Ballymaloe still has recipe for success fifty years later

When Myrtle Allen opened a restaurant in her dining room, the self-taught chef would cook for guests on her Aga range. Today, 50 years on, the Ballymaloe brand is world-renowned.

Ballymaloe still has recipe for success fifty years later

IT is 50 years since this newspaper ran a classified advertisement of simple, unadorned text: ‘Dine in a Historic Country House. Open Tuesday to Saturday. Booking essential. Phone Cloyne 16.’ It had been placed by a farmer’s wife, recently turned 40, wondering how she would occupy herself when her six children were reared. She wanted to contribute to the upkeep of their rambling old home.

That woman was Myrtle Allen, of Ballymaloe House, and that discreet little ad was the opening line of her astonishing ‘second act’. Her apparently homespun philosophy — a chef should lay aside ego in service of the finest local, seasonal produce, allowing the food on the plate to take all the plaudits — was so out of step with the restaurant world as to appear simplistic, even naive. Today, that ethos is the cornerstone of a great, global food movement, as Myrtle, the revered matriarch of Ballymaloe, celebrates her 90th birthday this month.

Born in Cork City on March 13, 1924, the daughter of an architect (Cork’s Metropole Hotel and College of Commerce were his designs), she married, in 1943, a progressive farmer, Ivan Allen. In 1948, they bought a 300-acre East Cork farm with a country manor, Ballymaloe House.

It is often assumed Myrtle’s ‘public’ life began with the restaurant, but she and Ivan were active in Macra na Feirme (she ran for its presidency in 1963), and their travels abroad on Macra business had influenced her culinary philosophy, when she persuaded Ivan to open a restaurant in their dining room in May, 1964. Save some night-classes, the self-taught chef would cook on her domestic Aga range, with two local women assisting.

The first night was what is known in the trade as a ‘soft opening’: “We didn’t charge anything,” says Myrtle. “Just asked a few friends to join us. One of them, a bit of a character, Geoffrey Thompson, who owned Thompson’s restaurants in Cork, sat down and saw silver teaspoons. ‘Put them away,’ he said, and he was right — years later, a group of men, regular visitors from North Cork, said, ‘do you know every time we come, we take a silver spoon.’

“On the menu were conventional French recipes that I’d have known quite well. I don’t think I was particularly nervous, because I was hopping up and down all the time, checking to ensure everything was alright.”

But it was different once the restaurant got into its stride.

“Terrifying,” she says. “I used to have a nightmare that the cars were coming on and on and on, one after the other, and I wasn’t prepared for them at all. And they never stopped coming, the people never stopped pouring in, and I didn’t know what to give them to eat [laughs]. I was having a go, I’d say, because I had no experience, really. I knew I couldn’t afford to lose money on it — that was the main thing. Eventually, when the Egon Ronay Guide said ‘a good restaurant that could justly become famous,’ I knew, then, that I was on the right track.”

Joe Cronin worked for the Allens for 60 years, initially on the farm. “I was driving a herd of sheep along the road below, when Mr Allen asked me, ‘would you come up and give me a hand with wines?’ I said, ‘I know nothing about wines,’ and he said, ‘I don’t either, but we’ll learn together.’ He was a shrewd man, he knew people’s worth, and I used to get on great with him and anything he’d ask me to do, I’d do, but, of course, I was nervous, all these people in the drawing room expecting good service.”

“We lived a reasonably normal life,” says Myrtle, “If you’re running a restaurant, it does absorb a great deal of your time and thought, but … reasonably normal. [Turning to her youngest daughter, Fern, sitting alongside] You were put to bed. Occasionally.”

“Occasionally,” smiles Fern, wryly. “I was nearly three when it opened, young enough, really. It was strange, because it had been my house and suddenly there were areas where it wasn’t quite my house anymore.”

The decision to convert to a hotel was driven by licensing. “As my husband used to say,” says Myrtle, “‘you could serve any drink, as long as it wasn’t Irish’. You could serve wine, but not Irish whiskey, Guinness, Murphy’s.”

“We used to have a little cupboard in the corner and we used to keep a lot of little secret drinks in there,” says Joe. “We didn’t have a bar as such, that time, but people would be looking for a whiskey or a brandy or whatever.”

