At 9.30am on a glorious Saturday last year, I paused at the entrance to the Ballymaloe Grainstore; was I really going to pass up a rare blast of Irish summer sunshine to instead sit indoors and listen to two guys talking? Fair enough, it was an intriguing prospect, a public interview with Claus Meyer, cofounder of Noma, then 'the world's greatest restaurant' for three years running, but on such a glorious day, I was struggling to see the attraction.
Two hours later, I stumbled blinking into the sunlight, exhilarated by Meyer's fascinating, inspiring, and often riotously funny talk and knew right then there was no place I would rather be — and thus began the world's very first literary festival solely devoted to food and drink. The second Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine takes place next month in the grounds of Ballymaloe House, in East Cork.
When the idea of holding a literary festival in the newly refurbished Grainstore first arose, there was no doubt in anyone's mind such an event in Ballymaloe could only be concerned with food and drink.
"When Darina heard about it," says festival director Rory O'Connell, "well, you know what she's like, a dog with a bone, and she just ran with it. She has the address book of all address books when it comes to 'gastronauts' around the globe and she got on the phone.
Within a few days, she had a fairly serious cohort committed to coming." O'Connell, co-founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School, became festival director with his sister Darina as a co-director and Grainstore manager Rebecca Cronin as festival manager. "We realised it was potentially quite big and needed a bit of organisation and I was happy to do that," says O'Connell, "Darina had all the names but there was the matter of trying to create a programme. With people like Claudia Roden and Madhur Jaffrey, we knew they'd do a demo for sure and also they'd talk about the food they have spent their lives writing about, but we were also trying to bring the politics of food into the festival as well as focusing on the literary angle. I pretty much put together the programme last year and I've done so again this year. It was a steep learning curve, it still is.
"The logistics alone, getting people from somewhere else to here, accommodating them, giving them all they want and need and making sure they have a fabulous time as well as giving them a forum to talk about their books and work and what drives them to do what they do."
The buzz continued for weeks after last year's event: Paroxysms of regret from those who failed to make it only exacerbated by the rave reviews from those who did, ensuring the second outing of the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest should see a substantial increase on the 10,000 who attended the inaugural festival. Most especially, when you consider some of this year's star attractions, such as the world-renowned Rene Redzepi, chef/proprietor of Noma, in Copenhagen.
"We are really honoured he is coming," says O'Connell. "He's a very busy man on a practical day-to-day level and, personally, I think he is one of the most important voices on food in the 20th and 21st centuries."
Though Redzepi may be the main attraction, a programme featuring 60-plus speakers offers ample fare for all, including the sold-out Yotam Ottolenghi. In the downtime between ticketed events, there is only one destination, The 'Big Shed', which last year nearly stole the show from the human contributors. An enormous barn behind the Grainstore, it was magically transformed into the throbbing heart of the festival through which all life pulsed, day and night. "We were wondering, 'What happens with people who arrive without tickets for every event, what will they do?"' says O'Connell. "I was walking around the yard when I stuck my head inside and said, 'This is the baby!' It's completely democratic, no VIP area, you don't know who you'll wind up next to." Inside, internationally renowned food writers and chefs mingled freely with ordinary punters among stall and teas, craft beers, wines, fringe events for young and old, craft shops, or sat at tables converted from old pallets, sipping, dining, chatting, checking out the regular fringe fest events, or simply catching a breather before heading off to the next event on their itinerary. This year, the pop-up bookshop has earned its own standalone venue and all drinks events (wine, craft beer and whiskey tastings and master classes) have earned their own 'drinks theatre' location. Though Darina is herself an internationally renowned food writer with a deeply personal passion for serious food literature, she has an underlying motive for supporting the festival.
"Ten years ago," says Darina, "who'd have thought the centre of the gastronomic world would have moved from France and Spain to Copenhagen, let alone that the Nordic food movement would take the entire world by storm. Yet there's no reason why Ireland, with our beautiful world-class produce, can't do the same. The Nordic chefs have made a virtue of seeking out wild and local produce unique to their own environment. They serve it proudly in what are now considered to be some of the finest restaurants in the world. However, it is interesting to reflecthat 50 years ago, my mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen, was doing just that, maybe the very first chef to serve this kind of food in a fine dining restaurant with a Michelin star.
Here in Ireland, we are so favoured by nature and have many talented chefs so we too can have our own version of the Nordic Food Revolution. The Kerrygold Ballymaloe LitFest brings some of the most influential international food writers to Ireland, many for the first time, and I've seen first hand the reaction when they taste our Irish food; they're blown away and envious of the quality of the produce we have access to. They return to their countries with a totally different perception of Ireland food and determined to debunk the corn beef and cabbage myth and to spread the word of the renaissance on the Irish food scene."
The second Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest of Food & Wine takes place on May 16-18 at Ballymaloe House, East Cork. Entry is €5pp per day, including access to the Big Shed. Entry is free to those with tickets for ticketed events, www.litfest.ie
This article was written by Joe McNamee and originally appeared in the Irish Examiner.