How Ballymaloe began: 30 years of culinary excellence

As Ballymaloe Foods turns 30, Joe McNamee hears how it all began — from one recipe in Myrtle Allen’s cookbook
How Ballymaloe began: 30 years of culinary excellence

Three generations of the Hyde family as Ballymaloe Foods celebrates 30 years in business this month.  Pictured are Yasmin Hyde and her daughters, Maxine Hyde and Rose Callaghan and her granddaughter baby Cara Callaghan. Ballymaloe Foods is this month marking its 30th anniversary. Picture: Clare Keogh

Back in 1990, Yasmin Hyde, a mother of four young children, was looking for a steadier source of income to make up for the shortfalls that come from the rather more precarious business of buying and selling horses. Having grown up surrounded by food, it made sense to look at that area and, as it happens, her mother had a very nice recipe for tomato relish.

Now, a lot of mothers have handed down undoubtedly good recipes over the years, and but Yasmin’s mother had form in this regard: her mother was Myrtle Allen and the recipe came from Myrtle’s Ballymaloe Cookbook.

Thirty years on, Ballymaloe Relish is one of the most iconic Irish food products on sale in shops and restaurants, and the Ballymaloe Foods company has 33 staff and exports a range that includes relishes, mayonnaise, pasta sauces, and dressings to Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and the US. Yasmin’s daughter, Maxine, is now general manager, running the business, while Yasmin is chairwoman of the board.

“I had a good relationship with my mother,” says Yasmin, “and she was she was quite motherly, but at the same time, you always knew she had another agenda on her mind, she was always working on something else.”

One day the Allen children woke up to find their home had become a restaurant. In time it would become the internationally renowned and, for a spell, Michelin-starred, Ballymaloe House. As the children still needed minding, they were set to work in the business from the off.

“I was out on the floor with my first waitress uniform at the age of nine,” says Yasmin, “and taught how to wait properly and serve wine.

“We always worked during our school holidays. We lived way down the country, so it was an opportunity to meet lots of people. We got pocket money and we learned an awful lot, about life, people, and business — we saw it grow from nothing — but at that stage in my life, food wasn’t a vocation.”

Horses were however, and after she left school she immersed herself in that world, becoming a jockey, winning races in Ireland and in France, as well as breeding and dealing horses. In 1981, she met a horse vet named John Hyde at a stud farm in Co Limerick who asked her if she’d like to meet up for a drink or a meal on the way home.

“When I went out to the car park,” says Yasmin, “I learned the lights in his car weren’t working properly. So whether that was behind his request, I don’t know, but we’ve stayed together ever since.” The couple had four children, Corinne, Maxine, Rose, and Sean, the youngest, was just six months old when she started Ballymaloe Foods.

“Sometimes you make money with horses, sometimes you lose money, so I wanted to have some steady income for myself,” she said. “I knew we had a wealth of recipes at Ballymaloe that I could dip into if I wanted to, and picked on the Ballymaloe relish because I knew the product very, very well. It was very versatile, you could use it with lots of different things, it had a good natural shelf life and everyone seemed to like it.”

With a £10,000 loan from her father, Yasmin cobbled together a portable building production unit in her garden. Her first hurdle was educating potential consumers.

“The biggest problem with it — and still is — is trying to introduce it to people for the first time because they don’t know if it goes with smoked salmon or if it’s strawberry jam,” she says. “The hardest thing was to get people to pick up the first jar.”

Maxine recalls: “She’d have to push people to try it, she’d be like Mrs Doyle — ‘go on, go on, go on’ — but as soon as they did, they’d buy a jar, especially in Ireland.”

“The Irish people are fantastic,” says Yasmin, “So good to put their hands in their pockets and buy something and give it a go. We have an especially generous nature, but other countries can be different, much more calculating and cautious, wondering if it would just be left in the cupboard unused.”

“I was born before the relish began,” says Maxine, “but I don’t remember much before that. We were always included, at shows at the weekend, travelling abroad, going to London — it was quite exciting. She wasn’t the mum who’s 15 minutes early to pick us up from school every day with a perfectly organised life, but we became quite independent kids, willing to sort ourselves out a lot of the time, and we really learned to like hard work.”

Maxine studied Italian and Business and also did the Ballymaloe Cookery School course before eventually being drawn into Ballymaloe Foods, initially to look after marketing. Currently, all four siblings are working in the business.

“In hindsight, I think it would have been better to go and work for a different food company for, like, 10 years and then come here, but that’s just the way it worked out,” says Maxine.

As it happened, Maxine was about to gain enough experience to last a lifetime. Returning home from the Ploughing Championships in September 2019, traditionally their most physically gruelling week of the year, they learned there had been an electrical fire at their Little Island production plant. Exhausted, they resolved to come in after the weekend to clean up and carry on. Monday morning revealed a different story.

“All our employees were parked on the road because they weren’t allowed in, and that was probably the first time the extent of it hit me,” says Maxine, “our responsibility to our employees, people with mortgages and families.”

The electrics were wiped out entirely, every single machine badly damaged by smoke and steam, necessitating complete dismantling and deep cleaning. The production unit was unusable in the lead-in to the busiest time of the year, when their biggest clients begin stocking up for Christmas. It was eight months before they could return to full production in the plant.

“It was a lot of learning from definitely the hardest six months of my life,” says Maxine. “It was fast-paced, non-stop, cold, wet, and it was very, very hard.”

Ironically, it stood them in some comparative good stead for the next great crisis, hot on the fire’s heels — Covid-19.

“The coronavirus is just awful, for people personally and for businesses,” says Maxine. “It’s awful for restaurants — and that’s a third of our business — and at the beginning we lost our export business, but in terms of crisis management, to us, it seemed so easy because what we had just learned from the fire. Coronavirus has been difficult, and will continue to be difficult, but we are all hopeful that normality will eventually return.”

Ballymaloe Foods continues to evolve even as we continue to ride the coronavirus rollercoaster. They are radically upgrading sustainability programmes and Yasmin has embarked on a personal crusade on behalf of her new pet project — a beetroot relish produced from entirely Irish ingredients.

But, at the heart of it all remains the relish. It is now an iconic Irish food product, and even as fresh imitations flood the market with each passing year, it is still the original of the species, the Ur-relish. Happy 30th birthday, Ballymaloe Relish!

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