Myrtle Allen: The polymath who put Irish food on the map
Ballymaloe founder Myrtle Allen changed the course of Ireland's food culture through her progressive and revolutionary approach. Her archive, which has just been donated to UCC, will keep that legacy alive, writes Katy McGuinness
On January 19, 1964, Rory Allen dispatched a letter from Newtown School in Waterford to his parents, Myrtle and Ivan Allen of Ballymaloe House. "The letter simply recounts the details of the everyday," says Regina Sexton of UCC, "but with the sweet and seemingly urgent note to 'Please send on more tuck'".
The letter is just one item in a huge collection of papers that forms part of the Myrtle Allen Archive, which has been donated by the Allen family to UCC. The archive includes journals from the restaurant, daily menus, hand-written family recipe books, correspondence with producers and chefs, restaurant and hotel reviews, and scrapbooks of traditional recipes sent to Mrs Allen by readers of the Irish Farmers Journal. There are also letters of advice to fledgling chefs, drafts and proofs of her 1977 book, The Ballymaloe Cookbook.
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"As we have just been bequeathed the collection, the papers are neither sorted nor catalogued and are still in a raw state," says Regina Sexton, UCC Food and Culinary Historian, who has been researching the influence of Myrtle Allen on Irish food culture since 2013. "This will take a number of years. That process will put order on a vast collection of papers, describing the content of each item and creating a referencing system to aid researchers in accessing the material."
UCC's announcement of the bequest coincided with the launch of the university's post-graduate diploma in Irish food culture. For academics at the university, including Sexton, and students enrolling in the new course, the prospect of delving deep into the Myrtle Allen archive is a tantalising one, which will inform research for many years into the future.
"Myrtle is to be the icon, the touchstone that epitomises the things that we would like the students to think about, and it will help keep her legacy alive down the line," says Regina.
It was in 1964, when Myrtle's youngest daughter, Fern, was heading off to join her siblings at Newtown, that Myrtle decided to open a restaurant in her house, primarily, she said, as a means of avoiding having to spend her time cleaning it - and of making the most of the ingredients produced on the family's farm. It all began with an advertisement in the [then] Cork Examiner inviting interested parties to 'Dine in a Country House'.
Myrtle's skills in the kitchen were largely self-taught and, famously, she only finalised the evening's menu just before the guests arrived, when she knew what fish had been landed in Ballycotton, or what foraged hedgerow or shore foods the local children would bring to sell to her at the kitchen door.
Eleven years later, in 1975, Myrtle Allen won a Michelin star - the first Irish woman to receive the accolade and still one of just two women ever to hold the award in the Republic of Ireland. Over the years, her achievements were recognised by the great and the good of the international world of gastronomy, while at home in Ireland, she is acknowledged as the most important figure in Irish food culture ever.
Mrs Allen - as everyone at Ballymaloe referred to her - died in June 2018 at the age of 94, and is recognised as having changed the course of Irish food culture through her progressive ethos and revolutionary approach to cooking and Irish produce.
Regina Sexton knew Myrtle Allen for many years, and in 2013 delivered a talk at LitFest about her writings in the Irish Farmers Journal. "Myrtle's columns were very interesting and placed her in context," she explains. "In the 1960s, her approach was wildly out of step with current trends. At that time, as Ireland was undergoing rapid social, economic and cultural change, Irish food and cooking was often eschewed and undervalued as the country deployed a modern approach to production and it took its gastronomic cues from outside trends and fashions.
"What made Myrtle different was that she wasn't swayed by outside influences but rather she aimed to validate the internal, she looked inward and strove to elevate good home-produced food to such a high status that we could be confident in believing that Irish food was some of the best the world could produce."
When Myrtle died, Regina decided to write an academic paper as a tribute to her and establish a memorial lecture, to tie in with the postgraduate course that UCC was planning to launch.
"The family mentioned that she had left papers and asked if I would like to have a look. I knew immediately that they were very significant culturally. So far we have really only skimmed the surface of the collection, but I have a feeling for the broad categories of content that are there. It's clear that Myrtle was not just involved in food activity in the kitchen - she was involved in a network of food communities and kept meticulous records. We think of the gastronomic sphere as local but she was involved at a national and international level with Slow Food, Eurotoques and La Ferme Irlandaise, her restaurant in Paris.
"She was a polymath in her activities and interests, a visionary with missionary zeal to support and protect Irish food culture. From what I've seen, her character is coming through - she had a curious mind and an innate intelligence that will be interesting to explore."
Now an experienced team associated with UCC's Boole Library will set about the task of preservation, describing and cataloguing every item in the bequest in a process that will take several years.
Among the speakers at the memorial lectures in Cork last week was Myrtle Allen's friend, Claudia Roden, the esteemed author and food writer.
"She inspired me and a whole generation," says Claudia on the phone from her home in London. "And I don't mean just in Ireland. Through her influence on Darina, who applied it in turn to the cookery school, the legacy of Myrtle is felt all over the world."
Claudia first met Myrtle nearly 40 years ago when Darina invited her to give a course at the cookery school on Middle Eastern Food, about which Claudia had just published a book.
"I stayed at Ballymaloe and thought that if I could choose one place where I would live for ever and ever it would be there. I'd lived in Egypt and France and the UK but there was something very special about Ballymaloe - it wasn't just the house, but the combination of the house and the food and the landscape and the world that Myrtle created there. I loved being around her and the Allen family. It was less about the enjoyment of good food than it was about the respect for the land, and the ingredients, and the producers, the farmers and the fishermen, and the power of food to bring people together. The hospitality at Ballymaloe is always so gracious, and people bond around food and conviviality. The last thing I'd expected at the time was to find great food in Ireland - or in the UK for that matter, it was a toss-up as to which was worse!
"At Ballymaloe the food was enthrallingly delicious - the flavour of vegetables just out of the ground, whatever wild things people brought to the kitchen door and the fish just landed in Ballycotton."
Claudia says that Myrtle Allen stood out at a time when very few women were to be found working in professional kitchens.
"I remember researching a book about food in Turkey and there were no women in professional kitchens there, except cleaning the floor.
"It was the same in most Mediterranean countries, other than Morocco, and it was hard to find real local food. Grand restaurants served French food and yet here was Myrtle, a farmer's wife, with a Michelin star! She put Ireland on the culinary map.
"When I started researching, food was a taboo subject like sex and money, not important enough to be a university subject, seen as frivolous, a topic for women's magazines.
"But now it is acknowledged to be such an important part of culture and I think that it's wonderful that the university will have the course."
Claudia says that Myrtle was the first person to realise the importance of food in Irish culture.
"She was always willing to absorb new ideas in cooking and to experiment with growing new types of vegetables. She had contacts with chefs throughout Europe and was a founder member of Eurotoques, so she was very much out there learning and networking, and at the same time passionate about preserving traditional dishes.
"It was politics through gastronomy; she was aware how fragile living heritage can easily be lost long before UNESCO identified gastronomy as intangible heritage. Now people travel to eat and incidentally see sites, whereas it used to be the other way around - food is vital to tourism and economies the world over. And when visitors come, they want to taste what Ireland means, not to eat sushi and burritos…
"Before Myrtle, people were ashamed of Irish food, but she knew that recipes and dishes can reinforce national identity with pride and dignity, and remind us of a time that has vanished; sometimes that's all that remains of a way of life that has disappeared.
"She understood that we must value our own, not throw it away and not embalm it either, and that it's important to update and revitalise and this is what she did. She led the way, was properly international and a trailblazer. To me, she was a personal inspiration."