Rory O’Connell and Darina Allen pay tribute to Christmas past

Brother and sister Rory O’Connell and Darina Allen recall their childhood Christmas memories with Marjorie Brennan

Christmas food at Ballymaloe Cookery School with Darina Allen and Rory O'Connell. Picture: Denis Minihane

“If you’re on holidays, you will be going along having a lovely time, and you’ll come to a wall, and in the wall there will be a door, and there might be a suggestion of something nice inside, a lovely garden or whatever, and on the door, it will say ‘Do Not Enter’ as in ‘go away’. I am the person who believes the sign and retreats. Darina does not believe the sign, she knocks on the door, somebody opens it irately saying: ’who are you, what on earth, can’t you see…’ and then they go ‘Darina! Come in!’” And, as recounted by her brother Rory O’Connell, that is the secret of Darina Allen’s success. Allen is in fits of laughter at O’Connell’s cheeky reply to my question about how they are different.

“Darina says I’m inquisitive, but she is a lot more inquisitive. That is part of the secret of her success, being terrifyingly, exhaustingly inquisitive,” he says.

Allen — chef, businesswoman, activist and writer — has been at the forefront of the food industry in Ireland for decades, and in recent years, O’Connell has joined his sister in the pantheon of Irish culinary talent. The day we speak, he is heading to Dublin for the Irish Book Awards (at which he won cookbook of the year for Cook Well, Eat Well). The pair co-founded Ballymaloe Cookery School in 1983 and Allen’s pride in her brother’s success is clear; she delights in the fact that people now ask her if she is Rory’s sister instead of the other way around.

It is clear from listening to the pair reminisce about their childhood that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree when it came to their talent for cooking — and their work ethic. Darina is the eldest of nine, with Rory second youngest, and they grew up near the village of Cullohill, Co Laois. Their mother Elizabeth was a gifted cook, utilising the natural bounty of the countryside, much as her children do now at the farm at Ballymaloe.

“Mummy loved to cook. We always had a kitchen garden with apple trees, blackcurrant bushes, gooseberry bushes and all of that. We always had hens and chickens for the tables. The food we ate was always of good quality, it was just our norm, we didn’t think anything about it. We had a Kerry cow for good milk. When that cow went, we used to buy our milk down the road from the local farmer.” “I remember going to get the milk in a can,” says O’Connell.

Christmas was a time when their mother’s impressive skills came into their own.

“Christmas was incredible,” says Allen. “Mummy was an extraordinary woman. In a way, you don’t really understand that fully at the time, we took it for granted. There was a lot of planning involved for Christmas because there were so many of us. From November, in the evenings, she would light the fire in the sitting room, and she would be knitting, sewing or making felt figures, scarves or whatever for every single one of us. Then there were the afternoons when she would make the Christmas cake or the plum pudding; we were always involved in helping with that.”

A family photograph of the O’Connell family, Co. Laois, with Darina Allen (on the far right seated) and Rory O’Connell (seated beside her).

“Her plum pudding was the best without a doubt,” interjects O’Connell. “The Christmas cake was made in November but the white icing wasn’t put on until a couple of days before Christmas as you couldn’t have rock-hard icing. We were all involved in that, whoever was home. We would use the same old folderols on the cake that had been used for decades. It was of huge sentimental importance,” says O’Connell.

“Coming closer to Christmas, all the brass and silver in the house would be polished up and the winter curtains would be hung,” says Allen. “There would be this great build-up, there was a big thing about going up Cullohill Mountain to get berried and variegated holly. I can’t imagine the amount of work she put into the house, there were fires in every room. Later she lived in an older, bigger house. A fire would be lighting in our bedrooms when we came up to visit. She would do all of that, even when she was in her 70s.” O’Connell says their mother’s sense of taste was also an important influence, in both senses of the word: “What Mummy made tasted lovely and the seasoning was always spot on. She had a great palate.”

He says their mother’s work ethic, and emphasis on the fine detail has definitely had an influence on their career path, and their success.

“Without a shadow of a doubt,” says O’Connell. “The love of food definitely and also the the idea of standards and pride. Our existence wasn’t grand but we had lovely things. She was a great shopper, mind you. We inherited that. She liked nice things, she had very good taste.” Sadly, their father died when Allen was only 14 and O’Connell an infant; their mother was also pregnant at the time. Allen has fond memories of them as a couple.

