Why the food world Relishes Ballymaloe
Big-name chefs, a host of cookbooks and a top-tier festival… our reporter on the legacy of east Cork's famous cookery school
Some places are intrinsically connected in our collective consciousness with household-name food writers. The UK has the River Cottage on the border of Devon and Dorset which Hugh-Fearnley Whittingstall put firmly on the foodie map, or Padstow in Cornwall, dubbed Padstein after Rick Stein, who runs half the joints in town. And Ireland has Ballymaloe from which three generations of the Allen family have produced no less than a whopping 30 cookbooks between them.
But what's even more remarkable about Ballymaloe is the sheer volume of Irish and international talent that has been nurtured by this quintessential Irish country house hotel and the cookery school it begot. Many of Ireland's best-loved cafes, restaurants, specialist food companies and cookery schools are headed up by graduates of the cookery school. Many of our best chefs, producers, food writers and stylists trained there, often graduating from Darina Allen's cookery school to the hotel's kitchens under the watchful eye of Myrtle Allen, or Mrs Allen as her disciples unfailingly call her. It's hard to over-estimate the influence of the Allen women and the Ballymaloe legacy they created.
At a time when Ireland's restaurants were run by classically trained chefs looking to France's haute cuisine for their inspiration, the self-taught Mrs Allen turned instead to the land and water around her and the farmers and fishermen producing food from it. When she opened her restaurant in Ballymaloe House in 1964, she began it with the then-revolutionary principle that great food needs little else but great ingredients, treated with the respect and care they deserve.
And when Myrtle's daughter-in-law Darina Allen founded her cookery school with her brother, the chef Rory O'Connell, they took that underlying principle and allied it with the philosophy of the global Slow Food movement. For three decades, they have instilled their students with food skills based on a respect for the land and the cycles of nature. Still today, the very first thing students do at Ballymaloe's three-month cookery course is to plant a living seed into the fertile soil of this idyllic corner of East Cork.
Ballymaloe has become a byword for a certain frame of thinking about food, and its reputation goes far beyond our shores. Names like Madhur Jaffrey, Hugh Fernley Whittingstall and Sophie Grigson don't teach as guest chefs just anywhere. Nor do the likes of Yotam Ottolenghi, Alice Waters, Rene Redzepi and Jancis Robinson appear at every festival to which they're invited - but you'll find many of them returning to the annual Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, now in its fourth year. The festival takes place from May 20-22 when 3,000 Irish and international visitors will visit the working farm to listen, talk, think, watch, taste, eat, drink, dance and come away more than a little bit inspired. Tickets are on sale at litfest.ie, but if you can't make it this year, there's always next - or you can console yourself at home by cooking any number of wonderful recipes from any number of inspiring cookbooks that carry a little bit of Ballymaloe magic at their heart.
"There are so many cookbooks written by past students," says Darina Allen, "and what is so wonderful is that they are all so different from each other, and yet they share these common underlying principles. I'm so proud of them." Here's a round up of some of the best food writers that Ballymaloe has produced.
He was described as one of "London's hottest young chefs" for his Moveable Kitchen secret supper parties. And at 25, he was named the Observer Food Monthly's Young Chef of the Year 2010. But Stevie Parle's cooking career began a decade earlier when he attended Ballymaloe Cookery School at just 16. He since worked in River Café, Moro and Petersham Nurseries in London as well as stints in the Spotted Pig in New York and Salt in Tokyo. His first cookbook, My Kitchen: Real Food from Near and Far provides a seasonal year-in-the-life insight into Stevie's eclectic approach, with recipes such as 'A foggy breakfast wrapped up on the deck' (of his Hammersmith houseboat, of course). His second book, Spice Trip, followed Stevie and friend Emma Grazette on their round-the-world-in-six-spices trip, while Stevie Parle's Dock Kitchen Cookbook features recipes from his acclaimed Dock Kitchen restaurant, sampling food from Mexico to Morocco, Catalonia to Kerala, the Mediterranean to the Middle East.
