Darina Allen talks to Patrick Freyne about overseeing a food empire in good times and bad
D arina Allen is moving at quite a pace. The 62-year-old is nimbly darting up steps, through gates, over walls and across muddy fields as I try to keep up (“It’s wet underfoot!” she warns, skipping carefully over puddles as I plough straight into them). She is guiding me around her farm and gardens, showing me “the work of 40 years or so.” Her cookery school is 30 years old this year and she is about to inaugurate the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine next month. She talks rapidly as we walk (“Oh God, you’re going to have to transcribe all this, I do apologise!”) filling me with detail about her food philosophy and the various vegetable gardens, greenhouses, pigs, chickens and follies that are dotted across her land.
There is a sea-shell-encrusted folly created for her 25th wedding anniversary. There’s a temporarily overturned wicker sea-serpent rising out of a field of wild flowers. There’s a metal dome (“I had Millennium Dome envy”). There’s a garden hut with a beautiful broken crockery floor, uncovered when they finally tidied an overgrown turn-of-the-century garden. The garden also features the “most significant beech hedges in Ireland” (“And if I’d had the money 40 years ago I’d have bulldozed everything”).
There’s a maze. “Another of my crazy ideas,” she says. “Timmy wasn’t very keen on getting a maze, so I gave him a present of it ... It’s a really strong puzzle. I had to rescue students from it once at half one in the morning. I could hear them from my bedroom, calling out and roaring laughing. They had wine with them.”
We are getting on pretty well. “Are those hens?” I ask of two white birds pecking the ground in one courtyard.
“Oh Patrick!” she says and laughs (she has a very hearty laugh). “What are you like? Those are fan-tailed doves!”
Later I see another bird and ask what it is. She looks at me like I’m mad and laughs again. “Patrick, that’s a duck,” she says, before adding charitably, “I suppose, I wouldn’t know much about your world either.” In fairness, it was an odd-looking duck.
I’m glad we’re getting on well. I like her but earlier, over coffee and cakes from the cookery school shop, I upset her. I asked her about the period when her husband Tim Allen was convicted for possessing child pornography in 2003. He received a suspended sentence and paid €40,000 to charity. I introduced the subject in a sort of cowardly way. She was talking enthusiastically about the sudden public profile she had after RTÉ launched her as a celebrity chef in the 1980s with Simply Delicious . I said: “And did your public profile make things more difficult then, 10 years ago?”
She is surprised by the question. She stiffens and says: “I’m not going to say anything about that.” She adds: “But just to say that I had a lot of support from the public. Unspoken support.” Her voice becomes caught with emotion. “I remember people on the train reaching out.” She reaches her hands out and, in demonstration, gently squeezes my arm. “Even thinking about it makes me . . . ” Her voice falters. “And as you can see the car park’s full and everything just kept . . . ” She gestures for me to turn off my Dictaphone.
She will not talk any more on this subject. When I turn my Dictaphone back on, after a short off-the-record discussion, we speak about something else. She’s a bit distant. It takes a while before she seems like herself again.
Despite this shadow, Ballymaloe is an incredible success story. It’s the story of three generations building a Utopian food empire around a succession of female figureheads – Myrtle Allen, wife of Ivan, then Darina, wife of Tim, and more recently Rachel, wife of Darina’s son Isaac.
For decades it followed a generally positive trajectory with a holistic business model that involved the whole family and which would be impossible to copy. “For the most part,” she says, “all four generations live within 20 minutes of one another.” And the empire is actually several businesses run independently. Tim’s brother Rory and wife Hazel run Ballymaloe House where Myrtle still lives. His sister, Yasmin Hyde, who “emigrated” to Glanmire, an unthinkable 30 minutes away, makes the famous relish. Tim and Darina operate and own the cookery school and farm. Darina’s brother, Rory O’Connell, is a teacher there, and co-organiser of the festival. Meanwhile, a third generation of gastronomic entrepreneurs include farmers, farmer’s-marketers, hot-pot producers (Cully and Sully), butchers, pizza-makers and, of course, celebrity chefs.
