COOKING in Ireland didn’t begin with Myrtle Allen but when it comes to evaluating the very best of modern Irish cuisine, it is near impossible not to establish some link back to the pioneering spirit of this East Cork farmer’s wife who transformed herself into a Michelin star chef.
Her culinary philosophy, based on using the best of local, seasonal, Irish produce, grown and harvested in a sustainable way, is now so accepted by the mainstream, that it’s difficult to convey the revolutionary impact of her approach when she first opened a restaurant at Ballymaloe.
Myrtle Hill, an architect’s daughter, was born in Cork city in 1928, marrying a progressive fruit and vegetable farmer, Ivan Allen, in 1943. In 1948, they bought a farm at Ballymaloe, in East Cork, which included the manor home that was to become the renowned Ballymaloe House.
Initially, Ivan ran the mixed farm while Myrtle raised their six children. Ivan not only grew a large variety of produce but, as a keen gourmand, encouraged Myrtle to cook this produce imaginatively. She took cookery classes in the College of Commerce (designed by her father) in nearby Cork city and began to contribute a recipe column to the Irish Farmer’s Journal.
But as her children grew older, she was faced with the prospect of the big house becoming emptier and increasingly more expensive to keep.
Her solution was to open a restaurant in 1964, converting a downstairs dining room into what would become the Yeats’ Room restaurant. The placement of a simple text-only ad in the then-Cork Examiner was the full extent of her marketing drive.
Her own children, on returning from boarding school, were rather disappointed to find she wasn’t serving up anything more ‘exotic’ than what she had always cooked for the family, but her contemporary take on traditional Irish farmhouse food was radical.
The late Irish chef Gerry Galvin, also greatly influenced by Allen, once said: “Myrtle served home cooking in a refined environment, using whatever fresh, local foods were available. This is commonplace now, but it was fairly revolutionary then. At the time, anything really good was expected to have been imported. We were still suffering from the notion that anything that was our own was inferior.”
Gradually, the other rooms in the house surrendered themselves up to become part of Ballymaloe House Hotel & Restaurant and its renown became international, holding a Michelin star from 1975 to 1980.
In 1981, Allen accepted an invitation to run a restaurant in Paris, La Ferme Irlandaise, serving up her Modern Irish food to much acclaim. In 1986 she became a founding member of the chefs’ organisation, Eurotoques International, dedicated to preserving traditional produce and dishes, first heading up the Irish chapter and eventually the entire organisation for three years.
An anecdote from the early days, when she castigated her fellow chef delegates for accepting their coffees served up with UHT cream in little plastic containers, a practice completely contradicting the organisation’s founding philosophy, illustrates perfectly Allen’s fearless adherence to her own principles.
At the inaugural Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, Claus Meyer of famed Danish restaurant Noma recalled the very strong bonds formed between the Danish and Irish members of Eurotoques under the guidance of Allen. At the time, the two countries were very much seen as second-tier culinary nations, by the French and Italians in particular.
It is no coincidence that the modern cuisines of both Denmark and Ireland now share a common belief in the primacy of excellent local, seasonal produce.
A new chapter in Allen’s campaigning career began in the 1990s when a cheese stall in Cork’s English Market run by French couple Marie Jaumaud and Martin Guillemot was forced out of business by over-zealous health inspectors. Allen founded the Free Choice consumer group to campaign on behalf of similar food businesses.
It was certainly some achievement to make the transition from farmer’s wife, with relatively little formal training and no experience of a ‘classical’ kitchen, to Michelin star chef but Allen’s influence ensures she has always been much more than just a cook or restaurateur.
Her daughter-in-law, Darina Allen, is a renowned figure internationally, most particularly for her involvement in the international Slow Food movement but she would be the very first to agree that her mother-in-law, Myrtle, furnished the original road map that brought her to where she is today.
Consider this from Myrtle Allen’s introduction to The Ballymaloe Cookbook (1977) as she applies the concept of terroir (the characteristics local geology, etc, gives to food produced in an area) long associated only with wine, to food in general, something the rest of the culinary world at large has only cottoned on to in recent times: “The butter your sister is sending us is very good,’ I said to my neighbour one day. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that field always made good butter.’ That is long ago and the fragrance is almost forgotten.”
That fragrance may be forgotten but it will be many, many generations before Myrtle Allen ever is.
* A Civic Reception will be held in Cork City Hall, on Dec 4 at 6pm to honour Myrtle Allen for her contribution to the food industry of Ireland
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved