Monday 18 December 2017

Rachel Allen is... Serene but loving the madness

Rachel Allen, mother, writer, chef, TV presenter, teacher, is sometimes described as Ireland's Domestic Goddess. Which may be flattering, but actually doesn't do her any justice. Because Rachel, as we discover, is very much herself, with her own ideas and her own considerable determination; when it comes to what she cooks and eats, how she works, and even how she feels about her looks. Photography by Kip Carroll. Styling by Liadan Hynes

Very much her own person, and wearing her own boots and dress - Rachel Allen. Photo: Kip Carroll
Very much her own person, and wearing her own boots and dress - Rachel Allen. Photo: Kip Carroll

Emily Hourican

For all that she is the picture of serenity on screen, Rachel Allen confesses to thriving on a certain amount of insanity. "Sometimes I will think, 'Oh no, I have to be here at that time, and there the next day, and how am I going to manage that . . . help!' But I love it, and I love the madness," she says with a laugh. "Once I sleep well at night, I'm able for anything. I love being really busy. I count myself lucky, thus far, to have really good energy." In fact, the only real drawback to her busy life - as writer, teacher, TV presenter, Ballymaloe ambassador and mother - that she can think of, is the days away from home; with Rachel, any conversation inevitably soon turns towards home.

Her three children are now aged 16, 13 and six, and, asked what the best and worst bits of her remarkable career are (she's now on book number 11, Coast: Recipes Inspired By Ireland's Wild Atlantic Coast, each with a TV series to match), she says, "The best is getting to eat really delicious food, the variety, and, in one way, it's the travel as well, which is wonderful when my family are with me. The worst can be getting up at 4am to catch an early flight, because I didn't want to spend the previous night in London and then get up at a normal hour; I wanted to be at home. It can be a bit exhausting, trying to squash everything into one day in London, and then flying back that evening, so I'm at home again."

So does she still deliberately make career choices with family in mind? "Hugely. I definitely make choices dependent on the time I get to be at home. It is still a priority for me that I wouldn't feel that the balance had tipped and I was away too much." This means that, for example, when she travels to Asia, where her shows are sold into "around 30" countries, to meet her BBC producers, instead of going for the eight or so days they suggest, to "get over the jet lag, do some shopping," she goes for three or four days. "I say, 'No, I'll get there on the morning and I'll be good to go . . . '"

That said, she is quick not to make herself out to be a martyr. "Show me a mother who isn't self-sacrificing" is her very sensible comment. "Most days I am working at home or at the cookery school, and I count myself really lucky, to have that time."

She also counts herself lucky to have a husband who isn't just supportive of her career, but is hugely involved, committed, even dedicated. "The fact that Isaac works from home and works with me, that's definitely a huge factor in it. I wouldn't be able to do it if there was no one at home. He makes it easier; he makes it possible. Having said that, while I was in Singapore a couple of weeks ago, I was texting my son's football trainer, saying, 'What time is training?'"

Isaac, of course, was born an Allen, son of Darina and Tim, and Rachel has not only her husband ready to help at home, but much of the extended Allen family. How does it all work, I have often wondered? What would happen if someone fell out with someone else, as so often happens in Irish families, probably in all families? Given how closely they live and work and socialise together, wouldn't it be fatally awkward?

"It's never happened," insists Rachel. "There'd be no reason for it to happen. It's amazing, but it hasn't. Because there are so many of us around. I socialise with so many members of my family down here, my brothers-in-law, sisters-in-law - they are our friends as well. It's really lovely; it just works. This is going to sound like such a cliche, but there is never any bitching. There just isn't."

Judging by the photos in Coast, Rachel, who is in her 40s, looks better than ever. But how much does she care about physical appearance? "Not a huge amount," she laughs. "I know when I look at myself, the only pressure I feel is for myself. Sometimes I see a photo of myself and I think, 'Who is that really bulky person? God, it's me . . . ' and I'll think, 'OK, less of the glasses of wine with the crisps'. But age-wise, youth-wise, I don't feel that pressure in the slightest. I'm not the type - I can't imagine I'd ever be interested in getting anything age-defying done to my face or body. That's just me.

"I don't think I'll ever feel the need to inject anything, or do anything. I'll probably just keep trying to get my hair done and do the flipping running on the beach. My life doesn't revolve around how I look. It's partly a political choice - there probably is a little bit of that in there - but really, I just wouldn't be bothered. That said, I have said to myself that I need to up my Pilates and my beach running, so I can fit into my clothes. I prefer the way I feel in my clothes when I can fit into them."

And, she says, with the tiny touch of wickedness that adds spice to her undoubted sweetness, "I just love the feeling - it's probably a smug feeling - when I exercise in the morning. For the rest of the day I feel, 'Right, I can just beat anything!' I love that. That smug feeling will take you far."

