On St. Patrick’s Day, Go Beyond Irish Corned Beef And Cabbage

Food & Drink

Just in time for St. Patrick’s Day, Irish chef and cookbook author, Darina Allen came to New York to present The New Ballymaloe Bread Book.

We love soda bread and brown bread, but thought it would be timely to sit down with Darina to chat about Irish cuisine.

Darina Allen: I’ve been coming to New York for twenty years and I love the fact that here, everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, no matter where they’re from! Do you know that many Irish people had never tasted corned beef and cabbage, supposedly our most famous specialty? You have to understand, it was a recipe that emerged when the immigrants left Ireland behind and took with them on the ships corned beef and cabbage in brine.

SB: When I traveled to Ireland’s apple orchards in 2016 to write about the boom of hard cider makers, people said, “Beware, there’s no good food in Ireland.” In fact, everything I tasted was delicious.

DA: A while back, the image of Irish food was appalling but that has changed a great deal. There’s really been a culinary revolution. We enjoy this rich fertile soil and four distinct seasons, so we are able to take advantage of this amazing grass. Farmers raise grass-fed beef and lamb, there are now fabulous dairy products including approximately 70 artisanal cheeses, and of course, we are an island so we can prepare the freshest fish and shellfish. Someone like Sally Barnes at Woodcock Smokery in County Cork only smokes wild salmon for example, and Anthony Creswell at Ummera Irish Smokehouse has gotten prizes for top artisanal products. Today in Ireland, we have all kinds of eateries from gastropubs all the way to fine dining with 16 Michelin-starred restaurants.

SB: You are a co-founder of the Ballymaloe Cooking School. Tell us a bit about the history of Ballymaloe.

DA: Everything started thanks to Myrtle and Ivan Allen in the early 1960s. When they first got married, she learned he played bridge a lot, he learned she couldn’t cook! He was a progressive farmer and entrepreneur and family lore has it that he taught her how to make scrambled eggs on their first night at the farm.

It was known that she hated housework but six children later, she had mastered what we would call today local country cooking and in 1964 they decided to open their dining room to a few neighbors with a simple ad in the local paper. She had no training. She wrote her menu every day. Word spread and soon she was busier with her “restaurant” than she could have ever imagined. They lived in a large farmhouse and over the years, when diners asked if they could stay over after a delicious, hefty meal, she thought about using the ten or so bedrooms. That’s how Ballymaloe House was born. Within two years, she’d raked in some of the top ratings in the British Isles. She broke all the rules. “I just cook the food I know,” she used to say. When I came out of hotel school, most chefs were men and I could have never gotten a job in the celebrated kitchens of Ireland. My school advisor said to me, “you could be an assistant manager in a hotel, you could have a nice uniform.” I want to cook terrines and soufflés, and prepare homemade ice cream. “You’re too fussy,” said my advisor. But later on, she told me about Myrtle Allen. I would end up moving in and marrying the boss’ son!

SB: What were some of her specialties?

DA: She made poached mackerel with herb butter and carrageen moss pudding with stewed rhubarb. Chefs and food writers flocked to Ballymaloe, and in 1986 we made the cover of Gourmet Magazine.

SB: Myrtle passed away in 2018 but Ballymaloe is still going strong. Anything new on the horizon?

DA: So I am 75 and my startup is our new organic farm school. We teach sustainable food production, regenerative farming, and offer a complete food program set within our hundred-acre organic farmland. We keep thinking up new courses such as composting, beekeeping and even homesteading. You can come for an afternoon or for our three-month accredited course!

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