Grilled sea bass with chard gratin
6 garlic cloves, green sprouts removed
50g unsalted butter
1 tbsp plain flour
250ml whole milk
Freshly ground black pepper
100g coarse white breadcrumbs
8 anchovy fillets
1 x 3kg sea bass
1. Boil a large pan of well-salted water. Strip the chard leaves from the stalks and cut the stalks into 1cm strips. Blanch the leaves until soft, remove from the pan and lay out to cool. Squeeze the lemon into the water and add the chard stalks (this will stop them from discolouring). Boil the chard stalks until soft, about 10 minutes. Drain and lay the stalks out to cool.
2. Crush the garlic cloves with some coarse sea salt until smooth. In a large, wide pan, heat the butter over a medium heat. Once it begins to foam, add the crushed garlic. When the garlic has begun to cook and the smell has filled the room, add the chard leaves and stalks then sprinkle over the flour and cook, stirring, for about three minutes. Slowly add the milk, still stirring; you should have a thick, glossy, pungent mixture, season well with salt and pepper.
3. Transfer the chard mixture to a baking tray, sprinkle over the breadcrumbs and lay over the anchovies.
4. When you are ready to eat, preheat the oven to 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6. Bake the gratin for 20-25 minutes until well-browned and hot throughout.
5. Meanwhile, fillet the bass and cut into 180-200g pieces. Season them well, moisten with a little olive oil then cook over a very hot charcoal grill, or in a very hot cast-iron chargrill pan, for about three minutes on each side, until a roasting fork inserted into the flesh feels no resistance. Serve with the chard gratin.
Anyone who saw Lilly Higgins cooking in her sister Maeve's comedy cooking show Fancy Vittles knows that these Higgins girls like to chat. And to cook. And to eat. And with a background in design followed by a three-month cookery course in Ballymaloe, it's not surprising that Lilly made a name for herself as having an eye for making great looking food, going on to set up her popular cooking blog 'Stuff I Make, Bake and Love'. That chatty style and love of beautiful food has propelled Lilly to becoming one of Ireland's most prolific food columnists and to publish two cookbooks, Make Bake Love and Lilly Higgins' Dream Deli, a culinary flight of fancy written in a deliciously Higgins' style.
Crêpes with Berries
300g plain flour
1 tsp caster sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
15g butter, melted
350g mixed berries
Icing sugar, to dust
1. Sift the flour and sugar into a bowl, then make a well in the centre.
2. Whisk the eggs and milk together with 2½ tablespoons water. Slowly pour into the well in the dry ingredients, whisking all the time to ensure a smooth batter. Stir in the melted butter. Cover and place in the fridge to rest for 20-30 minutes.
3. Heat a crêpe pan or non-stick frying pan over a medium heat and coat lightly with sunflower oil. Pour in enough batter to form a thin coat on the base of the pan.
Cook for 1 minute, or until the crêpe comes away from the side of the pan. Flip over and cook until golden on the other side.
4. Repeat the process with the remaining batter. Stack the crêpes on a warmed plate with a little greaseproof paper or icing sugar between each one. Cover with tin foil.
5. To serve, gently roll a crêpe into an upturned cone shape, fill with berries and place on a plate.
6. Dust lightly with icing sugar and serve immediately.
The third generation of women to marry into the Allen family and build a dazzling career in Irish food, Rachel Allen has close to a dozen cookbooks to her name and shows no sign of slowing down. A Dublin-reared lass, she relocated to Ballymaloe as an 18-year-old school-leaver to complete the three-month cookery course and ended up marrying Darina's son Isaac, with whom she lives today in their Co Cork seaside home with sons, Luka and Joshua, and daughter, Scarlett. A regular on BBC's Saturday Kitchen, Rachel has produced a whole raft of popular food programmes. Her current series, Rachel's Coastal Cooking, follows her as she zips from deepest Cork to wildest Donegal in search of the best of local fare. She has gathered the corresponding recipes into a beautifully photographed cookbook, Coast: Recipes from Ireland's Wild Atlantic Way (some of them traditional favourites such as salmon paté, others snapshots of a more modern Irish palate, such as gin, lemon and milk ice cream). Other best-selling cookbooks have included Rachel's Favourite Food at Home and Rachel's Food for Living. Rachel teaches on a regular basis at Ballymaloe Cookery School.
