Her culinary philosophy, based on the primacy of using only the very best of local, seasonal, Irish produce, grown and harvested or even foraged in a sustainable way, is now so accepted by the global mainstream, that it can be hard to convey the revolutionary impact of her seemingly simple approach to cooking when she first opened a restaurant at Ballymaloe, the very first in the world to apply these principles to fine dining.
Myrtle Hill, an architect’s daughter, was born in Cork City in 1924, marrying a progressive fruit and vegetable farmer, Ivan Allen, in 1943.
In 1948, they bought a farm at Ballymaloe, in East Cork, which included the manor home that was to become the renowned Ballymaloe House. Initially, Ivan ran the mixed farm, growing a variety of fruit and vegetables while Myrtle raised their six children.
Ivan not only grew a large variety of produce but, a keen gourmand, encouraged Myrtle to cook this produce imaginatively. She took cookery classes in the College of Commerce (designed by her father) in nearby Cork City and began to contribute a recipe column to the Irish Farmer’s Journal.
But as her children grew older, she was faced with the prospect of the big house becoming emptier and increasingly more expensive to keep. Her solution was to open a restaurant, in 1964, converting a downstairs dining room into what would become the Yeats’ Room restaurant.
The placement of a simple text-only ad in this newspaper was the full extent of her marketing drive, no photo or illustration, it simply read: “Dine in a Historic Country House. Open Tuesday to Saturday. Booking essential. Phone Cloyne 16.”
Her own children, on returning from boarding school, were rather disappointed to find she wasn’t serving up anything more exotic than the fare she had always cooked for the family dining table but her contemporary take on traditional Irish farmhouse food with an emphasis on using the very finest local produce rather than imported goods was radical in the extreme.
The late Irish chef Gerry Galvin, also greatly influenced by Myrtle, once said: “Myrtle served home cooking in a refined environment, using whatever fresh, local foods were available. This is a commonplace now, but it was fairly revolutionary then.
“At the time, anything really good was expected to have been imported. We were still suffering from the notion that anything that was our own was inferior.”
Gradually, the other rooms in the house surrendered themselves up to become part of Ballymaloe House Hotel & Restaurant and its renown became international and it held a Michelin star from 1975 to 1980.
Ross Lewis, chef/proprietor of Michelin-starred Chapter One, worked with Allen when he assumed the role of Irish Commissioner General of Eurotoques during a period of major transition.
“She had the ability to influence not just her peers in hospitality but politicians and other decision-makers as well and, in my opinion, she established the cradle of Irish hospitality, which is the Irish country house hotel — that is where all modern Irish hospitality comes from.”
Speaking to this paper four years ago about the early years of the restaurant, Myrtle recalled: “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.”
In 1981, Allen accepted an invitation to run a restaurant in Paris, La Ferme Irlandaise, regularly packing up her car with Irish produce to take the ferry to France, where she served up her contemporary Irish food to much acclaim, consistently placing in the top 10 non-French restaurants in the city during the several years of its existence.
In 1986 she became a founding member of the chefs’ organisation, Eurotoques International, dedicated to preserving traditional produce and dishes.
The other principle founding chefs, Paul Bocuse (France), Gualtiero Marchesi (Italy) and Juan-Mari Arzak (Spain), were giants in their field, so esteemed, Eurotoques meetings were afforded police escorts in France yet they soon came to appreciate and in time revere this simple Irish cook. Allen founded an Irish chapter and, within just three years, headed the entire Europe-wide organisation.
An anecdote from the early days, when she castigated her fellow chef delegates for accepting their coffees served with UHT cream in little plastic containers, a practice completely contradicting the organisation’s founding philosophy, illustrates perfectly Allen’s fearless adherence to her own principles.
At the inaugural Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, Claus Meyer, co-founder, along with chef Rene Redzepi, of Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant voted number one in the world for several years, recalled the very strong bonds formed between Danish and Irish members of Eurotoques under Myrtle’s tenure, when the two were very much seen as “second-tier” culinary nations, by the French and Italians in particular.
It is no coincidence that the modern cuisines of both Denmark and Ireland now share a common belief in the primacy of finest local, seasonal produce and Meyer directly attributed Noma’s world-renowned and globally influential locavore culinary philosophy to the influence of Myrtle, an ethos that came almost instinctively to her in the kitchen some 40 years before Noma even opened.
She and husband Ivan had been heavily involved in the early Macra na Feirme before the opening of Ballymaloe House. Daughter-in-law Hazel Allen recalled: “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.”
Chef Rory O’Connell was very much Myrtle’s protégé in the Ballymaloe House kitchen, eventually heading it up for 10 years. Hazel Allen said: “He could almost work from inside her head, and [could] understand exactly where her thoughts [were] coming from.”
“People think of her as a home cook,” says Rory O’Connell.
“But she wasn’t, there was real finesse, real mastery of the craft — and thoughtfulness. When food is that simple — yet beautiful — the notion that someone might have thought about it doesn’t come up but the truly great chefs think like that and Mrs Allen thought that way.
“She was so not a cheffy cook, there was no bluster, no ego, no masculine physicality. She brought a beautiful feminine sensitivity both to the ingredients and the techniques involved.”
“She knew what worked together, she was brilliant at putting together dishes, at marrying textures. For example, she took Carrageen pudding from being a disgusting, stodgy thing that Irish people feared and turned it into a beautiful, ambrosial, almost ethereal dish. Mrs Allen’s place in Irish food is so important because she is the fount, the source of it all.”
Consider this from the introduction to her The Ballymaloe Cookbook (1977), still one of the most important Irish cookbooks ever produced, as she applies the concept of terroir, long associated only with wine, to food in general, something the rest of the culinary world at large has only cottoned on to very recently: “‘The butter your sister is sending us is very good,’ I said to my neighbour one day. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘that field always made good butter.’ That is long ago and the fragrance is almost forgotten.”
That fragrance may be forgotten but it will be many, many generations before Myrtle Allen ever is.