I’ll admit I was rather ignorant about Ireland in general, and Irish food in particular, when I stepped off the plane in Dublin for the first time last spring.
I was headed to County Cork for a food festival put together by the Allen family of Shanagarry. For decades, the Allens’ restaurant and country inn, Ballymaloe House, has helped pave the way for a kind of revolution, a return to the Irish food of a time long before modern fast food invaded.
Here’s the story: In the 1940s, Ivan Allen and his wife, Myrtle, purchased a large farm with an old stone house in southeast Ireland at Ballymaloe. It would be a good place to grow crops and to raise their six children. Myrtle was a fine cook and adept in traditional ways, using seasonal vegetables and supplementing them with other local products. Yes, lest we forget, “fresh, local and seasonal” is a traditional concept. Her insistence upon it was just a common-sense approach to food, learned from a previous generation.
One day, at the age of 40, Myrtle thought, “Why not open a restaurant?” That was in 1964. There might be smoked salmon and brown bread, a vegetable soup and a good roast, followed by homestead cheeses. A dessert trolley would have rhubarb tarts and fresh-churned ice cream. It was simple country elegance. The restaurant prospered.
The Allen spirit is contagious. One of Myrtle’s daughters-in-law, Darina Allen, began to cook with her. Soon Darina was spreading the gospel, too.
Eventually, with her brother Rory O’Connell, Darina opened an acclaimed cooking school on the property. She wanted to teach young cooks the true progression of seed to supper, to show them that a meal starts in the field.
At Ballymaloe, I tasted the freshest eggs, butter and cream; sampled the prawns and salmon of the surrounding seas; ate asparagus and lettuces straight from the garden, and dined on fine pastured beef and lamb. And there were foraged ingredients, like wild garlic and carrageen moss, a type of seaweed. Everything was cooked simply, with just enough interference from the kitchen to enhance these basic goods.
For instance, there is this lovely dish, a whole fish wrapped in a foil package, seasoned with nothing more than salt, pepper, butter and sprigs of tarragon. The fish emerges moist and juicy, ready for a creamy butter sauce packed with chopped spinach and herbs. They use fat local pink trout, plentiful in Ireland, but this recipe calls for Arctic char, which is more widely available in the United States.
I’m returning to Ireland this year. I grew quite enamored of the place and the people — and all that glorious Irish food.