Darina Allen's food mission: 'We have got to take back control over the most important thing in our lives'
Terrified by rising obesity rates and a generation reliant on processed foods, Darina Allen is on an "urgent mission" to change the way the nation eats. Here, the grande dame of Irish cookery tells our reporter why it's time to start a health revolution - beginning by re-establishing a connection with how our food is grown.
Darina Allen is on a crusade. After a lifetime of educating and advocating and just months away from her 70th birthday, the lady of Ballymaloe is ready for what she calls the "most important mission" of her public life.
Having done so much to change the way we cook, Darina now wants to play her part in changing the way we eat, campaigning for radical change in the national diet and our entire approach to our wellbeing.
Our First Lady of Food points to the cold statistics when she warns that Ireland is in the midst of what she calls a "national crisis". One third of our children are overweight. The average Irish weekly shopping basket contains 45.9pc ultra-processed foods (the third highest in the EU). Health experts have warned that if current trends continue, by 2030, 90pc of Irish adults will be clinically obese.
Sitting at a table in the heart of her cookery school and farm in the rich fields of East Cork, Darina Allen fizzes with energy and purpose. But there is also a sense of anger about where we find ourselves today.
"Yes, I'm angry - though I'm not sure if that is the right word. But I am frustrated. And I'm desperate for us as a country to see what's happening," she says. "We have to wake up, recognise the huge crisis we face and we have got to take back control over the most important thing in our lives.
"We cannot say we don't know what the dangers are - we know the statistics on childhood and adult obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes. We are already in a national crisis, but what are we doing to deal with it?"
Darina has common-sense ideas and solutions to tackle this crisis. But she knows how her ideas and campaigning could come across with the public and politicians.
"People will often say to me - because I know I go on and on - they'll say: 'Well, it's all very fine for you Darina, you can afford to spend money on organic food, you live on a big farm, you can grow your own.' I know this can sound a bit head-mistressy or I could come across as the worthy grandmother telling everybody what to do. But it's not that. It is absolutely terrifying for me to see how quickly we have handed over complete control of our food choices to the multi-national companies and the supermarkets, how we have lost any connection with growing, with even knowing where our food comes from."
Her detractors may also snipe about her just being another celebrity chef on a media-friendly food campaign. However, Darina is aware of this and points to real differences made by Jamie Oliver with his campaign against junk food in school dinners in the UK that was shown to reduce school absences and improve pupils' test results. She recalls how Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's Fish Fight campaign resulted in a change in EU fishing policy.
"Jamie and Hugh both made a difference. Even a small amount of change, just in people's attitudes or showing them what they can do for themselves, can be the start of something so much bigger."
Not one to depend on just words or leading by example, Darina has already taken her campaign to the very top.
"I wrote to Leo Varadkar the other week, he wrote back to me. And I wrote to Simon Harris. There was another big story about the health service being under strain. And you are never going to solve that problem unless the national diet is recognised as being a big part of it."
Darina was not prepared to get the brush-off from either the Taoiseach or his health minister.
"I know how it works and I said at the end of the letters: 'I don't want a rote reply saying I'll bring this to the attention of the minister.' So Leo wrote back to me and organised for me to have a meeting."
The meeting was quickly arranged, and Darina talked to the minister of state with responsibility for health education, Catherine Byrne, along with two of the Government's chief advisers on public health and food policy.
"I went up to Dublin, we had a very good meeting. They listened to me, poor things. And I told them we have to find a way to change attitudes towards food and diet at a fundamental level.
"What I would like to see is a virtuous triangle between the departments of health, education and agriculture. The wealth of a nation depends on the health of a nation. And our health depends to a great degree on what we eat."
In practical terms, Darina believes we could start with placing cookery, growing and nutrition firmly at the heart of both primary and secondary curriculums.
"We have a generation of kids coming out of our schools not knowing even the basics of cooking," she says. "It's to our great shame and a terrible failure. This is a vital life skill for them now and in the future, when they raise families of their own. No child should be coming out of our schools without basic cooking skills.
"We also need a concerted campaign to educate people to connect the food they are eating with their health," she continues. "We know what we are facing, an obesity epidemic, Type 2 diabetes, huge strain on the health service. How much worse does it have to be before we wake up and see that we need something radical here?"
As well as better education about what we're putting into our bodies, Darina is passionate about promoting GIY - or, grow it yourself - skills. Growing fruit and vegetables, she insists, is not just the preserve of those with large gardens or fields.
"We have to make every effort to encourage people to grow at least some of their own food. It's not difficult, it doesn't require a lot of space or special equipment or skills. It's something virtually anybody can do and it brings huge benefits."
Darina believes that Ireland could be a trend-setter in educating and encouraging kids and adults to learn about healthy cooking and eating, to grow their own and make a big, positive change for all.
"We have led the way in Ireland with the tax on plastic bags, with the smoking ban. Why don't we get the best advice possible and come up with a wide programme that is completely radical and lead the way once more? We can start a national movement towards growing our own and taking back control of what we eat."
"We have to teach the kids how to cook again - and how to grow - so they can actually feed themselves. All of the stakeholders, in health, in education, in laws covering the food that is sold in this country, we all need a completely different mindset, to break the power of the vested interests."
The trend across the board in food has been towards locally sourced or home-grown, organic and sustainable. Factors such as Brexit and climate change have also raised the spectre of "food security" or being able to rely on what we can grow ourselves, locally and nationally.
"Look at the bad week of snow we had recently," says Darina. "We saw people on the news, pulling sliced pans off each other. In less than a week, the shelves were empty. Could you ask for a more dramatic picture of how we have lost the skills to feed ourselves? How we have become utterly dependent on the supermarkets and for bringing in even our most basic foods from abroad?"
If it sounds like Darina Allen is fired up and ready to go, desperate to make a positive change, it's because she is.
Her latest book, Grow, Cook, Nourish, is an ultra-practical guide to growing and cooking your own, from seed to plate, using traditional (and not so traditional) fruit and veg that she says everyone, no matter where they live, how busy they are or what level of skills they have, can follow.
After a lifetime of teaching and advocating, with 15 major books behind her, she says her 16th is her "most important" because it represents her most passionate beliefs. "I put three years into this book and it is by far my most important, because I feel like I am on a mission that's so very urgent," she says.
"The motivation for doing this book - because I am ancient and I have been at this so long - is that I am absolutely terrified by the deterioration that I have seen over the last couple of decades in our national diet. OK, we can say this is happening all over the world, but for me it's about Ireland and about the future health of the nation."
Darina is not one to sit still for too long. Rising from the table close by, one of three big Ballymaloe Cookery School kitchen classrooms, buzzing with students preparing their dishes on start-of-the-art ranges, she walks back to the main reception where, perched in the most prominent spot, we find… an empty 2-litre plastic bottle of cola.
Darina takes an obvious delight in this cut down plastic bottle, packed with compost and already sprouting with a little bounty of radishes planted a few weeks before as seeds.
"Look at that now, isn't it fabulous?" she beams. "You don't need a fancy wooden planter, you don't need a big garden. If you have any kind of container, some soil or compost, a window ledge and some seeds, you can grow your own."
Just outside, in the cold spring air, there's a battered wheelbarrow that looks like it's lived several lives on the toughest building sites in East Cork. This is no kitsch garden ornament, the barrow is bursting with sprouting, leafy salads which will all either be sold through the farm shop, used in the cookery school or end up on the family table. It's the Ballymaloe way, nothing wasted, a use found for everything.
We had been due to talk for an hour or so. We're already well over that time and Darina suggests a quick tour of her home farm, with its baking school (housed in converted freezer trailers), home dairy, chicken runs, glasshouses and fields full of row after row of fruit and veg.
As we dash around the farm, she checks in with every staff member she comes across, asking about pests, how certain plants are growing or when a pane on the glasshouse roof is going to get fixed.
Relaxed, chatty and in her element, she takes particular pride in the latest addition to the farm - a mocked-up suburban home, complete with a house façade and a neatly planted kitchen garden that is, even at the end of a cruel winter, already beginning to fill with herbs, vegetables and fruits.
"I love this because it shows that even in the smallest back garden, you really can grow enough to cover a lot of your food needs throughout the year. A family of four would get quite a lot of their staples out of this.
"One great pity is how we have lost the skills our parents and grandparents would have had. For them, it really was no big deal to grow spuds or carrots or spring onions in the back garden. I was brought up, the eldest of nine children, in a little village in Co Laois, with a mother who loved to cook and to grow as much as she could in our own kitchen garden. We had our own hens, we had eggs, we had a Kerry cow, we had simple, wholesome, nourishing food that we grew and cooked ourselves.
"Our mother knew about the importance of putting good food on the table, she always said that if you didn't give your time to healthy food, you might as well give your money straight to the doctor or the chemist. I was brought up with the very strong understanding that the food should be our health."
It may sound idyllic, Darling Buds of May stuff from another age and not exactly practical for the way we live our lives today. But Darina is not suggesting we all sell our semi-Ds and relocate to small-holdings in Laois or Leitrim.
"Look, I know people are under time pressure like never before, working, raising kids, running a home. It's not easy, I get that, and I'm not trying to judge people on that or hold them to some unrealistic standard. What I want to tell them is that this is so do-able and so good for your body and your soul.
"Every city I go to around the world, I make sure to get out and find out about their urban gardens. People in New York, in Sydney, wherever, they are growing up walls, on roofs, balconies, wherever they can find a bit of space and some light.
"For me, it shows a real craving to reconnect, to get back to growing your own. The busier that people get, there's almost a primeval need to re-connect with the soil. Then they discover the magic of growing something, planting a seed and waiting for it to grow into something they can eat.
"They know exactly what's in it, they know exactly what's not in it. If they go to a friend's house, instead of a dodgy bottle of wine, they can bring a box of fresh veg they grew themselves, definitely a bit of a boast factor!
"Most importantly, they know that they are feeding their families something nourishing. And believe me, I've 11 grandchildren running around here, kids will eat anything that they have grown themselves."
As we finish our impromptu tour of the farm, slowly coming back to life after a cruel, hard winter, Darina comes back to her central message, that growing your own is easy, addictive and beneficial for the body and the soul.
As for the lady herself, even as she looks forward to her 70th birthday celebrations this summer, there are no plans to slow down. "It's always the same," she says. "I finish one thing, look around and there's something else to get started on. Things just happen to me. Every time I do a book, it's like having a baby, I say never again and then I think, 'Oh my God, I want to do a book about this…'
"I've never had a five-year plan. I don't really have any plans beyond doing the next thing that needs to be done. I'm really lucky that I've always had a high energy level, long may that last. I'll be 70 in July, it's obvious that it would be a good idea to maybe slow down, but I am very lucky that I have a great team here around me, with my family and the people who work here.
"How lucky I am that people still want to come from all over the world to our school here in Cork, to learn about what we do?"
It's the Ballymaloe way, busy, practical, self-sufficient. It's the gospel that Darina Allen wants to spread. And you get the feeling she's only just getting started.
SEE ALSO: Grow your taste buds
Photography by Clare Keogh