Myrtle Allen’s method: ‘Don’t cook for critics’
The Ballymaloe founder’s family and colleages share stories of the cook and campaigner
Tucked in among the personal papers and diaries belonging to Myrtle Allen, the 94-year-old matriarch of the Ballymaloe hotel, cookery school and food business clan, is a well-worn copy of The Irish Times house style book.
It is a relic of the era when Allen, and her daughter-in-law Darina, shared responsibility for writing the newspaper’s cookery column, alternating fortnightly in the slot formerly inhabited by Theodora Fitzgibbon.
“I unexpectedly found myself married to a card maniac who is also a gourmet,” she wrote in her first column, published on January 5th, 1991. She was referring to Ivan Allen, the farmer and vegetable grower with whom she began married life in 1943, completely unprepared for the role of domestic goddess.
“I did not play cards beyond snap in the nursery, and vaguely felt that I was meant for something else, and that I couldn’t cook,” she confided. “The night we arrived home from our honeymoon my husband taught me how to make his great bachelor standby, scrambled eggs with mushrooms.”
How wrong she was. Allen would become one of the foremost professional cooks of her generation, and in doing so would inspire and foster the ambitions of future generations of her family, including TV presenter, author and tutor Rachel Allen, Darina’s daughter-in-law.
Sitting in the sunny courtyard at Ballymaloe House, the rambling country mansion that the former Myrtle Hill, daughter of a family of eminent Cork architects, has called home since 1947, it is hard to imagine that the elderly woman sitting next to me was ever anything but an authority in the kitchen.
It is she, after all, who was the first Irish woman to be awarded a Michelin star, and she retained it for five years. She is also a founder member of Euro-Toques International, the European community of cooks, serving alongside the late great Paul Bocuse. And she ran an Irish restaurant in Paris, La Ferme Irlandaise, at the same time as the one she had opened in what had been her family diningroom. A long way from stirring eggs . . . under her husband’s instruction.
Now aged 94, she looks well, concerned for the appearance of her hair as her photograph is taken, and keen to sample the coffee cake served with tea. “Come any day,” she quips when I say I’ve brought the sunshine with me to east Cork.
But her responses don’t all land where they should. Dementia has muddled her famously sharp mind and dulled her wicked sense of humour.
Or is that a glimpse of it again? “I’m not going to scratch you” she retorts when I touch her hand gently as I get up to leave after tea, perhaps not altogether happy with being patted rather than graced with a proper handshake.
Because Mrs Allen, a formidable trailblazer for Irish food, at home and abroad, and a forceful campaigner on issues surrounding food production, never did anything other than “properly”, and thoroughly.
“Don’t open a restaurant if you can’t cook. Don’t cook just for restaurant critics. Don’t use your imagination just for the sake of seeming imaginative,” she once advised in a letter to a correspondent who was thinking about following in her footsteps.
“Keep hoping that you can continue to ignore all those wretched customers that look for swanky food, and hope that the critics are good enough to distinguish the difference between trendy, pretentious menus and the quality of the food on the plate.”
Sage advice, and very much the core philosophy she followed when, in 1964, she turned her dining room into The Yeats Room restaurant at Ballymaloe House. That decision, taken to contribute to the upkeep of her sprawling family home, set in motion a chain of events that would bring her personal and professional acclaim.
It also laid the foundations for a thriving family business that soon expanded to include offering accommodation, as well as the restaurant.
Challenges to face
But, as with all families, there have been challenges to face along the way. In 2003, Myrtle Allen’s son, Tim, husband of Darina, was sentenced to 240 hours community service and ordered to pay €40,000 to a child welfare charity, having pleaded guilty to possession of child pornography.
Darina has said she was grateful at the time for the support of staff and friends and the general public. For her mother-in-law, approaching 80, it must have been almost incomprehensible.
At that stage, Myrtle was still actively involved in the kitchen at Ballymaloe House. With bookings cancelled and recipe books returned, it must have been a difficult time for her. But the Allen women are resolute, and Myrtle created the template. The show would go on.
Leafing through some of Mrs Allen’s personal papers in what was her former private study at Ballymaloe House, it’s not difficult to get a sense of the woman, the disciplined and dedicated authoritarian, who was uncompromising in her pursuit of the best. The best ingredients, the best dish, the best experience for the guests.
Her menus were written daily, initially in her own elegant handwriting, from the first day the restaurant opened, and were recorded in large format diaries. Notes were made on what worked and what did not. Suggestions were left for the kitchen to follow up on, the initials MA indicating that the boss had spoken.
“Ann, please ask Anne Mac every day for leftover orange juice, for jelly, otherwise she’ll give it to the bar .”
“Note: Crème brûlée did not set, please use it instead of cream in gooseberry fool.”
“Note: Billy please use a little less carrageen moss – say 7.0 instead of 7.6 as it is setting too hard.”
“Billy, please could you make carrageen poached blackcurrants for tonight – the ones you did for me were fabulous!”
“Buying fruit is crucial at the moment, please consult me before ordering.”
Who better to talk to about Myrtle Allen and her food legacy than her family, who came home from boarding school to find their home transformed into a restaurant and then a hotel, her enterprising daughters-in-law, and some of those who worked with her at Ballymaloe.
Daughter-in-law and proprietor of Ballymaloe Cookery School
“I’ve learned many things from Myrtle, but one of the main things was about not ever compromising on quality, and how easy it is to make something taste delicious if you start off with really good-quality produce.
I remember she would always, of course, taste everything before dinner . . . and if it wasn’t right she would say ‘This won’t do. We can’t serve this. We’ll start again’.