It's not everyone that gets to say "Mrs A took me under her wing" or that she loaned them her precious Elizabeth David cookbook. But not everyone has lived the life that Arun Kapil has lived. In his early 20s, Arun launched the world's first-ever DJ compilation album in Ibiza's Ministry of Sound (where else?). A decade of partying later, his self-described "road to redemption" led him to three months at Ballymaloe Cookery School, before taking his newly honed cooking skills to Mrs Allen's kitchen at Ballymaloe House. Having married a local lass and founded their company, Green Saffron, which specialises in importing the freshest spices from his cousins in India, Arun went about writing a tome. Fresh Spice: Vibrant Recipes for Bringing Flavour, Depth and Colour to Home Cooking was described by curry queen Madhur Jaffrey as "sparkling with delightful international recipes and a knowledgeable, enthusiastic use of seasonings".
Red Lentil Dhal with Tomato, Coconut & Lime
500g (1lb 2oz) red lentils
1 small handful cashew nuts
2 tsp black peppercorns
1 tsp cumin seeds
1 tsp coriander seeds
½ tsp cloves
½ tsp finely ground cinnamon
1 tsp powdered turmeric
60g (2¼oz) unsalted butter or
3 tbsp vegetable oil
250g (9oz) onions, cut into chunky dice
2 red onions, diced
6 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
125g (4½oz) fresh ginger, grated or blitzed
2 × 400g (14oz) tins chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp golden caster sugar
2 tsp sea salt
400ml (14fl oz) coconut milk
600ml (1 pint) vegetable stock or water
Juice of 1 lime
Coriander leaves, chopped
1 small handful coconut flakes
1. Soak the lentils in enough water to cover for 10 minutes.
2. Put the cashew nuts in a dry frying pan and toast over a medium heat for 5 minutes, or until lightly golden, tossing the pan frequently. Chop roughly and set aside.
3. Finely grind the peppercorns, cumin and coriander seeds and cloves using a mortar and pestle, then mix in the cinnamon and turmeric. Set aside.
4. Heat the butter/oil in a large flameproof casserole or saucepan over a medium heat.
5. Add the white and red onions, the garlic, chilli and ginger, and cook gently for 5 minutes or until softened.
6. Add the spice mix and cook gently for a couple more minutes.
7. Add the tomatoes, sugar, salt and coconut milk, and simmer for 5-10 minutes, stirring occasionally.
8. Rinse the lentils well and add to the casserole.
9. Simmer, adding the stock bit by bit as it's absorbed. Stir occasionally to prevent it from sticking. Cook over a medium heat for 15-20 minutes until soft.
10. Stir in the lime juice, sprinkle with fresh coriander, coconut shavings and the cashew nuts and serve immediately with fragrant basmati ric or Indian flatbreads.
Darina Allen's plate of Irish charcuterie and cured meats
A selection of cured meats:
Air-dried smoked Connemara lamb
Gubbeen prosciutto and chorizo
Woodside Farm salami and chorizo
Dunmanus Castle beef salami
Pepper and caraway salami
Three Castle pastrami
West Cork kassler
A selection of:
Crusty country breads, sourdough
bread, yeast bread and Irish
Tiny gherkins or cornichons
Fresh radishes, just trimmed but with some green leaf attached
A good green salad of garden lettuce and salad leaves
One of my favourite easy entertaining tricks is to serve a selection of Irish artisan charcuterie from inspired producers like Fingal Ferguson from Schull, West Cork, James McGeough from Oughterard, Co Galway, Jack McCarthy from Kanturk, Co Cork, Patrick Mulcahy from Ballinwillin, Mitchelstown, Co Cork, and Matthew Conroy from Woodside Farm, Leamlara, Co Cork. The quality is so wonderful that I'm always bursting with pride as I serve it. Arrange the meats, potted meats and the accompaniments on a large platter, open a good bottle of red and tuck in!
