A food revolution in Ireland

Soda bread is a traditional taste of Ireland -- one that graced many a table this past St. Patrick’s Day. With Martha Teichner now we’ll sample a few of the NON-traditional entrees that are transforming Irish menus: 

Here’s a loaded question: If you hear “Irish cuisine,” do you automatically think, “You’re kidding, right?”

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Darina Allen.

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Well, live and learn.

“I think a lot of people still think we live on corned beef and cabbage here in Ireland, but gradually the word is getting out,” said Darina Allen.

The word is, Ireland is producing food so good that it’s become a food destination. And its evangelist-in-chief is, without question, Darina Allen, founder of the world-class Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, along Ireland’s southern coast.

For foodie pilgrims from around the world -- professional and amateur alike -- this is the epicenter of Ireland’s food revolution.

“People were surprised we were coming to Ireland for a cooking class, and we got a little ribbing for it,” said Joan Shumway, of Connecticut. “But it’s been fantastic. The food is phenomenal.”

Joan and her daughter, Jennifer, came because of what they’d read about Allen.

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Joan and Jennifer Shumway traveled from Connecticut to attend classes at the Ballymaloe Cookery School.

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What excited her about coming to Ballymaloe? “Her farm is all organic,” Joan replied. “Most of the products that we’re using, many are from the farm. You can wander the farm all hours, day and night. We’ve developed a fondness for her probably thousand-pound pig!”

Past the pig and the cows on their way to milking, at dawn farm manager Haulie Welsh led Teichner along a rutted path to the greenhouses and vegetable gardens. Each morning, he picks fresh what will be cooked and eaten within hours.

“We get a list from the school every morning,” Welsh said. “Sometimes if the students want to come down with us, we show ‘em how we grow it.”

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Martha Teichner with Haulie Welsh, farm manager at Ballymaloe.

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Darina Allen may be the face of Ireland’s food revolution, but it was actually her mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen, who started it, just down the road from the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Here, in 1964, Myrtle opened Ballymaloe House, a small hotel and restaurant in the family home. She cooked what she and her husband grew. She wrote out the menu by hand every day. And Ireland’s food establishment laughed at her … at first.

“The chefs, the proper chefs with the high hats and so on, thought, ‘Who the heck is this woman who writes the menu every day?’” Darina said. “It was unheard of to do something like this.

“And so within two years she had the top ratings in the food guide in the British Isles.”

The Ballymaloe brand has become famous in ireland. The Allens, all of them, are a food dynasty. Myrtle (in red) turned 93 last week.

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The Allen family, an Irish food dynasty.

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“There are about 15 ancillary businesses, some very small, some much larger. We’re all connected under the Ballymaloe umbrella,” Darina said.

As the Allens built their edible empire, chefs across Ireland saw opportunity, among them Paul Flynn. After years at a top London restaurant, in 1997 he dared to go home and open an award-winning restaurant in the old tannery where his grandfather worked in the seaside village of Dungarvan, not far up the coast from Ballymaloe House and School.

Teichner asked, “Do you feel the success you’ve had, in part, was enabled by the Allen family?”

“Without a doubt,” Flynn replied. “I suppose what’s happened around here has happened in the rest of the country as well. Because Ballymaloe‘s reach has been throughout the country. People’s minds have opened.”

Opened to the idea that Irish food doesn’t have to mean bad food. That’s the whole point of the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Irish cuisine does indeed still exist; it just tends to be a lot better than it used to be.

“It’s like the ripples of waves going out -- as one person starts, it gives somebody else the confidence and so on,” Darina said. “And now you can travel all over Ireland and get delicious, simple food wherever you go.”

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