Monday, July 18, 2011

Stick to what you do best, believe in yourself and the passion will shine through. Finally, I visit the legend that is Ballymaloe

Breakfast at Ballymaloe House is the kind of breakfast you dream of. Gooseberries and pears from the garden nestle alongside natural yoghurt. The yellowest of eggs from hens on the farm fight for room alongside sausages, bacon, and puddings from pigs slaughtered and cured by a local butcher. A fragrant bunch of sweetpeas watches over the fresher than fresh orange juice and selection of home-made breads and scones.

As a seasoned examiner of hotel breakfasts who harasses waiters with "where does the raspberry jam come from?", breakfast at Ballymaloe was up there with some of my Great Food Experiences. In fact it's best if you eat breakfast here not to go to another hotel within a short space of time, or in fact ever. Simply because few meals are going to match this standard, and that's even before I get started on the Blackwater salmon and Ballycotton lobster at dinner.

It was last week that Philip and I found ourselves in Ballymaloe; we visited the hotel, cookery school and farm for a speaking engagement on our book Basketcase; What's Happening to Ireland's Food? and the follow-up documentary What's Ireland Eating? which aired a few months ago on RTE. Doing these talks is seldom hard work as the reaction and energy from people interested in food and which direction Irish food is going is so wonderful to be around. If anything, every time we speak at a food event together or separately, I learn so much from the people in the audience and take away many personal stories from farmers, food producers and enthusiasts. These chats have led to relationships with people from all over the country (in fact all over the world) and have informed a big part of my journalism. Indeed, they should all watch out, or they're in danger of appearing in the follow up to What's Ireland Eating? which looks to be on the cards.

But more important than the opportunity to eat the wonderful food at Ballymaloe, was the chance to spend time with Darina and the Allen family. It's so rare to meet someone who is truly so passionate about food, farming and the environment, or someone who is so steeped in the tradition of good food but also au fait with the realities of the global food highway we operate in. So many hotels and food businesses "greenwash" what they are doing; they market themselves as authentically Irish, organic, sustainable etc. But what's written all over Ballymaloe and Darina herself is that this farm is the genuine article. In fact, after filming with Ear to the Ground on farms from Belgium to Vietnam, I can safely say there are very few places like Ballymaloe, it is a remarkable farm and a beacon for Irish produce, organics and for the sheer quality and correctness in the way it produces food.

We all know Darina from her books and television series, but what you don't get to see on television is the way she moves through her garden, puzzling over how many days it will be before the blackcurrants are just right to eat. In almost the same breath she remarks on supermarket legislation and what upcoming changes might mean for Irish producers.

Darina's and Tim's breath of knowledge on farming, gardening and production of every type of foodstuff from cheddar cheese to cob nuts is remarkable, and the gardens they have built surrounding the cookery school at Ballymaloe are incredibly beautiful. Pictured above is Darina showing Philip around one of the formal gardens; box hedging encloses vegetables, herbs, lavenders and ornamental planting. Food is in evidence everywhere; chickens peck amongst the trees, garlic bunches hang from the mental struts of the greenhouses and everything from cabbages to cherry tomatoes are grown on the farm. From the milk of two Jersey cows they are currently making cheese. In fact, if there was ever a model for self sufficiency this is it.

After a tour of the farm we watched Rachel Allen giving a demonstration at the cookery school. The Ballymaloe courses are world famous, and it's possibly the only cookery school in the world located on an organic farm. As someone passionate about food and farming, I had always wanted to visit the cookery school and farm, but somehow I felt I would be let down by the experience. I felt it might be "chinzy"; inauthentic, that the Ballymaloe experience could be marketing over matter; a Cath Kidson version of River Cottage. As farming and artisan food is currently so vogueish, it's often hard to tell what's real and who is pulling the wool over your eyes.

But Ballymaloe is real. You know if you spend as long as we did talking about deep litter systems for cattle and compost making that this is a farm which knows what it is about. It is also a food message which is not a cutesy one, but a real one. Everything is done properly. It has an old fashioned workmanlike feel about it. Correctness and workmanlike approach might sound like something from a past age but it really pays off in terms of working with the environment and with livestock - it's a quality that was beaten into me from riding and working with horses. It's also something I learned from my parents farms, and something I always look out for when I visit farms, food or tourism businesses. Over-ornamentation or faux "Irishness" does not make up for bad farm management, poor quality food or mass produced ingredients. And thankfully customers aren't stupid. In my experience food businesses that fail to do things properly, fail themselves.

No corners are cut at Ballymaloe; it's the real deal. At its kernal is a message of quality; growing local ingredients through generations of experience producing food in East Cork. If there's any message or ethos I took away from Ballymaloe it's to stick to what you are doing, believe in it, and passion will shine through. So much of our lives and consumerism itself is built on precisely the opposite. What's lovely about Ballymaloe and so pertinent to all of us is that we produce great food in this country. Finally we are taking more notice and Ireland the Food Island is punching above its weight. Like Ballymaloe, food doesn't have to be complicated to succeed. It just has to be true to itself, and real.


  1. know, your comment 'marketing over matter' was always my great to hear you put that myth to bed. Great piece. Thanks

  2. A great account of your time in Ballymaloe. I'm heading down that way next week and have booked dinner there one of the evenings. I know exactly what you mean by querying a foods origin in a hotel or restaurant, so it will be very reassuring sitting back to order in Ballymaloe. I have been to the cookery school on a number of occasions and I always thoroughly enjoy listening to Darina. After reading your post I'm looking forward to my visit even more.

  3. Blooming remarkable the number of Philip and I found in Cork these days, act-chew-ally. :D

  4. Great article. I agree. People are not stupid and more and more I am hearing people start to pipe up and tell it how it is when it comes to shelling out for below standard fare. I have never been to Ballymaloe, but love having such a hot recommendation from you. Must pencil it into the diary for when I am older and wiser and the kids are gone off to college and I do not have any more laundry to do.

  5. Lovely article - Darina and the Allens are the real deal, Ballymaloe is a truely unique place