“They adored each other. I never remember a cross word between them. He never left the house without kissing her. He died of lung cancer when he was 45, she was 36. She had eight children, my youngest sister Elizabeth was born a month after he died. She reared a wonderful family who are all very close to each other still, although we don’t live in each other’s pockets. That really mattered to her, that we support each other through any challenges.” That family support was invaluable to O’Connell, who was mulling over his future after a year studying law, arrived in Ballymaloe one summer to work in reception. His sister had by then married into the Allen family and her mother-in-law Myrtle immediately spotted O’Connell’s potential.

“I remember Myrtle coming to me after ten days or a fortnight and saying ‘He’s a complete natural’. She could see he had something extra special,” says Allen.

Adds O’Connell: “I asked Mrs Allen [Myrtle] if I could go and cook in the kitchen. It was quite formal, I went up to her green drawing room and I told her I would like to spend some time in the kitchen. I realised quickly I could cook and I loved to cook.”

I ask them what is the most important thing they have both learned from each other.

“Rory has always been tremendously supportive to me. He brings me down to size occasionally, which is very important,” says Allen.

O’Connell laughs: “That sounds awful… I can be a levelling influence.” Adds Allen: “He is much more artistic and creative than I am. I love that. Also, he is super curious, like me. We are always wanting to learn.” “That goes back to Mummy as well,” says O’Connell. “She was always pointing stuff out to us, even if it was just the branches of a tree, a lovely piece of furniture or pottery or whatever. She was always getting us to stop and look at things. ‘What is life, if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare’, that was one of her favourite sayings.”

Honesty is also an important element in the pair’s relationship, especially when it comes to airing any disagreements.

“I often think I exasperate Rory,” says Allen.

“Never,” laughs O’Connell. “There is very little tension,” he says. “We can tell each other if we are being a pain in the neck. That is important. I would only ever say it to her because it is in her best interest. We are unusual in that we don’t keep it all underneath.”

“We have no problem about disagreeing,” says Allen. “There is an easy banter between us.” And with that, it’s back to their busy lives, Allen to supervise at the cookery school, which hums with life as we chat, and O’Connell for the train to Dublin for the book awards, and on to London to support his artist friend Dorothy Cross at the opening of her latest exhibition.

Before I finish up though, there is one more important piece of information Allen wishes to impart.

“What about the picnics, Rory! She loved picnics. Once, on Christmas Day, we had a picnic up Cullohill mountain….”

“She always wanted to have a picnic on Christmas Day,” says O’Connell. “And she did.”

Rory’s Scrambled Eggs with Lobster and Chives 

Cooked lobster is now so much easier to find – so this treat can be made without having to cook the lobster yourself.

Serves 4 as a starter or 30 as a canapé

225g cooked lobster, chopped into 2cm pieces

4 tablespoons cream

8 free-range eggs

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

25g butter grilled sourdough bread to serve

finely grated zest of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh chives

1 tablespoon chive flowers (optional)

This is a delicious combination that can be served as a starter or canapé on grilled bread or melba toast. Shrimp or crayfish could replace the lobster in the recipe.

The addition of cream to the cooked eggs prevents the mixture from solidifying, making it an ideal dish to prepare in advance.

I hold the cooked mixture at room temperature for a couple of hours and serve it on hot grilled or toasted bread.

The optional chive flowers make a pretty and delicious garnish, but they could be replaced another time with garlic, kale or fennel flowers.

Place the lobster and cream in a small saucepan and gently heat to a bare simmer, then remove from the heat.

Beat the eggs with a good pinch of salt and pepper.

Melt the butter in a small heavy-bottomed saucepan. Add the beaten eggs and cook over a gentle heat, stirring all the time with a flat-bottomed wooden spoon. When the eggs are just beginning to scramble, add the lobster and cream and keep cooking for a few more minutes, until the eggs are a creamy consistency. Remove from the heat and transfer from the saucepan to a bowl.

The eggs will not set hard like cold scrambled eggs, but will retain their lovely softness.

The eggs are best served barely warm but are also good at room temperature.

When ready to serve, spread the scrambled eggs over the hot grilled bread. Grate over the lemon zest and finish with a sprinkling of chives and chive flowers (if using).

Serve immediately.

