The big interview: Darina Allen reflects on 21 years of cookery writing

As Darina Allen marks 21 years of writing for The Irish Examiner, she talks to Ciara McDonnell about her amazing career.

Ballymaloe Cookery School, Shanagarry, Co Cork. Pic; Larry Cummins.
Ballymaloe Cookery School, Shanagarry, Co Cork. Pic; Larry Cummins.

It’s just after lunchtime in Ballymaloe Cookery School. The large, airy dining room is restored to its pre-dining state of calm after a busy student lunch. Darina Allen breezes in, swathed in brushed cotton and wearing her signature jewel coloured glasses. Sitting down at one of the tables, she is handed a glass of coffee.

Fun fact: a true Ballymaloe-ism, nobody can remember exactly why everyone started drinking coffee out of glasses, but rumour has it that it came from a gimlet-eyed staff member who was fed up trying to find saucers for cups. To our right, an American couple is setting up a shot of a dish that the cooked that morning in class, adorned with cuttings from the garden.

The image will be published to their Instagram account, followed in its hundreds of thousands. A man tip-toes into the room, clocks Darina in the corner and immediately starts sweating. I recognise this clammy show of affection; it is hero worship, pure and simple.

Darina calls him to her, insisting that he try a glass of raw milk, and watches appraisingly as he drinks it down. “Now, that’s better, isn’t it pet?” Love hearts in his eyes, the man tells Darina that he has been saving up for his whole life to come to Ballymaloe, after reading one of her recipes, aged 15.

This is the kind of story you hear all the time if you hang around long enough at Ireland’s most famous cookery school. People travel from all over the world to Shanagarry, where they will immerse themselves in the whole life-cycle of what they eat. They’ll collect the eggs to make their cakes and cure the pork to make their salami.

They’ll start their own sourdough and become part of an alumni that leaves Ballymaloe at the end of the course, but never really leaves. That’s the thing about the school. Its students leave and come back, bringing with them new teachings and new ideas. And there to receive it all, is Darina, the headmistress of what is as close to Hogwarts School Of Witchcraft and Wizardry as you’ll ever find this side of Harry Potter.

On a day still bearing the hallmarks of summer, Darina opened the doors of the school to Weekend. She was in her element, conducting the many symphonies that occur on a daily basis at the school, while planning to release her latest book One Pot Feeds All. Over a slice or two of Willowzina’s Super Quick Cake (“oh it’s so easy, darling!

You just throw it in the food processor, into a tin and into the oven for 20 minutes”), she told me all about life behind the scenes in Ballymaloe, allowing me a glimpse into a life that is both impossibly busy and exceptionally rewarding.

The eldest of nine children, Darina O’Connell and her siblings lost their father at 45 years old, leaving their mother Elizabeth, who was 36 at the time to bring them up. Despite this terrible grief, the O’Connells had a wonderful childhood filled with good food and a knowledge that hard work reaps rewards.

Our home was always full of the delicious smells of cooking. Among many things, Mummy taught each and every one of us how to bake and roast, braise and stew. We knew the joy of sharing food and sitting around the kitchen table with family and friends.

Her childhood is one of the things that informs Darina’s unflappable passion for ensuring the safety of our soil and farming practices for generations to come. Ultimately, she says, the problems we are seeing today are down to the myth of cheap food. “I don’t think that a lot of people realise that as tax- payers we pay for food four or five times over,” she points out. “You don’t realise that it’s tax payers who are paying through our taxes, for a completely unsustainable form of agriculture.”

Cheap food is an oxymoron, according to Allen.

“In health terms and in socioeconomic terms it is a disaster. You cannot grow a bunch of carrots or beetroot for what it is sold for in the discount supermarkets now. You cannot produce nourishing, wholesome food at this price. The farmers, as a result, have become price takers not price makers and have been for quite a long time now. They are in an impossible situation.”

A major advocate for Irish farmers, Darina believes that generationally, we have been duped into thinking that current farming practices are the only way to maintain production levels.

“Glyphosate and Round Up is the drug of choice for the farming community and it’s the one that the poor farmers have been encouraged to use,” she explains. “The farmers are just doing what they were advised to do and they’ve really forgotten, I think, that you can farm without chemicals. Everything changed so much in the 1950’s when the whole cheap food policy kicked in. The purpose from that point onwards was to produce the maximum amount of food at the minimum cost.”

The writing is on the wall when it comes to chemical usage in farming practices, says Allen.

“At this point, we can no longer say that we don’t know the damage that these things are doing to us. It’s a tough one to call, it really is, but if even a quarter the research that is coming out that links it to the extraordinary rise in autoimmune diseases and lots of other conditions is true, then we should be banning it. If the food on the shelf was to be labelled with the number of sprays that are on the food item, then we would be seeing a different response from the consumer.”

In order to effect long term sustainable change, we need courageous politicians, she advocates. “We need politicians who will say that the farmers who are looking after the soil should be rewarded and the polluters need to pay. that would be a game changer overnight. Teagasc may have to say ‘look, we can’t go on with business as usual. We have to change our farming systems.’ It is very hard, especially for organisations like this, to lose face, but they must come out and support the farmers.”

