Thirty years ago I wanted to work in a French kitchen before I opened my own restaurant. I was crestfallen when my letters to French chefs went unanswered. When I wrote to the chef of an Irish country house, she replied. Her restaurant, Ballymaloe (pronounced “Bally-mah-LOO”) House, was at the forefront of country house dining. She’d written a cookbook, opened a bistro in Paris, and was one of the leaders of Euro Toques, a European community of chefs. Myrtle Allen stood at the pinnacle of her profession, and I was eager to learn about her kitchen through a hands-on apprenticeship.
I flew from Cincinnati to Shannon and then took a train to Cork. Myrtle Allen met me at the station along with two cousins from Canada, and we wended our way along the hedgerows and rolling green farmlands of East Cork. Just outside Shanagarry, we turned into a long avenue bounded by lush, sheep-filled meadows, passed deep woods, and came upon a stone manor house with a Norman tower. All of a sudden I knew I had stepped over a rainbow.
It was a Sunday afternoon in mid-September, and the parking lot was filled with luncheon guests’ cars. After a sleepless airplane night, I’d never had a steaming bowl of homemade potato soup that tasted so good. We sat in a bustling dining room, sampled tomatoes from the greenhouses and cod from the neighboring fishing village of Ballycotton. With my first taste of Irish Coffee Meringue, I was hooked. At home in the countryside, later that afternoon I drove out with Myrtle Allen to collect lettuce from a field and watercress from a pasture spring for the dinner’s formal buffet.
That evening crisp white linen covered the tables. Trays of raw oysters, smoked salmon, roasts and salads, as well as fresh breads and patés, awaited. Hazel led guests into the dining room, Darina and Wendy carved, Fern made sure all platters were filled, and Ivan shared stories of local lore. A peat fire smoldered in the library, Rory played traditional music in the drawing room, and fresh flowers graced the tables. I longed to learn how all this came together.
Monday morning I buttoned a white jacket, tied an apron, and went to work. I scrubbed carrots in the “veg hole,” rolled pastry for tarts in the sweets room, pulled brown bread from baking tins, and picked crabmeat from shells. I observed how menus developed from local produce, how every bone or usable bit went toward soup stock, how the leftover roast lamb became a shepherd’s pie for the next day’s lunch, how workers were given hearty meals. Myrtle was at the helm, and most of her staff came from nearby villages.
In 1948 Ivan and Myrtle Allen purchased the Ballymaloe estate, which had fallen on hard times. By 1964 while their six children were growing up and the farm revived, Myrtle dreamed of opening a restaurant. She was a brilliant cook, Ivan an appreciative gourmet, and they were surrounded by some of the best produce in the world. Ivan went along with Myrtle’s idea if a restaurant could be developed in their home. Thus began the legacy of the now internationally renowned Ballymaloe House. From a few tables in their dining room, the good news spread across a land lacking in distinctive dining. As the restaurant thrived and the children left home, the large Georgian house expanded into an inn where diners could spend the night—and Ireland would permit Ballymaloe a drink license.
I soon learned that three miles away another Ballymaloe enterprise was breaking ground. Darina Allen, daughter-in-law, had established a new cooking school. Despite financial risks, Darina and her husband Tim built a campus in the middle of their organic farm.
Today an old apple barn has been transformed into three practice kitchens, a demonstration hall, offices, and a library. Hens strut near the school door bordered with blooming shrubs, while a garden off the main dining room bursts with daffodils in the spring and fruit-laden boughs in the summer. The school that began with five students in its first term now supports 65 students for each of three 12-week terms every year and numerous short courses in between. Celebrity chefs and food writers from all over the globe visit and offer classes at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, a prime foodie destination. Nowhere else does a cooking school offer the use of vegetables, dairy products, and meats from the land just outside the window and fish from the sea visible beyond the pastures.
Farm buildings remodeled as stylish cottages offer rentals for students and visitors. Several formal garden landscapes at the Cookery School showcase a botanical paradise, and a Victorian Shell House stands meditatively in a grassy field.
Ballymaloe House and the Cookery School have called me back to Ireland frequently over the past three decades. I’m always inspired when I spend time with people whose passions about food equal my own. During my nearly twenty years as a restaurateur, Ballymaloe remained my role model.
Over the years its dining spaces have increased to seat more than 100, and the hotel accommodates more than 60. Additional venues include one of the best craft and kitchenware shops in Ireland with an onsite café; The Grainstore, an event space; and the Ballymaloe Relish factory close by.
The Ballymaloe House kitchen is different now with more state-of-the-art culinary equipment and trained chefs. The dining areas offer formal wine service, though a casual spirit of welcome is ever present. In March of 2014 Ballymaloe House marked its 50th anniversary and Myrtle Allen celebrated her 90th birthday. It was an exciting week for me to be there and to have the honor of making Myrtle Allen’s birthday cake garlanded with miniature daffodils.
For additional information about Ballymaloe House House and Cooking School go to the Ballymaloe House website
Photo credit: Tim Allen and Hazel Allen