What's interesting is that Rachel is chasing that feeling through exercise, and not through punitive or restrictive diets. Because Coast - unlike so many other foodie books published now - is not overtly health-conscious, or at least not in the modern way. Which isn't to say that, if you ate nothing but the dishes listed in this book, you wouldn't be remarkably healthy, but there are plenty of recipes using sugar - no quinoa, no chia, no coconut flour. Now, I am not setting up a competitive Chefs Derby here, with plaudits going to the 'best'. That said, in a world where sugar is 'the new smoking,' Rachel's food is suddenly conspicuous for including it; for being simple, home-grown, and traditional in a world of superfoods and elimination diets. So where does she stand on all that?

"Funnily enough," she says, laughing, "I did suggest it to my publishers about four or five years ago, a really healthy book, but they were not keen. I think it was too early. And then, a year later, Gwyneth brought out her book and the whole thing exploded!" Then, more seriously, she adds, "It's huge, isn't it? Absolutely huge. I'm not a nutritionist, but I am very interested in nutrition; in my health and the health of my family. That is why I include a lot of fish, a lot of vegetables, why we eat a balanced diet in our home. Within that, sometimes we do have cakes and pudding - not a huge amount of them, but the same amount that I had when I was growing up."

She then proceeds to tease out where exactly she stands on all this, which is hard when you are as fair-minded as she is, with no desire to sound as if she is dissing anyone.

"I don't have such a sweet tooth that I need to eat something sweet a couple of times a day, and therefore need to replace sugar with something else. Personally, if I decide I want something sweet, I will sit down and have a slice of something. So when people say, for example, 'These brownies are amazing, you can have four of them because there's no sugar,' personally - and it's just me - if I'm going to have a brownie, I'll have a small brownie and I'll enjoy it, but I won't have four, no matter what's in them."

"I tend to not go down the no-wheat, no-dairy route - and maybe it's just being quite selfish of me, because I can eat those things. I adore dairy; sugar, I tend to have a small amount of, because if I eat a lot, then I feel bad. I eat wheat. That's how I cook, that's how I eat, and that's how I write." And she adds, again with that touch of wickedness: "Yes, sometimes I will put agave syrup into my porridge, but other times I'll have brown sugar and cream."

Instead, she says "I tend to eat like my parents, my grandparents and great-grandparents, really. I don't eat processed food. A really quick convenience meal for me is an omelette - and I know that makes me sound like such a bore, such an old fuddy-duddy. I'm definitely influenced by what's going on, health-wise - I have my chia seeds, my coconut oil, my NutriBullet. But if I want to be healthier, I will eat more mackerel, more vegetables, rather than going for mysterious new South American grains."

Partly, this is an understanding of the delicate ying and yang of globalisation - "I remember reading that the quinoa producers in Peru are now eating fast food, because the price of quinoa has gone up so much that they can't afford their own produce; that strange little ripple effect stuck in my mind" - partly, it's a sensible mistrust of anything too faddish; and partly, it's a simple recognition of the good things on our doorstep. "We have so much here that we know is good for us; do we really need to go digging round in the jungles of South America? I tend to be old-fashioned about my food. Or maybe traditional is a better word. I think, 'Go down the road and buy a bunch of carrots!' And rather than buying seaweed from the other side of the world, I'll pick up seaweed from the beach when I go running, and put it in my juice."

That said, she is keen not to try and present herself as holier-than-thou - "Obviously I've been guilty, if I'm driving somewhere on my own, of getting a bag of jellies to keep the children quiet."

This ethos - of eating the foods that nature has provided in such abundance, of going to the fields or to the beach for what she wants - is particularly evident in Coast, which is an on-the-road sort of book. Rather than the "chop and chat" as Rachel describes it, of previous books and series, this time, she is out and about.

Coast - which follows the Atlantic coast of Ireland, starts at Rachel's home, near Midleton, and ends in Donegal - is full of delicious recipes, such as leek, potato, mussel and bacon chowder; spaghetti with clams, gin and wild garlic; crab and blood orange salad; carrageen panna cotta; but also encounters with makers of bread, salami, cheeses, ice cream and more.

Along with the recipe pictures, there are photos of Rachel sipping a Guinness, or looking beautiful on a pile of fish boxes; shots of fishing trawlers and plenty of gorgeous scenery. Visually, it is the perfect kind of lifestyle book, but, being Rachel, it is also a very carefully and seriously put-together collection of things to eat.

Does she never falter in enthusiasm? Inspiration? "There are definitely times when I think, 'God, I'd love to go out and eat and not think about how this was produced.' But then, of course, I end up tasting it, and I think, 'Wow, this is really great, I wonder how it was made?'" she laughs, adding, "I just love food. I never tire of it." It's an enthusiasm that is evident in everything she says, does, and cooks.

Photograped by Kip Carroll

Styled by Liadan Hynes

Make-up by Siobhan O'Sullivan, email siobhanosullivan@hotmail.com

Hair by Breda Dwyer, The Edge Hair Design, 1B Emmett Pl, Cork, tel: (021) 427-7808,

For a selection of LIFE's favourite recipes from 'Coast', Rachel's new book, turn to page 12

'Coast: Recipes Inspired By Ireland's Wild Atlantic Coast', by Rachel Allen, published by HarperCollins, €24.99, Eason

'Rachel's Coastal Cooking', Wednesdays, 7.30pm, RTE One

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