It’s all very different from when Darina first arrived there in the 1960s at the age of 18 straight from a hotel and catering course in Cathal Brugha Street in Dublin. “This was at a time when you could count the amount of good restaurants in Ireland on one hand and none would take a woman in the kitchen. Men were chefs. Women ran tea shops or worked in country hotels, of which there were many wonderful doyens. Anyway, chefs had no status, so cooking was out of the question for my lovely Dominican nuns and my mother. I had to go into management.”
She grew up in Cullohill in Co Laois, the eldest of nine, and no stranger to family businesses. Her father, and grandfather before him, supplied the needs of the whole village. “I think in one of John B. Keane’s plays it was rather inelegantly called a ‘gombeen man’. The person who had the shop, the pub, the post-office, was the auctioneer, the undertaker, sold seeds, bought wool. He was an entrepreneur. And I was brought up in that environment, weighing tea from a tea chest, chatting to customers. I bet I was so precocious. You can imagine – bold as brass. At that time all the children were the children of the village. Everyone would look out for someone else’s children. If hungry I’d just run into whichever house was there and sit at the table and expected to be fed.”
She was 14 when her father died. Her brother William took over the running of the business. When she went to Dublin she’d tell him all about the food she was eating and he’d say “Remember when those prawn cocktails are slipping down your neck who’s at home working to keep you there!” She chuckles. “He was not indulgent of this half wild sister he had.”
Her introduction to the Allen family was serendipitous. When chastised by a lecturer for not finding a job, she explained to her that she “wanted to go into a really good kitchen”.
“ I wanted to learn about herbs and how to make home-made ice-cream and soufflés and pates and terrines. I don’t know where I got those ideas. She told me about this farmer’s wife in Cork who seemed to have opened a restaurant in her house. She got me the name on a piece of paper and it was Myrtle Allen, my future mother-in-law. You never know the things that are going to shape the course of your life.”
Myrtle was already an outlier in the Irish food wasteland. “At the time she was considered very amateurish, writing a new menu every day,” says Allen. “But now that’s the height of fashion. Myrtle had no training. She wanted people to feel as though they were coming to a dinner party in a country house.”
She recalls arriving there. “I drove up the big long avenue with my mother and William. As we drove up there seemed to be the beginnings of a golf course on the side and a few people playing golf on it and I remember my mother, a pragmatic mother of nine, saying ‘the first thing you’ll have to do here is get a hedge clippers to those nettles’ Mummy would have been a nice tidy gardener. There were cars scattered here and there.
“When we drove up to the big house the door was open into the front hall. It was wide open. We walked in and there was no one there. The Sunday papers had been left on a big box that had all the croquet mallets in it and they’d been blown over and had unfurled along the hall. We called and nobody came. Mummy and William thought it was terribly peculiar.
“After five minutes we walked back to the car. And the next thing, this funny long haired fellow in bare feet and shorts ran up and said ‘are you the person that’s come here to help us?’ It was Timmy. I always remember the words. ‘Are you the person who’s come here to help us?’ ”
“Then they came up and we had tea and they gave me a warm lovely welcome. As my mother and William were leaving, William said to me ‘if you don’t like it, now, ring us up and we’ll come back down to get you after a few days, which was most unlike him. He must have thought it was a very peculiar place. But I was settled in from the first mouthful of tea.”
It was a jubilantly informal atmosphere. “There were three or four others in the kitchen, all local girls and boys Myrtle had trained herself. We used to cook barefoot in the summer. You couldn’t do that now. And I was like a sponge. I just couldn’t get enough of cooking side-by-side with her.”
She also fell in love. A short while later she and Tim married and a year later again they had their first child. In the early 1980s, when oil prices called time on their horticulture business, Darina decided to set up a cookery school and went to do a course at Marcella Hazan’s school in Italy. “Timmy took the last of our money from the bank to pay for it, he maybe even borrowed. He says it was the best investment he ever made.” There, she had two “eureka moments” – that Irish ingredients were of a better quality than Italian ingredients, and that we were under-pricing local food.
