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How Ballymaloe Litfest lifted everyone's spirit

The food and wine festival offered more than heroes and banter, it was a special event, says Michael Kelly

Family affair: Rachel, Myrtle and Darina Allen

Two weeks on and I am still trying to get my head around why the Ballymaloe Litfest of Food and Wine was so special. It might seem obvious – some of the world's leading experts on food and wine coming to Ballymaloe for three days of talks and demos. A programme that must surely rank as one of the most incredible line up of food writers ever assembled anywhere.

World class chefs like Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, David Tanis and homegrown talent like Rachel Allen, Neven Maguire, and Donal Skehan. Food heroes like Claus Mayer, who runs the world famous Noma restaurant in Copenhagen and has led the Nordic Food revolution; Bad Food Britain author and journalist Joanna Blythman; Stephanie Alexander (Australia's culinary queen who almost as a second career developed a national primary school kitchen garden program); and the amazing Sandor Katz who blew the room away with his talk on food fermentation (and has what I consider the finest facial hair arrangement I have ever seen).

So yes, this was an impressive line up and one suspects the fact they were convinced to descend en masse on East Cork is down to the affection in which Darina Allen is held around the world.

But of course there was a risk that with such big names (and with the word "literary" in the festival title), that the whole thing could have become a little highbrow, a bit foodie-elitist, a tad 'right on'. Somehow, however it managed to have the opposite feel.

The thanks for that remarkable feat has to go to The Big Shed. Billed as the festival 'fringe', it became apparent that this was the event's heart and soul, and not just because it was free in. The Big Shed was the festival hub, housed quite literally in a big old shed behind the Grain Store at Ballymaloe House. I was told there was animal grain in it only days before the festival opened its doors, and there was certainly that authentic feel to the place.

The Big Shed was part venue and part food market, and was given a makeover with an upcycling spin by a remarkably zen Ted Berner from Wildside Catering. Much of the furniture (table and chairs, bar counter etc) was made from old timber pallets. Lights hanging over the bar were fashioned from old beer kegs. There was a 'chandelier' made from a deconstructed whiskey barrel that had to be seen to be believed.

Among my favourite stalls were those run by The Rocket Man – bringing salads to the masses by making them funky and delectable at the same time; the Ballyhoura Mushroom guy, a former scientist who is now growing the most incredible array of mushrooms in the Ballyhoura mountains; and Woodside Farm's rare-breed sausage and rasher stall. By the way, I have a new Death Row meal – it's the steak sandwich on griddled sourdough bread with cheesey mushrooms and salad from Lolo (Breton Crepes), washed down with a Metal Man brew from my hometown of Waterford.

But the prize for my most important takeaway from the weekend was an everlasting cabbage plant I bought from Madeleine McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds. Clearly if you don't like cabbage, the notion that some strange plant would continue to produce fresh cabbage leaves over many years would seem like a horror story of 'Nightmare on Elm Street' proportions. But I can't tell you how excited I was to get my hands on this elusive plant – fresh cabbage leaves that you can pick as you need, never needing to wait for the plant to form a heart, and none of that messing around with annual sowing.

I also snapped up a couple of seakale seedlings, Belleville sorrel, and some comfrey. A little later Madeleine presented me with a bonus plant for my troubles – a purple tomato variety called Indigo Rose that she picked up from the US. The tomatoes are purple-red when ripe. It is apparently very high in anthocyanins, the powerful antioxidants that make tomatoes so good for you. I can't wait to try them.

Of course it helped that it was a bank holiday weekend, but there was something incredibly celebratory about The Big Shed – stallholders and punters, audience and speakers, locals and blow-ins all mingling together and enjoying some great local food, Irish craft beers and great wines. After hours there was dancing. Lots of dancing.

All of this jolliness was of course supposed to be work for me, but not even I was convinced of that. GIY had a stall in The Big Shed where we were helping people to start their GIY journey. I also got to co-host a tour of the cookery school food gardens with one of my favourite people in the whole world, Alys Fowler, who talked at the GIY Gathering in Waterford last year. Bright and early on Saturday morning I was talking food writing with bloggers Aoife Carrigy (Holy Mackerel), Caroline Hennessy (Bibliocook) and Lucy Pearse (Queen of Puddings); and that evening I took part in a special food edition of 'Questions and Answers' hosted by John Bowman. Work? Ah, come on now.

How appropriate it was that such an inspiring event would be hosted by Ballymaloe which can almost certainly claim to be the spiritual home of Irish food. It's hard to imagine it coming off so well anywhere else.

Apparently, they haven't yet decided whether the Litfest should be repeated annually, bi-annually or occasionally. The bar is raised pretty high – but let me add my name to the clamour for it to be an annual event.

* Michael Kelly is author of 'Trading Paces' and 'Tales from the Home Farm', and founder of GIY.

Irish Independent