“One evening,” says Myrtle, “there was a hotelier here, from Youghal, and she cross-examined me about my licence. Of course, I don’t think I had quite the full licence and I thought, ‘by God, if I ever cross her, if I take a customer from her, I’m in trouble’. After that, I was a bit more careful. But it was mainly the cooking I wanted to do. I felt it could be done and done well. The house itself, I was never so keen on.”

Food critic Nick Landers’ 2012 book, The Art of the Restaurateur, profiles 20 of the world’s most successful restaurateurs, and there is just one Irish entry, Myrtle’s daughter-in-law, Hazel Allen, who has run the hotel and restaurant since the early ’70s. Myrtle may be the culinary heart of Ballymaloe, but it was Hazel who sufficiently burnished the operation to earn a Michelin star, from 1975 to 1980.

Like her renowned sister-in-law, Darina Allen, Hazel hails from Cullohill, Co Laois, and the two families were close, but Hazel’s decision to follow her neighbour to Cathal Brugha St College, to study hotel management, was half-hearted.

“To complete the course,” says Hazel, “you had to get work experience and I went to Canada, where I had relations in Montreal, but I had no interest in going to work in hotels and was wondering how to get out of it. One day, on the train into work, I was reading the paper and there was a big article on Ireland, and it mentioned this hotel down in Co Cork, on a farm, with a picture of Myrtle and Ivan and all their children. I set my heart on going back to Ireland and applying for a job in this place. I think I must have liked the look of the family, although one was worse than the other — they were the scruffiest bunch of people. Anyway, they were very un-hotel-ly.”

Save a year in New Zealand in the early ’70s with her now-husband, Rory (Myrtle’s son), she has been there ever since. “Myrtle has always admitted she never cared much for the hotel business,” says Hazel, “She wanted to run a restaurant, not a country house. She was very definite about that. On her farming trips abroad, she realised the produce in Ireland was better than the produce in France, and this was her major point — that the food in Ireland was very good, it just needed to be developed. So, from the very beginning she was only interested in using food that was literally a stone’s throw away, other than olive oil, citrus fruits, things like that. The menu changed daily. It still does, but it’s more difficult to do that now.”

After losing the Michelin star and with Myrtle increasingly involved in outside projects (including running a Paris-based Irish restaurant, La Ferme Irlandaise, and international chefs’ organisation, Eurotoques), Ballymaloe lacked focus until the return of Darina’s younger brother, Rory O’Connell, as head chef. “He first began working in reception for a summer,” says Hazel. “You could see he was really interested in food. And then he started in the kitchen and was very, very good. He left after a couple of years and everybody thought he was very foolish, but he had to leave, really, to appreciate what he was doing here and also to develop his own repertoire. When he returned as head chef, eventually, those were very good years. Myrtle was trying to get out of Ballymaloe, to work less, she was probably in her late 60s by then, and he came back to take over the kitchen and would have known exactly what she wanted. He could almost work from inside her head, and still can understand exactly where her thoughts are coming from.”

“When I started in the kitchen, Mrs Allen was there all of the time and that was marvellous and exciting, but also frustrating,” says Rory. “Frustrating, because it was essentially a domestic kitchen, albeit serving really good food. Maybe that’s why I asked for complete control when I was asked to return as head chef. I just felt I could do it and it didn’t need to be by committee. But you wouldn’t remain there for a long time if you didn’t believe in the ethos, and you wouldn’t, perhaps, put up with the eccentricities. It’s a family-run business, family in and out all the time, and that’s very much part of the charm for guests staying there. It wouldn’t be as ‘clean-cut’ as other operations.”

Though the ‘mothership’ has also spawned ancillary businesses (including a craft shop run by Myrtle’s daughter, Wendy; Ballymaloe Relish, run by another daughter, Yasmin; Myrtle’s grandson, Cullen Allen, is one half of Cully & Sully), it is Myrtle’s daughter-in-law, Darina, who has made the greatest impact, since arriving in Ballymaloe House as a young cook straight out of college. “I remember our first meeting very well,” says Darina, “on June 16, 1968, a Sunday. My mother and brother drove me to Ballymaloe House. Ivan and Myrtle welcomed us warmly, showed us around, and gave us tea and luncheon cake. It was my first real job, so I was a bit apprehensive. I always called her Mrs Allen. I was assigned to sweets, with Mary Donovan, in an area called ‘the hole in the wall’. The staff were wary of an outsider with training and I was very anxious to please. There was great amusement when my meringues wouldn’t whip, after I used salt rather than caster sugar; the two bins were side by side, an early lesson in the importance of tasting. But Myrtle was a gentle and patient teacher, with an unwavering belief in the importance of good raw materials and, working alongside her, I soaked up all her knowledge like a sponge.”