When the school started in 1983, she followed Myrtle’s lead and focused on local ingredients and “forgotten skills.” Then Simply Delicious made her a household name. “I found the attention more difficult than you can imagine. I’m definitely a reluctant celebrity. But people were so nice to me. I remember one woman running up to me in Cork and saying ‘I have to thank you! You saved my marriage’ and I said ‘How?’ And she said ‘You taught me how to make brown bread and I could never make brown bread like my mother in law’. Then she ran off again. I had a lot of experiences like that.”
She was soon seen as Myrtle’s natural successor. Why is the Allen clan led by matriarchal blow-ins? She’s given that a lot of thought, she says. She thinks it’s because they’re Quakers. “In the Quaker religion men and women have always been equal and this is not lip service. Quaker women were educated at a time when women were never educated. Newtown school in Waterford – our grandchildren are the sixth generation to go there – was co-ed in 1798. At Ballymaloe I was struck by this respect for women that was innate and fundamental At that time in Ireland if a woman came up with an idea quite often she’d be put down by her husband or someone else, but if I came up with an idea, it was always ‘yeah have a go.’ Women were always empowered. A lot of women at that stage who had potential weren’t allowed, because of the general society at the time, to meet their potential. I was never a raving feminist because I didn’t have to be. I wasn’t feeling in any way repressed.”
Ballymaloe grew as a phenomenon producing skilled chefs who went on to work all over the world. Many of them are coming back to be involved with the festival. This celebration of food and food writing also includes luminaries such as Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse in Berkley, California; the gardening guru, Alys Fowler; Danish innovator and Noma restaurateur Claus Meyer; Indian cookery star Madhur Jaffrey and White House pastry chef Bill Yosses. It really does seem to be, as the literature proclaims, a collection of “the world’s best known chefs, critics, commentators, kitchen gardeners, foragers and wine experts.”
Darina herself takes regular working holidays to places like Italy, Scandinavia, Tokyo, Mexico. She is currently jetlagged having just returned from San Francisco, but she can always talk about food. She talks about her concerns about the obesity epidemic. She talks about her hopes that Ireland could become the centre of the gastronomic world (she explains how Scandinavian chefs achieved just that).
She has endless supplies of energy. Eager as the younger Allens are, and proud as Darina is of her daughter-in-law, Rachel, it’s hard to imagine the empire without her at the core. As we ramble through the school and the farm she cheerfully micromanages as she goes. She encourages a young butter-making Canadian in one large kitchen. “Someone put a lid on that porridge,” she says as we pass through another. We observe her sister-in-law Blathnaid Bergin teaching business skills to prospective cafe-owners in a large demonstration room kitted with a big overhead mirror and close-circuit television screens. “It’s very warm in here,” she observes to one girl. “Make sure you open a door.”
Out in the gardens she yells effusive approval to someone who is collecting kindling “Well done!” she says. “I was going to get them to do that,” she says to me.
She gives me the run-down on everyone we meet. “This is Dennis O’Sullivan,” she says. “He does a lot of painting for us but he can also tell you what birds we’re listening to.” O’Sullivan then identifies a few. “That’s a chaffinch,” he says, before mimicking its call. “Twit, twit.”
When we return, people are milling around the dining room for lunch. I’m introduced to her daughter Lydia and her new baby, her son Toby who’s taken over the cookery school shop, and her son-in-law Philip Dennhardt who runs a pop-up pizzeria at the school on Saturdays. I also see Tim. He has divested himself of financial interests in the school and does not teach there, but he is clearly still a presence.
Earlier, responding to a question about the ups and downs of business, Darina said: “There’s nobody gets through life without challenges and no family gets through life without challenges. Even if on the outside it looks like plain sailing all the time, on a daily basis there are all kinds of challenges. And some families are asked to have ...” she laughs sadly, “more challenges than others. I remember mummy saying that, with a family of nine, someone was always having a crisis. But that’s family and that’s life and it makes us stronger and more empathic. I’m a much more empathic person now than when I was 18. I thought everything was black and white and that I could solve anything. Now I know that it’s all shades of grey. I’m less dogmatic. I certainly need to be.”
The Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine takes place from the 3rd - 6th of May. For more see litfest.ie