Joe McNamee talks to Darina Allen about her life in food, a journey that has grown increasingly radical with each passing year.

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Darina Allen's appetite for life is still growing as she hits 70

On the occasion of her 70th birthday this month, Joe McNamee talks to Darina Allen about her life in food, a journey that has grown increasingly radical with each passing year.

Darina Allen's appetite for life is still growing as she hits 70

On the occasion of her 70th birthday this month, Joe McNamee talks to Darina Allen about her life in food, a journey that has grown increasingly radical with each passing year.

The first time I saw Darina Allen on her new RTÉ cookery programme, Simply Delicious, in 1989, I was disdainful. Freshly returned from London, having ‘survived’ an assortment of institutionally cruel, even more institutionally hedonistic professional, all-male kitchens, I was in the Keith Floyd camp.

If I’d even deign to watch a cookery show, it was the louche and battered Englishman swilling a small vineyard during each episode who chimed with my experiences. Darina appeared a conventional, ‘mum-sy’ figure, sporting outré red spectacles, greeting each new dish with an Enid Blyton-esque, ‘simply delicious!’ Furthermore, in the London I’d just left, a fledgling Marco Pierre White had garnered two Michelin stars within two years of opening his first restaurant and was fast becoming the first celebrity chef.

Pro cooking now oozed a seedy glamour, White, a punk rock version of young Jerry Lee Lewis; in comparison, wholesome Darina and her traditional Irish dishes seemed passé. Is there anything so blissfully ignorant as youthful arrogance?

Some 25 years later, we are in a restaurant in Torino, Italy, in town for Terre Madre, the international Slow Food movement’s biennial gathering. Also at the table are the Irish ambassador to Italy and several Bord Bia grandees, all in good form, all anticipating a pleasant epicurean evening capped with a little celebrity stardust courtesy of Darina.

But quite some time ago, Darina diverged from much of mainstream thinking on food and agriculture. While the State has long bowed to commercial imperatives of industrial agriculture, often to the detriment of our national health and the environment, Darina continues to agitate with missionary zeal for every citizen’s human right to environmentally sustainable, wholesome, nutritious food.

In her usual inimitable way, earnest passion leavened with jovial good humour, she spends much of the night rattling cages, cajoling, persuading, extracting a few promises to be pursued at a later date. All depart with a deeper respect for doyenne of Irish food. On the occasion of her 70th birthday, it is surely time to chart the radicalisation of Darina Allen.

Darina O’Connell was born in 1948 and grew up in Culohill, Co Laois, as the eldest of nine. When she was 14, her father died, aged 45, leaving her 36-year-old mother to take over the family business and raise the children by herself.

“Mummy was like Myrtle, she loved cooking and the whole joy of putting meals on the table but she was also of a generation that wouldn’t waste a scrap. We had hens, a kitchen garden, we foraged. I always knew how to make a meal out of nearly nothing, just good housekeeping. Myrtle had exactly the same values. Mummy was like Myrtle, a woman who was always curious, always interested in all sorts of things and I think I learned that from both of them.”

Darina with the late, great Myrtle Allen
Darina with the late, great Myrtle Allen

Darina went to boarding school in the Dominican College, in Wicklow, before going on to train in Hotel Management, at Cathal Brugha St, in Dublin.

“I was ok at school, a tiny bit above average, not very good at maths or sciences, I wasn’t at the top of the class but not at the bottom of the class either but I liked learning, I’ve always liked learning. The nuns were considered quite visionary, they were always encouraging us girls to have a proper career, law, sciences, medicine, architecture, rather than just stay at home but all I wanted to do was to learn more about cooking or to grow — the only two things I knew about anyway. I was determined so they said it had to be a degree, either in hotel management, which had a bit of cooking, or horticulture. When I was in Cathal Brugha St, I did play a lot of poker, I was a bit wild at the time, but I never missed a cooking session. There’s not a lot of cooking on these courses but I loved it.”

On graduating, with no desire to follow her classmates into hotel management, Darina instead sought a cooking post at a time when only men were chefs.

She was struggling until a college lecturer told her about a ‘farmer’s wife in Cork who’d opened a restaurant in her own house’. Darina began her first job, aged 19, as a ‘lady cook’, working for Myrtle Allen in Ballymaloe House in 1968.

