Ballymaloe Litfest: food for the soul added to the menu

This year’s food and drink extravaganza in Co Cork will be looking at the bigger picture


The good news, if you’re planning to attend the Litfest extravaganza at Ballymaloe (May 19th-21st), is that there are tickets still available for all of the cookery demonstrations given by a host of big-name chefs, restaurateurs and authors coming to the fifth annual festival.

But if you want a seat at the table for one of the guest chef lunches cooked by Robin Gill or Margot Henderson, or the pop-up dinner cooked by Ben Reid and Sashana Souza Zanella from Edinburgh Food Studio, you’re too late.

No matter; nobody goes hungry at Ballymaloe, and that doesn’t just apply to the variety of food and drink on offer at the hotel, the cookery school and the producers’ market in the Big Shed, the festival hub.

This year, food for the soul and salve for the conscience are top of the agenda, to the extent that the event has been rebranded as Litfest: A Food and Drinks Literacy Festival at Ballymaloe.

Food literacy

Announcing the change in direction last autumn, festival director Rory O’Connell described food literacy as being “about knowing about the food that you eat – where it came from, who produced it, if is good for you or if it is bad for you”.

Explaining the thinking behind the departure, O’Connell told The Irish Times: “The festival has moved with what’s happening on the planet, and we realise now we’re between a rock and a hard place, and if we don’t start to do something about it, we’re going to be in trouble.

“The conversations at the festival started, year one, specifically about recipes, writers, beautiful prose about food and drinks. Then we started to think, well, that’s all very lovely, and we’re very lucky and fortunate people, but you know what, we need to get to the nitty gritty here. We need to know how we are going to be able to sustain the beautiful things that we are lucky enough to eat and drink.”

O’Connell continued: “We will still have lots of fabulous writers, we will still talk about books. But as festival director, I can’t justifiably put on a festival now which is just about gorgeous recipes and beautiful books. I’ve got to tell the story around all of the ingredients that are involved in those books.”


That is not to say that the fun has gone out of what is one of the most eagerly awaited food events of the year. The more than 8,000 people expected to attend over the three days can expect to be entertained, amused, informed and – perhaps – inspired.

Last year’s new addition, the weekend-long symposium in the Grainstore, is back, with “Our Responsibility” as its theme. The programme of talks, panel discussions, forums and presentations is designed “to spark imagination, generate discussion and prompt action in attendees to recognise their individual role as a crucial link in the food chain”, the organisers say.

Half-day (€50), full-day (€90) and two-day (€170) tickets are available for this strand of the festival. EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU commissioner for health and food safety, tops the bill and will deliver an address on the topic of “To Eat Is a Political Statement” on Sunday afternoon.

Movers and shakers

A constantly changing cast of movers and shakers of the food and drink world, along with chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers, activists, retailers, policy-makers and health experts, will contribute to the symposium throughout the weekend.

But it’s not compulsory to be part of this strand, worthy though it is, to experience the Litfest vibe. Nor is it essential to spend almost €100 on a ticket for a cookery demonstration (though those are excellent, and you do get to enjoy a main course-sized taster of what you’ve just seen being cooked), to be part of the action.

The €5 general admission gives access to almost 60 indoor and outdoor events, activities and entertainment at the Fringe Festival (children under 12 go free). And the Big Shed, the beating heart and social hub of the festival, is where the real action takes place.

Some of the big names, and where to find them

Brian McGinn, Chef’s Table
Brian McGinn, Chef’s Table

Brian McGinn: The executive producer and director of Emmy-winning Netflix docu-series Chef’s Table will be in conversation with Vogue Living contributing editor David Prior on Saturday. That talk is sold out, but he will also be contributing at the Grainstore.

Jacob Kennedy: As well as doing a cookery demo on Sunday morning, the Bocca Di Lupo chef will be in conversation with Sheila Dillon, presenter of The Food Programme on BBC Radio, on Saturday.

Joanna Blythman: The investigative food journalist will be participating in several panels and discussions in the Grainstore, and also presents “Thorn in the Flesh of the Processed Food Industry and Supermarkets” on Sunday.

Christian Puglisi: The Copenhagen chef/restaurateur is not doing a demo this year, but has several engagements in the Grainstore and will share his “Farm of Ideas” on Sunday.

Robin Gill
Robin Gill

Robin Gill: The London restaurateur’s guest chef lunch is sold out, but he will be involved at the Grainstore, and will talk about “Respect and Responsibility in Terrifying Kitchens”.

Dermot Sugrue: The winemaker and Munster man shares his experiences of making sparkling wine in Sussex.

Derval O’Rourke: “The Diet of Champions” is the former professional athlete’s topic in the Grainstore, on Saturday.

Sunil Ghai: Learn how to cook Indian street food with the chef patron of Pickle, in Dublin’s Camden Street, on Saturday.

Lord David Puttnam: “Living, Working and Eating in West Cork” is the filmmaker’s chosen topic for his Sunday presentation.

Claudia Roden
Claudia Roden

Claudia Roden: Cookbook royalty, Roden will be reading from her books and talking about them with Sally McKenna on Saturday (sold out), and sharing her favourite ingredients on Sunday (also sold out). Best hope is to catch her at a book signing.

Ticket information correct at the time of writing. See

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