Tuesday 22 October 2019

Becoming Ballymaloe: Six things you didn't know about the home of Irish food

Ballymaloe first opened as a restaurant in 1964. But there's lots you may not know, says Katy McGuinness

Ballymaloe House
Ballymaloe House
Ballymaloe cheeseboard
Katy McGuinness

Katy McGuinness

1. The Swinging '60s

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Myrtle Allen and her daughter, Fern.

When the youngest of her six children, Fern, was heading off to boarding school in 1964, Myrtle Allen (or Mrs Allen, as everyone at Ballymaloe has always referred to her) decided to open a restaurant in the house. This was, she said, mainly to avoid having to spend her time cleaning it - and as a way of making the most of the ingredients that her husband, Ivan, was producing on the farm. She placed an ad in the Cork Examiner simply inviting interested parties to 'Dine in a Country House'. It grew from there.

2. Myrtle & Michelin Stars

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Ballymaloe cheeseboard

These days, every restaurant seems to claim 'farm-to-fork' status, but Myrtle Allen's was the first. "The wonderful thing," she wrote, "was that we had this fantastic range of food, all absolutely fresh. We had a garden, so we had herbs and all the garden vegetables. We had our own eggs, pork and beef, and we had milk and cream coming up from the dairy." Ballymaloe had a Michelin Star from 1975 to 1980, while Mrs Allen was head chef.

3. Old meets new

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Chef Rory O'Connell

Today, Ballymaloe's Head Chef is Dervilla O'Flynn. Although there is a "Ballymaloe way" - defined by Mrs Allen as "the best way of cooking local food, using ingredients that are fresh and of excellent quality" - the menus have changed over the years and are not stuck in a time warp. And although Ballymaloe has always been synonymous with butter and cream, there are lighter dishes on the menu too.

"The worry would be that the food is based on sentimentality," says Rory O'Connell (above), a former head chef at Ballymaloe. "But it is so much more than that, more than comfort. It centres on the respect for ingredients that come around once a year. You might want to try something different to what you did last year with the asparagus, but you will still want to have it with hollandaise sauce at least a couple of times. It's food that's impervious to fashion."

4. Sweet Success

The sweet trolley at Ballymaloe, the responsibility of Head Pastry Chef, J R Ryall, is legendary. There are six desserts, always including carrageen moss pudding, homemade ice-cream, served from an ice bowl, and fresh fruit salad or fruit compote. Other seasonal desserts might include gooseberry and elderflower fool with shortbread biscuits, walnut meringue with pear, and chocolate Marjolaine, with a jug of raw Jersey cream from the farm.

5. Kings of the cookbook

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Simply Delicious the Classic Collection: 100 Recipes from Soups & Starters to Puddings & Pies by Darina Allen, published by Kyle Books in Hardback at €27. Photography by Peter Cassidy.

Darina has written 18 cookbooks to date with number 19, One Pot Cooking, due for publication by Kyle Books this autumn. Darina's daughter-in-law, Rachel, has written 15 cookbooks, and Darina's brother Rory has written two.

6. Famous graduates

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Catherine Fulvio

Many graduates of the famous 12-week course at Darina Allen's Ballymaloe Cookery School have gone on to launch successful food businesses of their own. They include Jack Kirwan of Sprout, Tom Gleeson of Bunsen, Clodagh McKenna, Sarah Richards of Seagull Bakery in Tramore, Garrett Fitzgerald of Brother Hubbard, and Beth-Ann Smith of the Lismore Food Company. Catherine Fulvio of Ballyknocken, Lynda Booth of Dublin Cookery School and Linda Reid of Sandycove Kitchen all now have their own cookery schools.

Ballymaloe has a special 2.5-day course, 'A Tribute to Mrs Allen of Ballymaloe House' from April 1-3.

NB: The Irish Independent Reader Travel Awards 2019 are sponsored by Iarnród Eireann. Read the full list of winners here.

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