“I arrived down on June 15, 1968. We were expecting a posh, buzzy hotel but there didn’t seem to be much happening: a couple of people playing golf on what seemed the beginnings of a golf course, a couple of cars, front door wide open, Sunday papers blown across the hall, up the stars, nobody in sight. It was like the Marie Celeste. We knocked and called for 10 minutes but nobody was around. My brother William was getting quite uneasy and said, ‘we’ll just go home’. As we were going back to the car, this funny-looking young fellow in shorts, bare feet and long hair came running up: ‘Are you the person coming to help us, my parents are coming up.’ It was Tim [Allen] actually. He was so nice and friendly and invited us in for tea. I loved it from the very start.

Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School which opened in 1983, and is now one of the world’s most respected private cookery schools. Picture: Denis Minihane
Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School which opened in 1983, and is now one of the world’s most respected private cookery schools. Picture: Denis Minihane

“Myrtle in many ways taught me almost the opposite of what I was taught at Cathal Brugha St. It’s not to denigrate what I was taught there — I learned many, many useful things and I’ve got them to thank them for getting me to Ballymaloe —but basically it was a whole different philosophy of cooking. Go out to the garden, go out to the farm, link with local farmers to get the beautiful produce and cook it simply, everything from scratch, bread, butter, there was no question of buying anything pre-prepared. The same as it was at home with Mummy. That reinforced Mummy’s values. I was like a sponge, I couldn’t get over Myrtle, we literally cooked side by side and every day there was masses more to learn.”

DARINA married Tim, son of Myrtle Allen, in 1970 and had four children but when the family horticulture business was devastated by the oil crisis (no longer sustainable to heat glasshouses) they, with her brother, Rory O’Connell, opened Ballymaloe Cookery School, in 1983, now one of the world’s most respected private cookery schools.

“The first day, I was apprehensive, [the students] were apprehensive. We walked around the garden and the farm. Then I demonstrated how to make soda bread, basic soup — a technique that hasn’t changed since —short crust pastry, probably a quiche Lorraine, a green salad, a dressing, how to dress the salad, and a blackberry and apple compote with sweet geranium leaves and biscuits—and there were lots of techniques. It was all quite casual in a way. There were only 10 or 11 students so we were chatting all the time. I can teach anybody how to cook, absolutely anybody but they have to want to. Rory and I can go anywhere now and someone will come up and say, ‘hi’, because our ‘babies’ are scattered all over the world —students from 156 countries now.”

Darina with her brother Rory O’Connell
Darina with her brother Rory O’Connell

In 1989, Darina was invited to do a pilot for a new RTÉ cookery show, Simply Delicious. It was an almost instant success, running for nine series and spawning a series of books that marked her emergence as a cookbook author.

“I thought, I don’t have a clue what to do, I’ll only make an eejit of myself, but then I thought, if it was a success, I’d be able to teach more people to cook. Eventually, I decided I’d be happier to live with it not being a huge success rather than not having tried it and always wondering, what if? These are the decisions that change your life and it surprised us all.

“I went on the Late Late [Show] to promote it and I’ve never been so terrified in my life, but Gay [Byrne] was very nice. The following day, as I was walking down Dawson St, I remember people turning around and saying, ‘that’s the woman who was on the Late Late last night’. I immediately realised everything had changed. And I found it really … I really had to have chats with myself and I was so delighted to return to the country and escape.

“I’ve had my moments but people generally have

been so generous, so nice. This woman outside the Crawford [Art Gallery] grabbed my arm really hard and said, ‘I just wanted to say thank you, you’ve taught me how to make soda bread, I could never make it like his mother and now I can’. I nearly burst into tears, it was such an important thing to her, and then she was gone.

“There is no question the series made a difference to a lot of people’s lives. A lot of people who bought the first cookbook didn’t have a cookbook, or didn’t use one and I made sure the recipes were very easy and they were all very well tested recipes so they worked.

“My publisher is bringing out 100 classic Simply Delicious recipes and the people cooking the dishes for the photographers who do this all the time were raving, saying, ‘this food is so delicious’. They couldn’t get over how the recipes had stood the test of time.”