Another star in Ballymaloe's alumni, economics graduate Sophie Morris combined her head for business with her love of food to co-found the innovative Irish food company Kooky Dough in 2009. The company developed from a farmer's market-based start-up to exporting internationally to the UK, France and even the United Arab Emirates, keeping Sophie somewhat busy. But throughout the busiest of times, home cooking was always essential to Sophie's life, and she even found time to gather her most reliable recipes into a cookbook, Sophie Kooks: Quick and Easy Feel Good Food. Sophie sold Kooky Dough in 2014 and is currently involved in a new food technology start-up in the Health, Wellness and Fitness sector, called FitoMetrics.
These lamb burgers are show stoppers! Any time I've made them for people, they've commented on how tasty the burgers are. You can fry or grill the burgers; and they're lovely on the barbecue, too. I like to serve them in pitta bread but any flatbread would work.
Raita is an Indian condiment, made by mixing yogurt with different seasonings. It can be used as a sauce or dip. This tomato and coriander raita is absolutely perfect with the burgers.
Lamb burgers with tomato and coriander raita
Makes 6-8 burgers
700g minced lamb
2 garlic cloves, crushed
A thumb-sized piece of ginger, grated
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 red chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
3 teaspoons curry powder
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, beaten
Pitta breads, to serve
For the raita
5 tomatoes, halved
250g Greek yogurt
A handful of fresh chopped coriander
A squeeze of lime juice
1. Place the minced lamb, garlic, ginger, onion, chilli and curry powder in a large bowl and stir to combine. Season and add the egg. Mix with your hands to combine everything thoroughly. Shape the mixture into 6-8 burgers. Cover and refrigerate the burgers for at least 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, make the raita. Scoop out the tomatoes, discard the seeds and chop the tomato flesh into small dice. Place the diced tomatoes in a bowl with the yogurt, coriander and lime juice and mix well.
3. Heat a large frying pan over a high heat. Rub the burgers lightly with olive oil and cook for 5-6 minutes each side for medium (7-8 minutes each side for well done). You might need to cook them in batches.
4. Lightly toast the pitta breads. Split open and stuff with the burgers and a dollop of raita. The pitta burgers are lovely by themselves but they're great served with chips too.
Long before Catherine Fulvio wrote five best-selling cookbooks, filmed several TV cookery series and became a household name, it was clear that she was never going to settle with running a modest B&B in her family's Wicklow farmhouse. Having formalised the training begun in her mother's kitchen with a three-month course in Ballymaloe Cookery School, she set about transforming the farmhouse dairy into a cookery school of her own. Catherine remains hands-on at Ballyknocken Cookery School but has since transformed herself into "celebrity chef in international demand" and an "outstanding example of entrepreneurial spirit", as described when she won for Entrepreneur of the Year for Europe and Africa in 2013. Somewhere along the way she found the time to marry her Sicilian husband, Claudio, raise two children, Charlotte and Rowan, and write her own personal library of cookbooks, the last slew of which have been heavily influenced by her in-laws, as suggested by titles such as Catherine's Italian Kitchen, Eat Like an Italian and Bake Like an Italian.
He was named Ireland's Chef of the Year, not once, but twice. He has worked alongside some of the greats of the food world in Ballymaloe House (with Myrtle Allen), Chez Nico (Nico Ladenis), and Le Manoir aux Quat Saisons (Raymond Blanc). Rory O'Connell might be Darina's little brother but his talent is no less for it, honed first through years of cooking with the best and then another lifetime passing on that knowledge at Ballymaloe Cookery School. As anyone knows who has been charmed by his RTÉ cookery series How to Cook Well, the second of which is currently running, the man is a natural teacher and all of that is poured into his cookbook, Master it: How to Cook Today. He is also a key visionary for the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine.
