Ballymaloe sowed the seeds of success

DARINA ALLEN is enjoying herself. For once, the beating heart of Ballymaloe Cookery School is taking a little time off to smell the roses.

Ballymaloe sowed the seeds of success

Well, not just the roses but most of the other fabulous produce, nearly all edible, which grows in the beautiful gardens and greenhouses of the organic farm in Shanagarry, where the school is situated. Our interview has turned into an impromptu stroll on a glorious late summer afternoon, but even as she repeatedly voices relish at this unexpected break from her hectic schedule, she is darting hither and thither, to snatch up weeds, right a fallen sign, note repair work for the farm team or dig up new spuds. According to reliable witnesses, this human dynamo does actually sleep but it is difficult to imagine her ever switching off completely.

“The school started from a desire to stay on the farm, on the land we love,” says Darina. “We had four small children so we didn’t want to have to drive into Cork every day for work. It may sound hippyish but we are blessed to have some land. Every single penny since opening, within reason, is re-invested, which is why it looks like it does now.

“It is the work of 40-something years, very gradual, but people are gobsmacked by the scale, a 100-acre organic farm producing 80 crops, with 50 employees.”

It began in September 1983, when she asked her brother, chef Rory O’Connell, if he’d partner her in starting a cookery school, offering short courses and what is now the internationally-renowned three-month course, the most recent of which brought 60 students of 11 different nationalities to East Cork.

“One of the main reasons they come from the four corners of the world is because the school is smack-bang in the middle of an organic farm. They are taught to see the connection between a growing plant and a finished dish.

“It [three-month course] costs about €10,000; if you stay it all adds up to about €13,000, which is a lot of money but we receive no subsidies whatsoever from the Dept of Education or anyone else. Yet, more and more, people are borrowing or using redundancy money because they know if they are committed, they will go straight into employment after finishing. There are ex-Ballymaloe cookery students all over the world.”


By Rachel Allen (Class of January 1990)

You can’t fault the Allen men when it comes to choosing wives: first Myrtle, then Darina and, in the next generation again, Rachel, have all accepted the surname and then burnished it beyond all recognition, building the international renown of both Ballymaloe Cookery School and Ballymaloe House. Rachel’s style may differ from her mother-in-law, Darina, and her husband’s grandmother, Myrtle, her easygoing manner on TV no different to her daily demeanour, but she holds fast to the Ballymaloe principle that each great dish begins by choosing the best of local, seasonal ingredients and, if anything, her international fame as a star of TV, and best-selling cookbook author, has eclipsed that of both Myrtle and Darina.

Rachel was brought up in Dublin and came to the cookery school aged 18, and in some ways, never really left.

“I can’t believe I’ve been here nearly 24 years,” says Rachel, “I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing if it wasn’t for the Cookery School. I was struck the very first day by Darina, that mad passion and enthusiasm just blowing you away, it was so infectious, you just cannot be left untouched by her love of food. She’s really never-ending, with boundless amounts of passion for food and the school. It’s a great place to work, incredibly high standards. She would never say, OK, it’s looking good, time to sit back and relax. She’s constantly asking what’s happening here, constantly evolving. It is a really, really wonderfully inspiring place to be working and learning because even as you work, you’re still learning. I can’t believe I’ve been here for nearly 24 years!


Lilly Higgins (Class of April 2007)

Higgins is a food writer, blogger, photographer and chef whose blog was turned into a cookbook, Make Bake Love, with her second book, Dream Deli, due next month. Corkonian Lilly, a TV regular, starred in her sister Maeve’s comedy cooking show, Fancy Vittles, and has a new series called Ireland’s Best Young Baker to be shown on RTE this month.

Catherine Fulvio (Class of April 2002)

Fulvio is a TV chef, food writer and cookery tutor, who also somehow finds time to run Ballyknocken Cookery School and Ballyknocken House. Her most recent book, Eat Like an Italian, won cookbook of the year at the Irish Book Awards in 2012.


Thomasina Miers (Class of April 2002)

After Miers won British Masterchef in 2005, her star rose rapidly. She now has several cookbooks to her name, pioneered the successful Mexican food chain, Wahaca and returned to Ballymaloe for the Litfest earlier this year.

Clodagh McKenna (Class of Jan 2000)

On leaving the school, Clodagh worked for three years as a chef in Ballymaloe House. She then became a food writer, TV chef, teacher and restaurateur and in April, 2012, opened a restaurant, Homemade by Clodagh, at Arnotts in Dublin which was followed by her first standalone restaurant, Clodagh’s Kitchen in Blackrock, Dublin.

Cullen Allen (Class of Sept 1997)

One of Myrtle Allen’s 22 grandchildren, Cullen is half of the renowned Cully & Sully, along with Colum O’Sullivan, makers of soups and pies. Last year, the company was sold to US-based Hain Celestial Group, a natural and organic products company, for an undisclosed sum.

Michael Quinn (Class of January 1993)

Waterford-man Quinn went on to work for his mentor Myrtle Allen, in the Ballymaloe House kitchens. Following stints in top restaurants around the globe, he returned to work as head chef at Waterford Castle for 17 years, winning numerous awards. He left this year to start a new food venture, Quinn-Larkin Food.

Mike Hanrahan (Class of Sept 2007)

The former Stockton’s Wing frontman left behind a 30-year professional musical career to retrain as a chef. He is now head chef in comedian Pat Shortt’s pub, in Castlemartyr, Co Cork, where he does a splendid line in seasonal, fresh and local gastropub fayre.

Stephen Parle (Class of January 2002)

Parle was named Young Chef Of The Year by the Observer Food Monthly Magazine in October 2010.

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