Ballymaloe, home of the first family of food
We’ll send you a myFT Daily Digest email rounding up the latest Food & Drink news every morning.
You’re very welcome” is the way guests are greeted at Ballymaloe, the sprawling east Cork compound of the Allens, Ireland’s first family of food and farming. The words might be delivered as you cross the threshold of the country-house hotel, or in the drawing room where you will find a pint extended. Or in the famed restaurant where Myrtle Allen, the late matriarch, established a kitchen in 1964 that is credited with taking the country from a land of culinary cringe to one with an elevated food culture recognised worldwide.
The greeting is the same for the students who arrive at the Ballymaloe Cookery School to study with the ebullient Darina Allen, Myrtle’s daughter-in-law, now in her 70s, or her brother, cookbook author Rory O’Connell. So too for the day-trippers eager to visit Ballymaloe’s jersey cows, chicken coops and heirloom-variety orchards, its quaint tea house, stocked-to-the-brim shop or bakery. “You’re very welcome”, without fail. It may seem an innocuous detail, but it goes to the heart of the Allens’ efforts to bring people into their world.
Countless column inches have been written about Ballymaloe and the Allens; adding to them might seem an exercise in nostalgia. But when the pandemic struck it was a gut punch for a family that runs not one but three of the most affected kinds of industries – a hotel, a restaurant and a school along with a farm. Many, including myself, were left asking, “What will they do?”
Yet as we’ve emerged, so have they. And the paradigms around how we want to be nourished (and by whom) have once again returned us towards the Allens’ vision. Ballymaloe offers equal parts Irish country-house hospitality, enterprise, energy and culinary education. It is this combination that has drawn the food world here, both old-school and new, for decades.
The first night I spent at Ballymaloe, in 2012, was supposed to be a Saturday but instead was a Sunday, thanks to pounding Irish rain and Ryanair. It had long been on my list of places to visit, and I was devastated to miss the famous Saturday-night dinner in the dining room of Myrtle Allen (who was then in her 90s). Thinking the “Sunday Buffet” I had to settle for would be some arrangement of leftovers, I arrived in the dining room disheartened. There I found a table heaving with food that on first glance seemed somewhat dated: pretty but slightly fussy garnishes of flowers, platters of vol-au-vents and piped eggs laid out on a chequered tablecloth.
On closer inspection, though, everything shifted. The whole sides of salmon were wild Irish, not Atlantic. The rare roast beef was from the local herds. Soda breads, of earthy hues, were baked in-house, served with hand-churned Jersey cream butter. Salads were greens just picked from the garden, enlivened with foraged pennywort. Handmade fish pâtés were somehow startlingly modern; the charcuterie was all of Irish provenance, lined up alongside cheeses with Irish names as varied as their sizes and perfumes.
The unpretentiousness of the offering belied a deep sophistication. It was not only the food you want to eat as a traveller – entirely of place – but also a pure representation of an Irish food renaissance. There was not a hint of “chef suggests this” but a spirit of conviviality, one that saw three generations of Allens eating among the guests with no trace of performance. Alone, a complete unknown to them at the time, I was told to pull up a chair.
“That is the particular power of the Allens, and Darina: the extraordinary ease with which they bring people to the table. That’s what they have taught me – ‘Oh, there is always a little more space, just come here, sit down,’” says Alice Waters. Like many chefs and food writers, the Chez Panisse owner-chef and activist can’t quite recall the moment that Ballymaloe came onto her radar; it had always somehow been there. “I’d always heard of this place in Ireland doing extraordinary things with local producers, sourcing food in the right ways, making simple delicious things,” she says. She first visited 25 years ago, and returns not only because it is one of her preferred holidays but because of their shared Slow Food philosophy.
“It was the kind of place about which you’d have a tear-out stuck to your fridge, so I could never in my life believe they would ask me to come and teach at the school,” says Maggie Beer. Beer, who is considered to be a kind of Australian Julia Child, had for many years a pheasant farm and iconic restaurant that championed the regional produce of the Barossa Valley outside Adelaide in the same spirit as the Allens have done in east Cork. “The buckets and baskets of produce that would come into the kitchen… I never experienced the largesse of such a garden,” she recalls of her time working as one of the cookery school’s teachers. “I remember the milk was pale and warm, and the vegetables had just been plucked from the ground.” Ballymaloe, she says, reassured her that what she was doing on the other side of the world was worthy.
