Category: Archive

A Taste of Success

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

A cookbook author, gardener and purveyor of organic foods, the County Laois-born born Allen runs the renowned Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, Co. Cork.
“People imagine chefs don’t burn anything or ruin anything, but of course we do,” she said. “So I’m incredibly sympathetic.”
Her friends might also feel better knowing that Allen appreciates simplicity as well.
“I’m not into all the frills and bows and ribbons on my food,” she said. “I love simple, fresh cooking.”
Buoyed by demand from the public for the same kind of wholesome cooking, Allen has made her living off of that exact sentiment. By concentrating on the abundance of ingredients grown in Ireland, Allen is among a handful of chefs who have brought Irish cuisine into fashion in recent years.
“It’s a lot of things,” she said. “The quality of ingredients here is so good, we are fortunate.”
Allen is currently preparing for a class she is giving next Tuesday at the Macy’s Herald Square De Gustibus Cooking School. She expects the demonstration to be a good example of her Ballymaloe repertoire, and in that spirit she will rely on local organic resources, such as those available at Manhattan’s Union Square Greenmarket.
Unabashedly traditional in her tastes, Allen is quick to cite stews and champ as staples of the Irish collective. What makes them stand out, she said, is the increasing amount of energy put into the ingredients and preparation of those classic dishes.
Allen said that the secret of Irish food is found in the quality of the ingredients, and she is passionate about making sure the Irish takes full advantage of their resources, though, she noted, Ireland’s burgeoning economy has sometimes backfired on the growth of Irish-bred foods.
“People travel a lot,” she said, “so, sadly, it’s probably easier to find Thai green curry rather than a nice stew or colcannon.”
Allen said the saving grace will be come with the rise in organically made artisan food that is increasingly being sold in local markets and on farms across Ireland.
“People are making their own food — cured meats and preserves,” she said. “And all in a very non-intensive way. It’s a wonderful way for people to see the regional foods here.”
Allen, the eldest of nine children, got her start in cuisine after attending a hotel school in Dublin. She headed to Cork in the late 1960s, after hearing about a farmer’s wife who opened a restaurant for her country home and was using local produce and fish to make inventive dishes.
To hear Allen put it, she never left. Her school, opened in 1983, has been operating in tandem with the hotel ever since.
The Ballymaloe Cooking School offers everything from professional chefs courses to one-off afternoon sessions that hotel guests can ramble into. Allen’s relative celebrity attracts guests from all over the world who want to experience her cooking firsthand.
“We had people from seven different nationalities in one class we just gave,” she said. “We’re expecting 10 in the next class.”
“People like the option of being able to cook,” Allen said. “Lawyers, doctors, journalists — some take three months off for to take the professional course. Some go back to work, and some even change careers.”
For those not born with a spatula in their hand, or who don’t know what one is, they shouldn’t lose hope.
“It’s the same with a lot of things, as cooks aren’t made or born, exactly,” Allen said. “It’s a little bit of both. You can teach some people while others have a natural ability.”
Allen does get some help with her farm-fresh philosophy thanks to her immediate neighbors at Ballymaloe. One raises the Jersey cows that provide fresh milk daily.
Surrounding the school is a fully functioning organic farm, built for use by the school’s students.
“We produce the food that we use in cooking,” she said. “We have gardens and pigs and hens, even bees for honey.”
“A lot of students come just because of the quality of our ingredients,” said Allen. “We grow everything, so we know the source. It’s all fresh, naturally produced food.
“There is a lot of interest in organic food in Ireland now. For both large and small growers, demand has skyrocketed.”
Indeed, Ireland’s organic food production has been given a boost that supporters say is much needed for the industry to thrive.
Last summer, a European Commission action plan to promote organic farming in the EU was introduced, and included a commitment to allow member states top-up EU grants to producers of organic fruit and vegetables.
Approximately one percent of Irish land is currently farming organically. It is that passion for the natural is what makes Allen’s approach unique.
“You have to have a real passion for the type of food you are using and how you get it,” she said. “It’s a telltale sign to walk into a chef’s kitchen, you see if it is just a day job for them or a way of life.”
Perhaps fittingly, Allen’s own culinary favorites come and go with the seasons.
“I’m very fickle,” she said. “I get excited about the rhubarb coming up, for example,” she added, laughing.
Allen finds year-round enjoyment in seasonal food. “Right now I am loving root vegetables and kale and all that good stuff,” she said.
She also believes that eating organic ingredients prepared fresh is essential to a person’s overall health and well-being.
“It is important to know why we eat,” she stressed. “It’s for nourishment, and a lot of people do not connect how we feel to the foods we eat. To be able to cook, you are in control of your nourishment.”
Allen believes that that packaged and processed foods hardly qualify as sustenance.
“For example, people who buy fast food are not in control of their nourishment,” she said. “To have a few skills is terribly important. The food out of cans and jars is inanimate. There is such a difference [with fresh food]. You can’t help but be excited.”
Allen recently finished a cookbook for those with gluten allergies. She was quick to note that she believes such allergies are the result of the many preservatives processed foods contain as well as the processes themselves.
Figures indicate that about 40,000 people in Ireland suffer from some kind of food allergy. The most common culprits are milk, eggs and peanuts.
She could be called Ireland’s answer to Martha Stewart, with the dozens of cooking and home entertaining books she has penned, as well as her many television appearances. Allen still likes knowing home is always Ballymaloe.
“I’m very fortunate,” she said.
(To learn more about Darina Allen’s New York class, call the De Gustibus cooking school at [212] 439-1714.)

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