The impact of Myrtle Allen’s legacy is a story yet to be told, writes Ciara McDonnell
Founder of the Ballymaloe dynasty, Myrtle Allen died in June 2018, aged 94. She left behind a legacy that forever changed the fabric of Irish food. Renowned as The Mother Of Irish Cooking, she established herself as a culinary pioneer in the 1960s, when she opened the Yeats Room restaurant at Ballymaloe House in 1964.
Myrtle had no idea of how successful her restaurant would become, says Darina. “The plan was never to have more than 20 people! It was an extraordinary thing to do at that time when restaurants and hotels were in cities and towns and certainly not out in the centre of a farm —unthinkable.”
Of course, the restaurant went on to be wildly successful, and Myrtle was the first Irish woman to hold a Michelin star, which she was awarded from 1975 to 1980. She went on to become a founder member of Euro-Toques International and served as its president from 1994 to 1997 and was a vehement supporter of young chefs throughout her life.
At home, she taught generations of Irish people how to cook via her weekly newspaper columns in The Farmers Journal and trailblazed on behalf of Irish producers,campaigning vigorously at any opportunity.
The matriarch of a family steeped in our nation’s food culture, and whose wisdom informed and inspired many members of the family to start enterprises of their own, the impact of Myrtle Allen is a story yet to unfold, says Regina Sexton, University College Cork’s food and culinary historian, who has been researching her influence on Irish food culture since 2013.
Earlier this year, UCC acquired Myrtle’s personal archive, a treasure trove of culinary wisdom spanning over 100 years. She kept meticulous records and the archive includes journals from the restaurant, daily menus, inherited hand-written family manuscript recipe books, correspondence with producers and chefs, restaurant and hotel reviews, and scrapbooks of traditional recipes sent to her by her readers.
While it’s easy to say Myrtle was ahead of her time, it’s more accurate to say she was preserving a way of life that was being challenged, suggests the historian.
“I think sometimes to think of her ahead of her time is a confusing way to think about her,” Sexton points out. “She was very much of her time, because she was instigating, continuing,upholding, and executing the systems that were always in place. But, when she was doing it, these systems were coming under threat.
"We are talking about during the 1960s and 1970s. She was continuing a very traditional pattern in a time of threat and challenge.”
Myrtle was promoting and encouraging a way of life that was familiar to her, says Sexton. “The notion of using and supporting Irish produce was something that Irish people would have done all the time,” she explains.
“It’s just that it wasn’t vocalised or put in a frame of an ideology of something we should practice for a particular reason.
"What she was doing in many ways was silently upholding, continuing a system that was part and parcel of the food system anyway.”
Extremely likeable, Myrtle’s gift was in her humble spirit.
“People liked her so much. She had this gift of being extremely unassuming about her own achievements. She was very gentle, very silent about what she was doing, what she had done, and what she had achieved. There was no sense of ego whatsoever and that is a very rare thing in a contemporary context. It is particularly a rare thing given the status and the noise around celebrity chefs.”
Sexton first came across Myrtle during the 1990s, while working as a caretaker in East Cork’s Barryscourt Castle.
One day, as Sexton was getting the place ready to open her cafe in a number of weeks, a car rolled into the driveway and out spilled four people, draped in what looked to be Foxford blankets.Abandoning the car, the strangers started exploring the castle with enthusiasm, so Sexton ran outside to find out what was going on.
“I introduce myself and then almost pass out because I realise that it’s Myrtle Allen standing in front of me. Then I get an awful fright because I realise that I am going to have to give her a cup of tea and something to eat! As it happens, I had just made a rhubarb tart so I gave her a slice. She said ‘at least you can make rhubarb tart’. I was delighted, it was like God had spoken.”
Myrtle’s humour was legendary, says Sexton. “At times she was self-deprecating in a really comic way. I think that was very admirable, because there was a great strength of character behind that and she was very secure in herself. She didn’t have to shout about herself and that was a very attractive trait.”
Highly intelligent, and with an interest in all kinds of subjects, leaning heavily towards the alternative, Myrtle had a bit of a hippy side to her, according to Sexton.
“She had a kind of outsider mentality, with a strong streak of alternativeness about her, which we don’t really perceive of her today. I think it’s that polymath aspect and that sense of intelligence that fed into the food and how she dealt with herself as she went through all of her different projects.”
With an unshakeable belief in her mission, Myrtle Allen ploughed ahead with force in order to achieve what she set out to, and this is a part of her legacy that must be celebrated, says Sexton.
“She wasn’t swayed by outside influences but rather she aimed to validate the internal, she looked inward and strove to elevate what was good home-produced food to such a high status that we could be confident in believing that Irish food was some of the best the world could produce.”
The Sweet Trolley at Ballymaloe House was legendary. The selection changed every evening, and always included little tastes of local and traditional food.