 Darina Allen at home in East Cork. Pic; Larry Cummins.
Darina Allen at home in East Cork. Pic; Larry Cummins.

Since she founded Ballymaloe Cookery School in 1983, Darina has been an impassioned speaker on behalf of the farming community and small Irish producers. A founding member of Slow Food Ireland, she has consistently championed food grown and created across the country, using her column in the Irish Examiner as a soapbox from which to inform us of the issues that are affecting our food production.

“I remember when myself and Quentin Gargan were going around the parish halls of Cork and around the country when we were so concerned about genetically modified food becoming a thing. Basically at that stage we were worrying about Superweeds and now of course that’s totally a reality, and one of the reasons why companies are saying we need more and more sprays to keep our crops in check.”

Most of us know Darina as the woman behind Simply Delicious. As the woman who peered at us through our television screens as she taught us how to feed our families, the woman whose food-splattered books are a constant kitchen companion. Eighteen cookbooks later, one thing she knows for sure is that food trends will always come full circle. “Real food is suddenly the thing, again. The penny has dropped that all you need is real food,” she laughs.

“It brings my mother-in-law’s words echoing in my ears. I remember when she first heard the term farm- to-table, and we were all giggling about this because it was the big deal. Myrtle was very amused by this and she said ‘No doubt about it, if you live long enough, everything comes round in the end’. It’s really good news.”

Hyper aware of how time-poor and pressurised families are today, Darina set out to help this year, with her book One Pot Feeds All.

“The poor things, it is so hard for young families today,” she says. Her quest to find new shortcuts and create minimal washing up led her to a writing process that was filled with new discoveries. “It was really fun doing the testing for this book. My editor kept saying to me ‘we need one pot pasta dishes’ and I was saying ‘Jesus, you can’t put uncooked pasta in with a sauce and cook it’.

"I started to experiment and hey! It works! I mean, the Italians would practically sue me! There were lots of things I hadn’t tried before, like putting grains in with the stews, for example, it was really fun.”

Despite her immense body of work, Darina still writes all of her books and columns by hand. “I never learned how to type. By the time I got really busy, I made a couple of feeble efforts to learn to type but it was too slow, so I gave in and wrote everything in longhand and I still do,” she says.

“All my books have been written in longhand and my Examiner article is written by hand every week and I give it to one of my secretaries (I am so inept I am responsible for creating several office jobs) and they type it up. They print it out and then I will tweak it.

I have gotten into the habit of writing in bed, actually, either in the morning or in the evening. Or else, with my feet up. For some reason, my feet have to be up in order to write — how ridiculous!

Darina has two speeds: fast and faster. Gifted with a mind that can deeply consider several things at once, she has built a team around her that supports her way of thinking and enables the show to run as smoothly as it does.

Despite that, a number of years ago, she became aware of the importance of time off and rest, and now takes three weeks off at the start of every year. “About 10 years ago several of our friends became quite ill and several diedI thought, ‘Oh God, I need to make the most of what I have.’ Since then, I take three or four weeks off in February to travel, and I am so lucky that Rory and Rachel and Toby my son are there to step in when I am not there.”

Travel is a huge passion for Allen, both for education and enjoyment. India is a place that Darina goes to completely switch off, and Romania knocked her socks off when she visited. More and more concerned with the environmental cost of air travel, she is choosing more carefully when planning trips. “I mean, you have to be aware of the impact you are making all the time on the environment.”

Ballymaloe and the grounds on which it stands are Darina’s happy place. Having travelled the world, she attracts superstars of the culinary galaxy to East Cork, time and time again. Rene Redzepi, owner of Copenhagen’s Noma and regarded as one of the world’s best chefs says that when Darina is a huge inspiration to him.

“Darina is a powerhouse! You see her working and you wonder, where does all this energy come from? She has incredible drive, enthusiasm and such a critical eye. She’s the perfect example of what one individual can mean to a business, a place — even a country.”

What does Darina think makes Ballymaloe so special? What creates that special brand of magic that attracts people from across the globe?

“I think people come because they know it’s not the Conversion On The Road To Damascus — this is how we always were,” she says. “A student recently told me there is nowhere else like this anywhere. That was eye opening to me. It wasn’t the intention, but it is ultimately what has happened. The variety of what we have here from the biodiversity on the farm to the crops and the animals — very few other people have the facilities to do that.”

A belief in the life-altering ability of food is what fuels Darina Allen. Safe in the knowledge that from her corner of East Cork she and her team sprinkle their lessons with a particular kind of magic that reaches all over the planet, the Headmistress of Ballymaloe Cookery School knows her worth.

“I feel really grateful in so many ways. I could be teaching geography or algebra or maths, which is really important but it doesn’t touch people’s lives in the way that teaching them how to make a loaf of bread or a bowl of soup does. You are actually giving people a gift for life. You are actually changing people’s lives.”

To mark this special anniversary we will be releasing a series of articles and recipes across the next week in this special online section. Also, DO NOT MISS our special commemorative supplement free with the Irish Examiner print edition on Saturday, November 23.

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