The legendary Darina Allen is a woman of many talents and passions. She is an award-winning author, chef, teacher, TV personality, farmer and founder of the famed Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland, the only cooking school in the world that happens to be located in the middle of its own 100-acre organic farm. The author of 30 Years at Ballymaloe explains what actually might be on the table at a typical Irish St. Patrick’s Day feast.
Jennifer Russell: You’re considered the food ambassador of Ireland. Some of the misconceptions about Irish food may still linger, but there is a huge food renaissance afoot in Ireland, isn’t there?
Darina Allen: Yes! Although the perception is changing, the image of Irish food in America has largely been connected to corned beef, cabbage and Irish soda bread (delicious as they are). But there is so much more.
The word is now getting out that there is a huge renaissance on the Irish food scene. Now people come to Ireland not for just the beautiful scenery and friendly people, but with the realization that they can have fresh, local, naturally-produced foods in season prepared by world-class chefs. You can actually get a genuine taste of each region as you travel through the Irish countryside -- look out for the Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland's first long-distance touring route stretching along the Atlantic coast from Donegal to West Cork.
JR: You cook, you farm, you teach and you write. While they all share a common thread, which is your favorite?
DA: Gosh, that's a difficult question. If I have to choose one, it has to be cooking as all of the others stem from that. I love to cook and pass on the skills to others and take the mystery out of the process.
To cook good food, you need beautiful, fresh produce. That connects me to the farms, the gardeners and the good earth. We are so fortunate that Ballymaloe Cookery School is situated in the middle of a 100-acre organic farm and garden; we have the opportunity to produce so much of our own food. We have seven Jersey cows -- we have our own milk and cream, and make our own butter, yogurt and cheese in the dairy. We also have pigs, chickens, beef animals ... It this way of living and traditions of food and cooking that inspire my food writing.
JR: You’re a huge proponent of cooking with local and seasonal ingredients. I know that you like to celebrate global cuisine at Ballymaloe, and that also plays prominently in your new book. What are you cooking these days?
DA: You are right. The food that we cook at Ballymaloe House and Ballymaloe Cookery School reflects my travels and current food trends, as well as our traditional food culture. Because we have an acre of greenhouses on the farm, which we use as a protected garden, we can grow all kinds of "exotic" ingredients as well as heritage seeds, many varieties of chiles, epasote, fresh lime leaves, lemon grass.
The recipes in the new book reflect a global nature of the food we eat and serve. What we are cooking at the school continually changes based on the seasons. I just cooked Lucknow chicken korma, a recipe I learned how to make on my recent trip to India. You can see how we keep extending our repertoire.
JR: St. Patrick’s Day has become a global celebration of Irish Culture. In Ireland it’s a feast day and a holy day. What might be on the table at a typical Irish St. Patrick’s Day feast, and how do you celebrate?
DA: It could be anything. Some people might even have corned beef and cabbage, but despite the perception that we live on it over here in Ireland, many families don't have it from one end of the year to the other.
We just showed our students how to make corned beef from scratch last week from our own organic Kerry beef -- they loved that.
Our typical St Patrick’s Day family meal might be comforting bacon, cabbage and parsley sauce with champ, a fluffy Irish mashed potato dish with scallions, followed by a tart or pie made from the first little spears of the new season’s rhubarb. If we were having a starter it might be a watercress soup or a little of Bill Casey's smoked salmon with a devilled egg and some Ballymaloe brown bread.
We celebrate St Patrick’s Day in the time-honored way around the table with family and friends, children and grandchildren (we now have nine!). Some will have gone to see the St Patrick’s Day parade in Cork or in our local town of Midleton. We love to have little vases of the first primroses on the table.