A household name to gastronomes, aspiring chefs and everyday lovers of eating, Elaine Lavery speaks to Darina Allen.
The food and fashion industries mirror each other more than you might realise. At one end of the spectrum, we have cheap and fast – Penneys, McDonalds – while at the other end of the spectrum, we have expensive and exclusive – Prada becomes Noma (two-star Michelin restaurant in Copenhagen, voted world’s best in 2011). Darina Allen is neither Penneys nor Prada. As founder of the celebrated Ballymaloe Cookery School, Allen believes in simplicity and quality when it comes to food. “I love a boiled egg for supper, but it will be a really good boiled egg and some fresh bread. So it’s not a whole ton of fancy food, it’s not expensive food; it’s just real food … I’ve never been to Burger King in my life, I once had a McDonalds and that was enough for me to decide that I wasn’t particularly interested in going back again.”
Allen’s purpose for entering the food industry was not to get rich or to gain the recognition she has accumulated over the years. In the beginning, with four young children, it was purely an economical decision: “We [Allen and husband Tim] were in horticulture; we grew tomatoes and mushrooms for the home market as well as export for many years, and then in the sixties, labour costs started to rise. There was twenty-five per cent inflation, we were heating five acres of greenhouses with oil, so the whole thing became very uneconomic quite quickly.
“We had to look at what resources we had and what talents we had between us and try and earn a living in a different way. We were in the middle of a farm growing a lot of produce, so one of the obvious things was to start a cooking school, and I had done Hotel Management [in Cathal Brugha Street, now DIT] and loved to cook, so I started giving cooking classes with Myrtle [Allen, Darina’s mother-in-law], originally in Ballymaloe in the mid-to-late seventies. Then we decided we would go ahead and invest and convert some of our farm buildings into a little cookery school and opened in September 1983.”
In its twenty-eight years, the school has grown in stature and repute, and now functions with both indoor and outdoor classrooms. The indoor classroom is the kitchen, where every afternoon, fifty-nine students of eleven different nationalities take the infamous, twelve-week cookery course (there are also shorter and weekend courses). The outdoor classroom is the surrounding farm and gardens, including an acre-sized unheated greenhouse, in which the staff and students grow fresh produce all year round – both are vitally important to the school and the Ballymaloe ethos.
There are two lessons that Allen hopes to impart to her students and neither pertains to the act of cooking itself: “One is that all good food starts with really good quality produce. Even more so than that – this will sound a little hippyish – but basically it’s all about the soil, the fertility of the soil, the quality of the soil. I like to quote Lady Eve Balfour – she was one of the founders of the Soil Association – and she reminded us that the health of the soil, the health of the plant, the health of the animal and the health of the human are all one and indivisible, where all is connected. So for chefs and cooks, unless you really understand that good food is all about starting off with really good raw materials, then you have to be a magician … If you’ve got a really beautiful piece of fresh fish, fresh meat or wonderful fresh vegetables you need to do so little to make it taste good”
The second lesson Allen teaches is that food is our medicine: “We forget that the whole reason for eating is to nourish our bodies, keep us healthy, give us energy, vitality, the ability to concentrate, and yet, a lot of the time, we shovel anything into ourselves and then we’re wondering why we have a lump or bump or tumour. Nowadays, so many people have bottles of tables and vitamins and minerals. If they were really eating good quality food, they wouldn’t need any of that.”
Asked about diets, Allen gives a not unexpected answer: “I’ve never dieted in my life. I believe diets are a disaster in general. You can eat four slices of sliced pan, and you feel as thought you’ve eaten cotton wool. Eat one slice of really good, homemade brown soda bread or yeast bread with good cheese on it, and then you know you’ve eaten something”. Allen labels processed food “cheat food” as it cheats the body of nutrients it expects to be getting. In other words, eat better and you desire less. The proof of this mantra is evident – both Darina and daughter-in-law Rachel Allen, the public faces of Ballymaloe, have a body shape which any yo-yo dieter would lust after.
The benefits of cooking go far beyond the joys of eating. As well as providing a career path and opportunities to travel, Allen reveals a secret well-known to all good cooks: “Being able to cook is a terrific skill in so many ways, because you will never be short of friends and it’s one of the easiest ways to win friends and influence people.”