The matriarch of Irish cooking shares recipes and love for local produce

By easyFood

24 January 2019

Founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School at Shanagarry and a doyenne of Irish food, Darina Allen has been influencing the way we cook for decades. With a strong connection to the land and a passion for fresh, seasonal and local foods, Darina continues working to keep traditional Irish foods and associated skills alive.

The Ballymaloe Cookery School is located in the middle of an 100-acre organic farm in East Cork. Courses include afternoon demonstrations, half-day courses, one-day courses, 2½-5 day courses and finally a 12-week Certificate Course which is designed for those who wish to earn a living from cooking.

How did you first get into cooking?

Wow, it’s a long time ago – like so many of my generation I learned to cook by watching and helping (or hindering!) my mother at home in our kitchen in Cullohill in County Laois. There were nine children in our family so there was constant activity going on. My mother was a very good cook; she made soda bread every day and all our food was home-cooked, apart from the odd packet of Mikado or Coconut Creams.

What are your favourite foods to cook at home?

Gosh, that’s a difficult one, it depends on the season. I get madly excited by the first rhubarb or green gooseberries, elderflower, mackerel… I suppose if I have to choose just one it would have to be a gorgeous plump roast chicken, a proper free-range organic bird. Because it costs about €25 to rear a beautiful organic chicken, it is once again a rare treat as it used to be when I was a child. We spin it out with lots of crusty roast potatoes, gravy and several vegetables, celebrate every mouthful and make a fine pot of chicken broth from the carcass and giblets.

What’s the best kitchen advice you’ve ever been given?

All good food starts with beautiful fresh produce – “you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear”, so be pernickety and pay minute attention to your shopping and sourcing.

What’s the worst kitchen disaster you’ve ever had?

On my first day in the Ballymaloe House kitchens I made meringues with salt, which I mistook for caster sugar!

What ingredients are always in your kitchen?

Always Kerrygold butter, several extra-virgin olive oils, Forum wine vinegars, local honey, dairy and sea salt, lemons, sardines, Woodside heritage streaky bacon, onions, Irish garlic, our own organic free-range eggs and lots of fresh herbs just outside the kitchen door, plus lots of whole spices, harissa, sumac, bottarga…

Is there any food you really dislike?

I had to think about this! I love offal but I’m not mad about brains. I hate “poncey” food and I’m totally over foams.

What advice would you give to someone who’s just learning to cook?

Buy a reliable cookbook with simple recipes that work. Learn eight or ten basic techniques and build on those, and of course learn how to shop – recognise and choose good ingredients. Build up a relationship with your butcher, fishmonger and the stall holders at your nearest farmers’ market and take every opportunity to learn by asking questions. Don’t be discouraged if something is not glorious at first – there is no such thing as a “mistake”, just an opportunity to learn!

Who or what inspires your style of cooking?

I’m inspired by many people: my own late mother Elizabeth O’Connell, my mother-in-law Myrtle Allen, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse, Claudia Roden, Madhur Jaffrey, Rory O’Connell and many others who were happy “in their own skin” and confident enough to cook real food and share their knowledge. I’m also heartened by the many young people who are truly passionate about real food and go to considerable lengths to source superb ingredients from small farmers, day boat fishermen and artisan producers. They are the hope for the future and Ireland.

What meal would put a smile on your face on Mother’s Day?

A huge big bubbling pot of Irish stew, cooked to melting, with lots of chunky carrots, sweet onions and the whole top covered with potatoes infused with the flavour of the stew underneath. A comforting meal in one pot, that we can all share around the kitchen table with our whole brood of children and grandchildren.

If you had to pick your current Top Three Irish Products, what would they be?

Irish butter, except I wish they wouldn’t keep reducing the salt. Irish shellfish: native oysters, fresh prawns (not dipped in metabisulphite) shrimps, sea urchins, razor clams, periwinkles, wild mussels, clams, cockles, scallops – a selection to die for, what a feast from the cold clean waters of the Atlantic. And Macroom Oatmeal, from the last stone grinding mill in Ireland.

Can you sum up your approach to food in one sentence?

Eat fresh food, cook it simply, sit down, share it with family and friends around the kitchen table and give thanks to the good Lord for all our blessings.

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