being told to speak English, which never happened before. Theresa May said, ‘Citizens of the world are citizens of nowhere.’ That’s what the Russians under Stalin said when they persecuted the Jews, that they were ‘international and cosmopolitan’. 

“I love Britain, am committed to Britain, loyal to Britain, but I speak French as a mother tongue and come from Jews of a Muslim world — I care about Muslims, I speak Egyptian. 

“But now the world is full of immigrants, it’s a world were you cannot be ‘international’ and care about the international community.”

ROBIN GILL: The Dublin chef who conquered London

Irish Celebrity Masterchef may have been the first introduction to Robin Gill for a lot of Irish people. 

Even at that, the Dubliner’s mild manner and boyish enthusiasm belied his status, not in the tiny Irish culinary pond but in the infinitely more challenging, shark-infested seas of the London hospitality industry where he is a bona fide star.

Gill appeared out of nowhere as the finished article with the opening of The Dairy in Clapham in 2013, but he was a

’15-year overnight success’ having paid his dues working in Michelin-starred restaurants all over Europe, including time with Marco Pierre White and Raymond Blanc. 

In a few short years, he was chef/proprietor of four of London’s hottest restaurants, adding The Manor, The Delicatessen, and Paradise Garage to the portfolio.

His empire has achieved the holy trinity of popular appeal, critical acclaim, and the genuine respect and esteem of his fellow chefs.

“My kitchen is moving and changing all the time, I’m very lucky to have a team since day one. Rather than just me coming up with ideas, I’ve got three or four guys consistently trying new things, new ingredients, constantly reassessing, going back to basics, no dishes with 16 or 17 elements.

“Produce is first and foremost. Just last week one of our cheese suppliers, a lovely old lady, said, ‘I’ve got a pig which we need to slaughter, would you like half?’ 

“Whereas a lot of kitchens might be scared of it, we welcome it. We make all our charcuterie; hang the loin for a couple of weeks; experiment with a new salami, sunflower, wild garlic, using trim from the shoulder; making coppa, pancetta. 

“It’s all very much back to basics rather than all about getting ready for service and portioning up.

“When you build up this incredible larder from working with produce like that and have things in the cellar or on shelves or in the fridge, you’re not looking at a product line or what other chefs are doing — you’re looking at the produce you have and what you can do with it.

“It is the closest thing to a farmhouse restaurant in central London. That has always been my goal. Less and less on the plate, and more work going into the produce. 

“At the moment we have a miso we made eight weeks ago from bread trimmings, using stale bread, koji spores, and 7% salt. We have a production kitchen in the back of the restaurant, which is part bakery, part smokehouse, part fish — multiple uses.

“I was lucky enough to meet Darina when she came into the Dairy some time back. Her book, Forgotten Skills, was a great big inspiration for me, all that stuff of going back to basics. 

“What we are trying to achieve is what she has been talking about for a long time. It’s real food and has been around for a long time, not like some Spanish molecular gastronomy.

“I’d love to open in Ireland. I’m looking and talking about getting involved in something in central Dublin, but I can’t talk about it just yet. 

“My wife is from Glenageary and I’m from Glasthule and we’ve been going back home more and more in recent years. When I got the chance to do Masterchef and especially when I found out the shooting location was just ten minutes from where I grew up, I jumped at it. 

“It was really, really lovely to work so near to home and spend so much time there, because I’ve been away since 1999.

“Masterchef was really enjoyable, I was a bit nervous at first about working with all these really big personalities, that they would dominate, but as soon as they put on their aprons and got in to the kitchen they really wanted to cook and learn about cooking... We’d love to do the professionals the next time because Ireland had never done that before, and Irish talent is growing by the day.”

JOANNA BLYTHMAN: Food activist and campaigner

You patronise Joanna Blythman at your peril yet it is hard to escape the feeling that more than a few captains of industry may have been initially deceived by the seemingly gentle, diminutive presence of the softly-spoken Scottish investigative journalist and food writer

She has done as much as anyone around the globe to poke a campaigning stick into the wasps’ nest that is industrially-processed food.

Through her work, (including seven books to date) she has illuminated previously hidden corners of the industry, casting a cold light on a world that produces so much of the often radically adulterated fare served up to us on a daily basis in the first world, a primary contributor to a healthcare crisis of epidemic proportions.

Having gained unprecedented behind-the-scenes access for her latest, Swallow This: Serving Up the Food Industry’s Darkest Secrets, Blythman forensically dissects the industry, posing all the questions you never thought to ask and then supplying the answers most of us would prefer not to hear, in a world where the word, ‘natural’, means anything but.