You never know where you'll see Clodagh McKenna popping up next. Order a snack on an Aer Lingus flight and it'll be from the Bia menu she curated. Browse your Twitter feed and there she is on Canada's CTV Morning Show. She does regular demonstrations on the US-syndicated Rachael Ray Show and has appeared on Rick Stein's Food Heroes, BBC's Saturday Kitchen and NBC's Today Show, as well as on TV3's Ireland AM and on RTÉ with her own Fresh from the Farmers' Market series, on which The Irish Farmers' Market Cookbook was based. Clodagh trained at Ballymaloe Cookery School before working in Ballymaloe House for three years. Her five cookbooks include Clodagh's Irish Kitchen, Clodagh's Kitchen Diaries for seasonal inspiration, Fresh From the Sea and Homemade, named after her former restaurant in Arnotts.
Darina Allen 's Plate of Irish Charcuterie and Cured Meats
Best of the rest…
If your appetite for Ballymaloe-inspired cookbooks has been whetted rather than sated, the good news is that there's not only more great cookbooks in the pipelines but many more already in print from various Ballymaloe graduates. Garrett Fitzgerald of Dublin's hugely successful twin cafes Brother Hubbard and Sister Sadie has a much-anticipated cookbook hitting the shelves this autumn. Meanwhile Leylie Hayes, Prue Brown, Tiffany Goodall, Nathalie Jordi, Ann Mulligan, Charlotte Pike, James Ramsden, Jez Felwick and Sam Stern are all published authors (and Ballymaloe graduates) worth exploring.
With her infectious laugh, industry-insider stories, unswerving work ethic, rock-solid food knowledge and knack for nailing great flavour combinations, this woman should have her own TV cookery show. And at the rate she's going, she will before long. But Lynda Booth has been a little busy until now: training initially under Mrs Allen in the Ballymaloe kitchens before a decade spent cooking her way around the world. On her return to Dublin she began teaching from her Blackrock, Co Dublin home before converting a nearby disused warehouse into Dublin Cookery School. Her self-published cookbook, From Lynda's Table, is a gem.
Thomasina - or Tommi to her mates and to fans of cookbooks such as Tommi's Kitchen - credits Clarissa Dickson Wright with setting her on the path to being a TV chef, restaurateur and author of seven cookbooks (and counting). Tommi had been travelling through the Americas and southern Europe for years. She met Clarissa on a catwalk, the story goes, and was told to "stop wibbling" and follow her passion for food. And so she did. That journey took her first to Ballymaloe Cookery School, then to BBC's Masterchef, which she won in 2005. She went on to found the Wahaca chain of Mexican street food restaurants, and write a realm of books including Mexican Food Made Simple and Wahaca: Mexican Food at Home. Her personal favourite, and ours, is Chilli Notes: Recipes to Warm the Heart (Not Burn the Tongue).
How does a fresh-faced Irish lad end up being named the UK's best Korean chef? By training at Ballymaloe Cookery School, moving to London to work at Skye Gyngell's Michelin-starred Petersham Nurseries Restaurant, meeting the fashion designer Rejina Pyo, falling in love and letting her introduce him to the Korean food that she grew up eating. That's how. Co-written with (his now-wife) Rejina, Our Korean Kitchen is Jordan's third cookbook. His first, The Guilt Free Gourmet, was a collaboration with his sister Jessica, who is a nutritional therapist, and featured indulgent recipes that happened to be free from sugar, wheat and dairy. His second book, The Natural Food Kitchen, followed in a similar vein, offering readers dishes based on fresh, wholefood alternatives to refined flours, dairy and sugar cane. His recipes have featured everywhere from BBC Good Food to Vogue and Food & Travel.