From Rory O’Connells “Cook Well, Eat Well” published by Gill Books, photographs by Joanne Murphy 

Celeriac Fritters with Pears, Walnuts, Radicchio and Caper Mayonnaise 

Makes 4

sunflower oil, for deep frying

120g (4¼ oz) celeriac (weight after peeling), peeled and cut into fine julienne, like long matchsticks

12 watercress sprigs

12 radicchio leaves

1 ripe pear, cut in quarters lengthways, cored and thinly sliced

16 walnut halves

4 generous teaspoons homemade mayonnaise

28 capers

Batter

140g (4¾ oz)plain flour

pinch of salt

1½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

100ml (3½fl oz) water

1 large egg white, beaten until quite stiff

Dressing

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons lemon juice

½ teaspoon honey

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Celeriac, or root celery as it is sometimes called, is a terrific vegetable. It makes a marvellous soup, is great roasted or as a purée, and is the essential ingredient in the classic remoulade, in which case it is eaten raw. The flavour of celeriac is milder and sweeter than the green celery we are more familiar with.

These crisp fritters are served here as a main course but would also be very good as a starter, in which case the recipe would serve eight people. I use peppery watercress sprigs and radicchio leaves here, but you could substitute a mixture of leaves.

Make the batter for frying the fritters first. Place the flour and a pinch of salt in a large bowl. Add the olive oil and whisk in enough water to form a smooth batter the consistency of thick cream. Chill for 30 minutes, then fold in the stiffly beaten egg white. Whisk all the dressing ingredients together. Taste and correct the seasoning.

When ready to cook the fritters, heat 10cm of sunflower oil in a heavy-bottomed cast iron or stainless steel saucepan until it reaches 180°C, or if you have a deep fat fryer, that will work perfectly.

Mix the celeriac through the batter. Gently drop four large spoonfuls of the mixture into the hot oil and cook until crisp and golden brown on both sides, which should take about 10 minutes in total. Remove from the oil, drain on kitchen paper and keep warm in a low oven. They will remain crisp for 20 minutes or so.

To serve, place the salad leaves, sliced pear and walnuts in a large bowl and dress with the well-mixed dressing. Divide between four plates and place a fritter on top of each salad. Drop 1 teaspoon of mayonnaise on top of the fritters and scatter on the capers. Add a few grains of sea salt and serve immediately.

From Rory O’Connell’s ‘Cook Well, Eat Well’ published by Gill Books 

Tart of Macroom Buffalo Ricotta with Roasted Red Onions, Mushrooms, Thyme and Marjoram 

Serves 4

250g puff pastry

2 medium red onions, peeled and each onion cut into 8 even-sized wedges

2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil

2 large sprigs of fresh thyme

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

100g buffalo or sheep’s milk ricotta

25g Parmesan, grated

½ teaspoon fresh thyme leaves

1 large flat mushroom

2 teaspoons fresh marjoram leaves

To serve salad of mixed leaves

The quality of the puff pastry is really important for a fresh-tasting result that isn’t greasy. If you are buying puff pastry, make sure it is made with butter.

Preheat the oven to 200C. Line a baking sheet with non-stick baking paper. Roll the pastry out and cut into a neat 22cm circle, saving the pastry trimmings for another day. Place on the lined baking sheet.

To achieve a rim on the cooked tart, cut another circle 1cm in from the edge of the pastry. Your knife should pierce the pastry about 1mm deep and should be an obvious cut, not just a mark. This 1cm rim will be the risen edge of the cooked tart and will hold the vegetables in place.

Now pierce the pastry inside the 1cm rim all over with a normal table fork, making sure you feel the tines of the fork hitting the baking sheet. Do not pierce outside of the 1cm ring with your fork. The somewhat alarming holes you have created will close and reseal when it cooks.

Chill the pastry until you are ready to assemble the tart. Toss the onions in 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, add the thyme sprigs and season with salt and pepper.

Tip into a roasting tray and cook in the oven for 30 minutes, until tender. Cool completely.

Mix the ricotta with the Parmesan, thyme leaves and the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and season with salt and pepper.

To assemble the tart, spread the ricotta mixture over the base, making sure not to go onto the pastry rim.

Arrange the roasted onions on top. Cut the mushroom into slices 1cm thick and place cap side down, stalk side up, in a circle on top of the onions. Season the mushroom slices.

Cook in the oven for 30 minutes, until the pastry is crisp and cooked through. Add a final few grains of sea salt and the marjoram leaves and serve as soon as possible.



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