“I come from quite a radical family, a socialist family. My father [renowned activist Morris Blythman] was very pro- independence, a Scottish republican but progressive, not the narrow ‘tartan nationalism’ of the Scottish National Party at the time when it was very right wing.

“He was involved in CND [Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament], regularly protesting, on demos. Our house was always full of music, guitars, banjos, folk musicians, singers, ceilidhs, discussions about politics, poetry. Though I had a strong sense of where I came from, I was always attracted to difference, to other countries, their peoples and different ways of doing things so I graduated with a degree in social anthropology.

“After university, I went to work voluntarily for charities or NGOs, including the Citizen’s Advice Bureau.

“My job was essentially writing materials for bureau workers to use when advising, taking complicated legal stuff or bureaucratic rules and regulations, breaking it down and simplifying it for those coming in.

“That was probably a very good discipline as I became good at simplifying complicated issues. When you get into food issues, it can seem very complex, often deliberately opaque, there’s a level of science that is quite demanding, issues around trade and economics.

“But I knew this wasn’t for me long term and I was interested in food so I started a food shop with a friend, in the 80s.

“You’d probably call it a deli. We sold cheese, bread, fresh produce, organic salads, that kind of thing. I learned a lot about food and started writing about it, first for The Scotsman and then Scotland on Sunday and in 1991 I won a Glenfiddich Award [a prestigious annual food writing prize] and, with the recognition that followed, started writing for the Independent in London and subsequently the Guardian and most other major newspapers.

“The food system has got so complicated now that people just switch off, most people just don’t get it. Take nanotechnology [manipulating matter at a molecular level], many nano particles are so thin and tiny they can get into parts of the body where they shouldn’t be and do real damage, such as titanium dioxide. 

“Lots of ingredients that are snowy white and sugary contain titanium dioxide — chewing gum, cupcakes might have it as a colouring — and there are real health issues around its use.

“I believe ‘natural flavours’ are supremely unnatural. I avoid anything with the word ‘flavouring’ on it and believe good food shouldn’t need ‘flavouring’. Flavouring is essentially a chemical additive. When I see ‘flavouring’ on a product label, I say, ‘what’s wrong here?’ Flavourings are used for two reasons. One, manufacturing destroys flavours. 

“There is a lot of pressure and trauma to ingredients from heat or chemicals used to strip out certain things, and that takes genuine flavour out. 

“The second reason is they have to mask ‘off’ flavours introduced by the manufacturing process. So, the flavouring industry is essentially a bunch of chemical companies.

“What I try to do is give an executive summary of what people are trying to do to your food and what it means for your food. Some members of the public can’t get enough of this type of information, they want to get to the bottom of things and want to take it all on board; others don’t want to know because it means a major change in how they shop and eat, often older people who are too set in their ways. 

“I find, on the whole, younger people don’t find this kind of thing hard to believe; for them, it is more about the practicalities of how they adapt. But, overall, I don’t think there is a class pattern or anything to do with age or gender; it just comes down to whether you have an active or passive approach to life.

“The main thing I’d be saying is make the most of the food you eat. Buy raw ingredients and cook it yourself. Keep processed food to a minimum and when you do use it, really, really read that label and be aware of what you are getting. 

“It’s about having control of your life, a personal food sovereignty and a large degree of control over what you are eating. But, if you buy readymade, you are trusting the food industry to look out for you and unfortunately the food industry is not trustworthy.

“They will tell you anything to sell you anything. They are not really interested in your health, they are into selling profitable products and the essence of that is achieving long shelf- life using low-cost ingredients that work well in a mass-production factory system and can be marked up substantially.

“Those are not the same goals as I would have for the food I would eat. If you trust them, fine, good on you, but you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out that what we’re eating is making us fat and sick.

“My ideal is the kind of food we’ve been eating down the centuries, including red meat, dairy. I don’t believe mother nature would have invented those foods if she wanted to shorten the life span of the human race.

“Restaurant reviews are the lighter fun side, the pleasure side of what I do but if you are not careful you can find yourself ending up as one of two kinds of people: the relatively mindless foodie who doesn’t want to know anything troubling about food issues, the ones who say, ‘don’t tell me, I don’t want to know’. 

“Then you have the ideological eaters, sometimes vegans, some environmentalists with laudable principles—although veganism I’m not sure about as a philosophy. I can’t get worked up about ‘idealogical food’. 

“The reason I do what I do, why I am in the ‘food debate’ is I have always loved food, the produce, the chefs, the producers and I came later to the issues. There comes a point when the love of food is not enough, I want to marry that love with knowledge about the industry.”


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