Her biggest contribution to the Irish food landscape has been to give us confidence in the quality of ingredients here in Ireland. She really knew that a long time before the rest of us really believed it, because she travelled quite a bit. So she always served Irish food proudly, without any apologies.
Myrtle wrote the menu every day, depending on what was at its best in the garden and greenhouses, what fish came in from the boats in Ballycotton. This was considered to be a very amateurish way of running a restaurant at the time. Most of the restaurants wrote the menu when they opened and it was the same 10 years later
She was really thoughtful about the way she chose things and very observant and perceptive about ingredients. And, of course, Myrtle has extraordinary intelligence; she always thought outside the box.
She had no idea what an influence she was. She just had such confidence in her simple home cooking, but with a real sophistication in its simplicity.She was unaware of the impact that she had on Irish food overall, actually. She was a real pioneer, as we all now know, but she just did her own thing.”
Daughter-in-law and former managing director, Ballymaloe House
“Both Darina and I came down here to work in the 1960s. We’d both come out of hotel school. From the first interview I had with Myrtle, you could just see that her whole train of thought was different.
I remember the day we lost the Michelin star. Our head chef was getting married to Darina’s cousin. Possibly some of our staff were there, helping with the food. I was here with Myrtle. The two of us thought we had no worries, she could cook and I could serve the food. It wasn’t a very busy night, maybe 24 for dinner.
One of the things on the menu was fried sole on the bone, which is quite tricky to cook. No matter how much I tried, I couldn’t get Myrtle to get the food out to me. I went into the dining room and there were men standing up on their chairs and one said, ‘If I put a tie on will I get served in this restaurant?’.
There were two men quietly sitting in the corner, not saying much but obviously getting annoyed because they weren’t getting their food. And the next morning they came down for breakfast and told us they were the Michelin inspectors, and we nearly died.
She was disappointed, but she kind of knew, I think, that Ballymaloe was only barely doing what Michelin wanted and we didn’t want to do what Michelin wanted, we weren’t going to totally conform.”
Former head chef Ballymaloe House, tutor at the cookery school and brother of Darina Allen
“We came here on a family holiday, when Darina was working here. That would have been the first time I’d seen Mrs Allen, wearing a white coat, bare feet, topping and tailing gooseberries at the front of Ballymaloe, surrounded by family and staff members. She had an air about her, without any shadow of a doubt.
Mrs Allen asked me to run the kitchen when she was made head of Euro-Toques International. She said that I could do it on my own and that she wouldn’t interfere. She did of course interfere – to the benefit of me, and all the guests.
She could see down the line, hence her involvement at all the different levels to help preserve flavours and ingredients. To make it so that someone bringing in a basket of wild damsons wouldn’t be bloody well illegal but would be something to be celebrated.
Mrs Allen would arrive out [to La Ferme Irlandaise in Paris, where O’Connell was cooking] quite a lot at the beginning. She’d arrive into the restaurant, open the suitcase, and out would come wheels of Cashel Blue, bags of frozen blackcurrants, blackberries that had just been picked the previous day, bunches of herbs from the garden. It was just absolutely extraordinary.”
Fern Allen and Wendy Allen
Daughters of Myrtle and Ivan Allen. Fern, the youngest of six, runs the restaurant at Ballymaloe House. Wendy, the oldest sibling, runs the Ballymaloe Shop
Fern: “Wendy brought me up, actually, because mum was always busy. By the time I came along, she was in the kitchen every night. But that was just the way it was.
The house at that stage was split into two, they used to let out the wing part and there was another kitchen there and I absolutely remember her running from one kitchen to the other kitchen, with a tray of ducks or whatever, to try and get them finished cooking.
Dad was quite a progressive farmer for his time. We’d have all this lovely food coming into the kitchen that mum had to deal with.
I feel that people hold her in such high regard, but she does not realise that at all and never has done. She is very modest and just says ‘I do what I do’.”
Wendy: “Dad used to take the orders and do the wines, and I was waiting at table. I was 19 and I had no training, I was more or less just out of school. We were complete amateurs.
It was all quite nerve-wracking. We became quite successful a bit too quickly – before we were really able for it. We had a few scary moments, sometimes, with rooms full of people and cooking on the old Aga and the Aga would lose heat . . .
I admire her complete utter dedication and belief in what she was doing. I remember one of the chefs saying to me once, ‘If Mrs Allen couldn’t walk, she’d crawl down the stairs to the kitchen’, and that was it, she would just never give up.”
Head pastry chef at Ballymaloe House
“Mrs Allen always used to say we’d work with her, not for her, and that changes everything immediately because you’re suddenly part of a team.
She is such a natural leader and so great at encouraging people and giving good advice. I just feel really lucky that I got to learn from her.
I remember one day I was all hot and bothered in the kitchen – it was a really busy lunch, really busy dinner and I was worried I wouldn’t get such and such done and it wouldn’t be set in time. Mrs Allen said, ‘The one thing to remember is worry about the next meal first. Serve a good lunch and we’ll worry about dinner in the afternoon.’ It’s a very unique approach to cooking, in a professional setting.
She has a really wicked sense of humour, that’s what made working with her such a pleasure. She is incredibly funny and witty.
She was great at leaving notes everywhere reminding people what they should and shouldn’t do. You used to find those all around the house.”
Chef proprietor Chapter One restaurant
“I first met Myrtle around 1991 when I was a young chef in the Old Dublin restaurant on Francis Street. At the time, Mrs Allen was commissioner general for Euro-Toques International. It became apparent to me very early on that this was a lady to be taken very seriously.
She has a great honesty about her, she is an honest food broker and an honest person and she is incredibly genuine. She brought an ethos to her business that was based on her honesty and I think that’s what you get when you come to Ballymaloe.
She empowered people around her – she led by example and she worked tremendously hard.”