A taste for learning
Above: Darina Allen, left, chats with one of her students.
At a farm in the Irish countryside, people come from near and far to learn cooking from a master.
SHANAGARRY, Ireland — The city banker told the country woman that he was rejecting her application for a loan to create a cooking school on a 19th century farm 25 miles from nowhere.
That was more than 800,000 recipe book sales ago, before the school’s restaurant opened and before the applicant’s photo and signature were printed on the containers of her line of ice cream, produced by her food manufacturing company.
Darina Allen could loan him money now. But Darina — everyone who comes to take one of the courses at her Ballymaloe Cookery School is instantly on first-name terms — is too busy to bother with I-told-you-so’s.
With her blond hair and ready grin, she looks like one of those happy suns TV meteorologists stick on their big maps. But she is more a high-pressure front, blowing among teaching kitchens, hovering briefly in her office, showering her students with encouragement and homilies (“We really should emphasize the importance of knives — the tools of the trade.”).
Dash about she does, but Darina is neither disorganized nor one to take her success for granted. “She’s a star in Ireland,” declared student Catherine O’Reilly, who’d come more than 150 miles from Dublin to this minuscule village in southern Ireland. “She’s brought up the standards of cooking here.”
Here, and elsewhere. Darina Allen has reached out via more than a dozen cookbooks and eight television series. The shows are taped at Ballymaloe and have been broadcast throughout Ireland and the United Kingdom. She also has appeared as a guest on cooking shows on America’s Food Network.
That there could be an all Darina, all the time channel seems possible. During my visit, I counted 51 women and one man enrolled in her 2 1/2-day course in “Stress-Free Entertaining.”
If that course is the equivalent of elementary school at Ballymaloe (pronounced bally-muh-LOO), postgraduate work is Darina’s acclaimed 12-week certification course for those seeking to become professional chefs.
Offered three times a year, the class most recently had citizens of Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Italy, Finland and the United States among its 55 students.
The school was founded in 1983 and this year offers 33 cooking courses, ranging from breadmaking and buffets to Moroccan and Mexican specialties. Nearly two dozen non-cooking topics last from a half-day to two and include kitchen management for professionals, window boxes and hanging baskets, Christmas wreaths and garlands, and herb growing.
Prices depend on the length and sophistication of the course. For instance, the “Entertaining” class cost about $330, plus an additional $50 for a room for two nights, but the certification course runs about $5,100.
Despite her expertise, the creative force behind all this says, “I like recipes that are easy to do, so people will actually do them. . . . Things are changing in Ireland like they are in the U.S. There is less time to make meals, more reliance on fast foods. . . .
“The number of people who want to spend four hours cooking is limited. So we teach simple dishes that look good.”
A typical cooking class has one teacher for every five students. The bond between Darina, who will be 52 this month, and her students is obvious. As she glides through the teaching kitchens, she first casts a critical eye on the preparations, then offers encouragement or praise. Darina is so appreciative of each effort, it is as if she herself has just discovered the thrill of successfully turning out a a new dish.
The truth is, she has been cooking for necessity, not pleasure, since childhood. She was the oldest of nine, and her farmer father died when she was young.
“I was always cooking for my family, reading cookbooks,” Darina said in an interview as she raced through baked cod with cheddar sauce, boiled potatoes and lemon meringue roulade: the lunch her class had just prepared.
As a teenager, she enrolled in a community college emphasizing the business side of restaurant and hotel careers, but she was always drawn to food preparation.
She interrupted her tale and her lunch to autograph two of her books for a student, who disclosed that she already had all 13 but wanted an autographed copy of her favorite one and wanted the other for a friend.
After Darina finished community college, the only job offer she got was to come work beside Myrtle Allen, owner and chef at the widely known Ballymaloe House, a country hotel and restaurant.
That ancient estate was a working farm near the Celtic Sea. Mrs. Allen prided herself on using the freshest produce, meats and fish to celebrate traditional Irish recipes.
Darina took quickly to this style of cooking, and she took just as quickly to one of Mrs. Allen’s sons, Tim, and married him. They have four grown children.
A daughter, son, daughter-in-law and Tim are full-time employees at the school, either teaching or working in the cafe that draws customers from miles around. It is adjacent to the school building, which has been situated in a former apple storehouse the past 10 years.
That building was part of the farm around Ballymaloe House, and that farm was the impetus for creating the cooking school, Darina said. “Farming got to be more and more difficult. In the early 1980s, we were getting less and less for tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms. We went from employing about 100 to about 10 or 15.”
She and Tim understood that their produce was still of quality but that there was not sufficient demand for it. When her father-in-law guaranteed a loan for her, Darina opened the Cookery School close to the hotel-restaurant. It proved an immediate success.
“The fact that we’re on a farm, with organic produce, is important to a lot of our dishes,” she emphasized. “We want to make people think of food in a different way: It is not something picked off shelves but something that people have produced, with care and passion.
“In our 12-week course, we introduce the students to our gardens, and we have them plant a seed. Then (over the weeks) they watch their plant grow. After seeing a plant grow, you don’t dare boil the hell out of those carrots.”
Surrounding the cooking school are an herb garden, with bronze fennel, purple sage, parsley, chives and more, and a fruit garden, with apples, pears, loganberries, strawberries, currants, peaches, raspberries. Hogs wander about, visible from the school; primroses, bluebells and hyacinths color the scene, but pansies are grown for decorating the food dishes.
“The whole secret of cooking is sourcing really good mediums,” said Darina. She acknowledged that, unlike most of her followers, she has ready access to freshly smoked fish, free-range poultry, farmhouse cheeses and, of course, her own vegetables and herbs.
Up to 60 employees now work the farm, the gardens, the school and the restaurant.
As for her success, Darina declined credit and instead said, “There has been a huge renaissance in cooking: It is now a hobby people can practice on the weekends. “We are a nation growing up,” she continued, referring to Ireland’s decade-plus of newfound prosperity. “We are more confident, more aware of our produce. Our young chefs are traveling abroad, learning and returning. We are able to appreciate our traditional dishes.”
She was too busy elsewhere to actually enjoy the lunch her students made this day, though she appeared before the meal to proclaim a simple benediction:
“This is one of the great mysteries of life: Everyone is shown the same dish, given the same ingredients, but cooks something slightly different.”
She bustled off to attend to other matters while the students, each of whom had prepared the same two entrees, vegetables, soup, bread and dessert, dug in.
Because everything but the dessert, the lemon meringue roulades, had been mingled on communal platters, no one knew whose product they were eating. But snatches of conversation showed enjoyment of the classroom and kitchen experiences:
” . . . but coriander is gorgeous.”
” . . . just coming into season now.”
” . . . speaking with the woman at the hotel and they just bought some fresh off the ship.”
And the occasional complement every ear was attuned for:
“Good bit of cod, that.”
For more information
Ballymaloe is in the crossroads community of Shanagarry, 26 miles east of Cork Airport, in County Cork. To contact the school:
Ballymaloe Cookery School
Telephone 353 21 464 6785; e-mail email@example.com; www.cookingisfun.ie