In 1983, Darina co-founded the Ballymaloe Cookery School, with brother, Rory O’Connell, and began her own ascent, starring in her own cookery TV show and commencing an award-winning food-writing career, including her weekly column for this newspaper in 1998. Students attend the school from all over the world, and renowned alumni include Catherine Fulvio, Clodagh McKenna, Lilly Higgins, Masterchef winner and restaurateur, Thomasina Miers, and Observer ‘young chef of the year’, Stevie Parle. Most notable is Darina’s daughter-in-law, Rachel Allen, illustrating, once more, the Allen males’ penchant for marrying remarkable women. “During the last week of the course,” says Rachel, “it really struck me that I wanted to stay and keep learning. Darina told me to talk to Hazel and Mrs Allen. I spent the first six weeks as a ‘trolley dolly’, in my little apron, pushing the dessert-and-cheese trolley around the restaurant. I learnt a lot even doing that, all the different cheeses. Darina had brought some journalists along on my first night and I sent crème brulee flying all over their table. When I got into the kitchen, I started prepping salads and veg. I learnt so much, that’s where you cement your knowledge and speed and efficiency. It was an amazing experience. Lots of us lived in the staff flat on the grounds, and had really great fun. I stayed for a year and a half, but when I started helping out in the school, I realised teaching was my true love. I love the way Ballymaloe House hasn’t changed much over the years. It is, and always has been, a family house, a family-run guesthouse.”

Yet, despite this reassuring constancy, Ballymaloe House has evolved. “It’s grown,” says Hazel. “When I came here first, the big thing was the farm. But my father-in-law, Ivan, realised this was a country-house hotel and a valuable little business, so the investment switched from the farm to the house. It’s been fantastic to see it grow.”

Changing trends in the hospitality business have also had an impact. “Fine dining is almost old-fashioned now and that’s where places like ourselves will become ‘old-fashioned’. Not everyone wants Downton Abbey every night — and you don’t want to be Downton Abbey, either. You have to be a bit innovative. People don’t want to dress up every night and eat lots of courses.”

“The future of the country house, as we know it, is difficult for all sorts of different reasons,” says Rory. “The lack of population nearby, the cost of running an operation like that. To be perfectly honest, the future of Ballymaloe is very much in my head now, the economics of such a business are very much in a state of flux. Sometimes, I think back to when Mrs Allen opened and the purity of what she did. Maybe it needs to revert to that very simple purity. Noma {restaurant} would be regarded as one of the newest things in dining, but, actually, other than all their fancy, modern equipment, a lot of what they do is looking back, as well. I think it has a future and it definitely weighs heavily on all our shoulders.”

Addressing an uncertain future is the old Grainstore, which doubles as a performance space and wedding venue.

“The thing that brings in money, really, is weddings,” says Hazel, “and even though we have resisted them, we still have to do a few each year to pay the bills and may have to do more. They work very well and people like the venue, but it’s a different business completely.”

There is no ambivalence about the inaugural Ballymaloe Literary Festival, held last year, an unqualified success and set to run again this May. “Last year was fantastic,” says Hazel, “and the bookings have been fantastic for this year. It’s quite a big thing to do it ourselves, but it may grow into something, an independent festival.”

“Ballymaloe is the golden egg,” says Rory. “It is the absolute core of the whole thing and keeping that right is so important for all the other family businesses. There is also an important responsibility on our shoulders to Cork people, and Irish people, who mention the name abroad or who treasure a memory of the place. And, finally, because Mrs Allen’s place in Irish food is so important, that brings it’s responsibility as well, because she is the fount, the source of it all. We say some people are ahead of their time but she really, really was.”

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