Who would have thought an Irish farmer could make a killer shrikhand? Darina Allen is Ireland’s most famous chef, and she grows most of the food she cooks. She has written 14 cook books which have sold in the millions, presented 10 TV cooking series, and together with her husband Tim, and their extended family, runs the world-famous Ballymaloe Cooking School in County Cork, which sits in the middle of a 100-acre organic farm, complete with its own herb garden, pigs, ducks, chickens and a herd of Jersey cows.
I meet her over a coffee in the peaceful courtyard of the Dutch House in Galle, Sri Lanka, where she came to give a cookery demonstration. Darina is a passionate woman with strong opinions about most things that have to do with food: how we grow it, cook it, consume it and pay for it. A heroic advocate of farm-to-table cuisine, ‘slow food,’ sustainable farming, and farmer’s markets, it’s no surprise she’s against genetically-modified food and in favour of farmer subsidies. “There’s this cancer in our society that thinks cheap food is our right. People have become so detached from nature and land, they have no idea how long it takes to grow a carrot! If they did, they’d be willing to pay more for it.”
Darina became a chef before the age of the celebrity chef. She was educated by progressive Dominican nuns in Wicklow, who “encouraged girls to have a career,” but all Darina was interested in was gardening and cooking. “I often missed classes to play poker,” she tells me, in her robust Irish accent, “But never a cooking class.” She graduated from Hotel School in Dublin in the late 1960s when there were only about five good restaurants in Ireland that had men as head chefs. “Women had to be content to run tea-shops.” Then she heard about a farmer’s wife called Myrtle Allen in Cork who had opened a restaurant at her farm. Myrtle changed her menu every day and only used local produce—unusual for the time. Darina started working with Myrtle, and two years later she married her son Tim, an affable cheese-maker extraordinaire. Forty years, four children and nine grandchildren later, Ballymaloe has blossomed into a world-class cooking school where you can learn everything from how to cure a pig in a day and use every morsel, to making the perfect afternoon tea and cakes.
Darina has always been concerned with self-sufficiency, well before the crash of the Irish economy, which forced many to go back to cultivating their own vegetables. Already in 1996, realising that certain skills were being lost to modernisation, she began collecting traditional recipes from all over Ireland. She wrote to Irish papers inviting people to share their family recipes and travelled the country inspecting hand-written cookery books and the manuscripts of the great homes. What emerged was Irish Traditional Cooking—a documentation of the culinary heritage of a whole nation before it disappears. It’s an impressive book filled with rescued recipes and “food memories”—how the Irish take food out of the bog, what they serve at thresh-making and funerals, the perfect “Spotted Dog” and “Good Friday Soup”—proving that Irish cuisine isn’t just cabbage and potatoes.
The writer is a dancer, poet and novelist.