Waters, Beer and Allen are contemporaries, and share much the same philosophy. Each has played a vital role in her respective country – Waters as an activist, Beer as a cook, Allen as a sort of headmistress. Allen started the Ballymaloe Cookery School in 1983 and still teaches, sometimes until late in the evening. Until the pandemic she was instructing up to 60 students per day (it’s now reopened at a more limited capacity).
“The first recipe we were taught was the recipe for compost,” says Jess Shadbolt of King, one of New York’s most acclaimed restaurants. Shadbolt and her partner Clare de Boer (also an ex-student) are part of a more recent crop of Ballymaloe Cookery School alumni; this spring, together with a third partner, Annie Shi, they will open their next venture in Rockefeller Center. “I often say to aspiring chefs, ‘If you want to go and be a chef right away, go and work in a kitchen; but if you want to open up many pathways and really get to know food and understand where it comes from, go to Ballymaloe.’” As much as any technical skill, Shadbolt says, what she took away from her experience in Ballymaloe’s educational surrounds was the importance of “cook[ing] with joy”.
Jordan Bourke is an Irish food stylist, cookbook author and Korean food expert who worked for several years for Skye Gyngell of London’s Spring restaurant. His Ballymaloe experience was similarly joyous, but instead of adopting the recipes and provenance of his homeland, he has adapted the Allens’ philosophy of food and applied it to Korean cooking. He is married to the South Korean fashion designer Rejina Pyo and the couple worked together on a cookbook, Our Korean Kitchen. “I was working in Seoul, and when I came back from that experience and we ended up writing the book, I talked to Darina often,” he recalls. “At the time she didn’t have much knowledge of Korean food; it totally blew her mind and she became obsessed with ferments – and obviously kimchi. I came and taught a demo course at Ballymaloe, and within the space of about a year her knowledge of what I had spent eight years trying to learn was already totally accomplished. She just throws herself into it. She had read every single book, she’d spoken to everyone. It is not at all just Darina; it is Rory, it is the entire family. They have a relentless curiosity that keeps the institution young and vibrant.”
“They bring the world to Ireland and Ireland to the world,” says Skye Gyngell, who calls Rory O’Connell a dear friend. Gyngell has taught many times at the Cookery School and was a guest speaker at the inaugural Ballymaloe Litfest, a food and cookbook festival that ran from 2013 to 2017. “I scarcely know a more elegant cook than Rory, and I’ll never forget the dinner at the first Litfest,” she adds. “It was just an astonishing group of people. There were more brilliantly written recipes in that room than I think there have ever been in any other.”
In its time, Litfest was considered the most prestigious of food writing festivals, and every big-name author and columnist attended – from doyennes such as Middle Eastern specialist Claudia Roden and Indian specialist Madhur Jaffrey to then 92-year-old Mexican-food authority Diana Kennedy or more modern stars like René Redzepi. Continues Gyngell: “From the outside it can seem quite quaint and old-fashioned what they do, but that festival was so utterly modern; they were talking about all the issues that we are talking about now, and with the feeling that we are all craving right now. I bet we’ll see a revival.”
“Sometimes when you visit your heroes, you can be so disappointed,” says Redzepi. “You’ve built up this perfect castle in the sky – an image of a place in Ireland where this family runs this little restaurant with an inn, and all these surrounding facilities, the farm, and so on. And then when you arrive there, it’s just a little bit better than everything that you envisioned.”
Noma – which last month was awarded its third Michelin star and this month topped the World’s 50 Best Restaurants again – and Ballymaloe might seem to represent opposite poles of the gastronomic world: sleek fine dining versus rustic country-house cooking. Yet the two institutions, Danish and Irish, share a distinct commonality: both restaurants have almost single-handedly changed the way the world understands a national food culture. “I’ve always seen them as this family that’s done the impossible, which is to stay true to something original but nudge things into their time with each passing generation,” Redzepi continues. “Then we’re in this situation of a pandemic, and suddenly they are one of the most relevant places of all places in the fine-dining segment. Maybe before, there was a lot of emphasis on who’s coming up with the latest way of cooking a sauce – innovation for the sake of innovation, in some sense. Whereas now people are looking for something authentic and real. And dare I say, a little more traditional.
“It seems they’ve become this safe haven.”
Ballymaloe House, rooms from €250. Ballymaloe Cookery School, half-day cooking courses from €115