Darina Allen in her herb garden during the filming of her RTÉ series 'Simply Delicious' which helped make her a household name.
Darina Allen in her herb garden during the filming of her RTÉ series 'Simply Delicious' which helped make her a household name.

INCREASINGLY, Darina found it hard to ignore the impact conventional farming was having on the quality of produce and on the environment. In the early 90s, the decision was taken to convert the Ballymaloe Cookery School farm, in Shanagarry, to an organic farm.

“Over the years, I was becoming more knowledgeable about how food is produced and the more I learned, the more concerned I became. The main advice to farmers was — and is — to produce the maximum amount of food at the minimum cost. The only thing that mattered was to get yields up. Farmers were not being paid for flavour or nutrient-dense food — that absolutely didn’t come into it.

“There was also a growing feeling amongst consumers, fuelled by the supermarkets, that cheap food was their right but they don’t understand that this is not the true cost of food. All of us as taxpayers are paying several times for food, contributing to the subsidies which farmers get — patently an unsustainable food system on so many levels. We’re paying for the negative impacts on the health service and the environment. The retail price is about a quarter of the real cost.

“This intensive farming required more and more chemicals and you didn’t have to look far to find the research to say this stuff is definitely detrimental to our health, definitely linked to cancers and so many modern-day diseases. It was obvious there was something terribly wrong.

We were still farming conventionally even though we were trying to use pesticides and herbicides as sparingly as possible but I was in the [demo kitchen] one day, talking about the importance of sourcing ingredients of the highest quality and I look out the window and a tractor spraying God knows what on the land and I said to myself, ‘oh my Jesus what a hypocrite, we have got to take back that land and farm organically’.

Slow Food was founded in Italy, in 1989, on foot of the general decline in Italian food culture. The stated aim was to defend regional culinary traditions, good food and gastronomy and to encourage a ‘slower’, healthier approach to food. It is now a global movement, active in over 160 countries.

Darina is a leader of Slow Food Ireland. (A natural consequence of membership was her championing farmers’ markets in this country.)

“I was in Italy in 1996 receiving an award for my book on traditional Irish cooking and gave a thank you speech through an interpreter. I said, ‘you are so fortunate in Italy to have such a diverse food culture — you must not lose this. In Ireland we are having such difficulty with all these regulations and they are eliminating all of our food culture’. I was all fired up and went on. I got a standing ovation and this man came running over and said, ‘have you ever heard of Slow Food?’ I said, ‘no’, and he said, ‘you have more or less literally delivered the Slow Food manifesto!’”

Ballymaloe Litfest began as a celebration of food and gradually evolved into a symposium concerned with food politics, issues and literacy. Beginning in 2014, it hosted some of the biggest names in world food, immediately arriving as a premier event on the global culinary calendar. In 2017, founders Darina and brother Rory announced the festival would take a break.

“We had a double agenda: Irish people could come and hear the speakers but all these speakers also had a pen in their hand and were enormously influential around the world, so we were determined that they would enjoy the very best food and the best experiences, so they return home and say, ‘Hey, what about Ireland!’ It did achieve what we set out to achieve and we’ll come back in another incarnation.”

Darina Allen at Ballymaloe.
Darina Allen at Ballymaloe.

Over the years, Darina has become a prolific author but her 16th and most recent, Grow, Cook, Nourish probably best condenses her passions and campaigning spirit, opening with the words of Eve Balfour, founder of The Soil Association: ‘The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible.’ Not that much different from the recently deceased Myrtle’s own philosophy.

“All of us feel very strongly that it’s a joy rather than any kind of pressure to continue to operate to her philosophy. I hope that we’ll be mature enough and wise enough to continue her tradition faithfully. Her fundamental philosophical legacy was that it’s all about the quality of the ingredients. You have to put work into that — and be curious. Myrtle was wonderfully curious, with a wonderful independent intelligence, and I was influenced by her, in every way.”

I still view Marco Pierre White as prominent in the history of global cuisine though his relevance to contemporary food culture is waning; poor old Floyd RIP is now nothing more than a poignant pitiful footnote. Darina Allen, on the other hand, has become one of my greatest food heroes of all —and that includes her funky red spectacles.

Happy Birthday, Darina!

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