Last Sunday night Katherine O’Leary was still ironing. Such madness of disorganisation was the result of ‘swanning’ off to the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival.Last Sunday night, after midnight, I was still ironing. What madness and disorganisation you might say, but that’s just the result of ‘swanning’ off to the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine in East Cork. The Irish Dairy Board, who owns the Kerrygold brand, was the lead sponsor of the festival. Last year, over 350 million packets of Kerrygold butter were sold, resulting in a turnover of over €2.1bn for the company. Dairy farmers who milk the white gold that is turned into butter can take pride in the Irish Dairy Board that continues to grow market share and jobs. Though tired, I was still energised by the sheer enthusiasm of both the organisers and visitors at the festival. I had a gorgeous two days between the beautiful Castlemartyr Hotel and the events at Ballymaloe, as a guest of the Irish Dairy Board. Saturday morning was particularly busy at home. The weather was magnificent, but Sunday was going to be wet so the pressure was on to get the whole crop silage planted. Tim, Philip and Colm were up and gone by 7.30am, leaving me alone at the kitchen table with my hand wrapped around a cup of tea. They would be back for Diarmuid after milking, to pick stones, and Tim suggested that I should spend the morning picking stones too before I set off for Ballymaloe. Though I knew he was joking, I felt sufficiently guilty by the time I was leaving. The rolls were stuffed with chicken and salad and packed into the picnic basket for the field, with a few shop brownies thrown in. Myrtle Allen would frown at that, as the fresh rhubarb with its massive leaves glistens in the morning sun, but this lady was abouto disappear on one of our busiest Saturdays. Ballymaloe is about 45 minutes away from me so I had time to unwind. The beautiful, deep-green, blemish-free, winter barley was nodding splendidly as I reached the house, which was festooned with wisteria blossoms.
I headed out to the big shed to meet my friend Breda. On the way I paid my €5 for the Fringe Festival, which had 48 talks and demonstrations listed, from woodland walks to the Kerrygold chef cooking up some magic recipes with butter. This was running in conjunction with over 60 other workshops, demonstrations and discussions hosted by Irish and international, renowned, culinary and food literary experts. These were pre-booked with limited places. There was a purr of soft voices while people sat chatting and sampling the culinary delights on offer. With two glasses of wine in front of us, some Gubeen cheese and chutney and Tom Waits music playing softly in the background, I was well removed from stone picking. Bottles of wild flowers hung from the rafters in front of the pop-up bar. Breda, ever the artistic one, tried to figure out how they were made. We noted that there was always an Allen man in working clothes making sure that everything was running smoothly while, along with Rory O’Connell, the Ballymaloe women, Myrtle, Darina and Rachel remained centre stage.
Delicious flavours and wholesome food were the hallmarks of the Kerrygold dinner on Saturday evening. Fergal McGarry, MD of consumer foods at IDB, addressed us. He complimented the Ballymaloe team for their utter professionalism as ambassadors for Irish food and noted how the international speakers were thrilled to be invited to attend. He welcomed the IDB guests from Britain, America, Germany and Russia. Fergal told us that Kerrygold is the number one butter brand in Germany, while Russia presents an enormous opportunity for the IDB. It came as news to me that Russia is actually the biggest importer of cheese and butter in the world. Fergal finished his address by thanking the Kerrygold team. I was lucky to be seated next to leanne Kelly, head of corporate communications. Her passionate enthusiasm for her job and the Irish dairy industry, and the new opportunities that expansion brings, was massively impressive. Dinner was scrumptious.
The next day, Mairead Lavery and I attended the wonderful perusal of Myrtle Allen’s archives facilitated by Regina Sexton, UCC. A huge part of Myrtles legacy is her columns in the Irish Farmer’s Journal from 1962 to 1973. Her writings there illustrated her philosophy of good, wholesome, seasonal food for family and visitors alike. Her charm is that she remains a humble lady in the face of worldwide acclaim. She put her little rural townland on the map, along with the wider locality. I also attended one of the headline demos with Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi which I will return to in another column. It was truly an amazing festival, expertly choreographed, as is everything that the Ballymaloe team undertakes. I liken the philosophy of the Allen/O’Connell dynasty to the film Field of Dreams: ‘build it and they will come’. Let’s start a testaurant. Now let’s make it a hotel. Add on kitchen gardens. Build a school. Make ourselves famous. Let’s publish a myriad of books from three generations. What about making wonderful Ballymaloe relishes, sauces, soups and soaps? Open a kitchen shop and get involved in farmer’s markets, euro-toques and television shows. Add on wonderful concerts in the grain store and a bigger place for weddings. When all that was accomplished, and much more, let’s have a literary festival. It began in 2013 and was copper-fastened with the marriage made in heaven between the ‘butter queen’ Darina and Kerrygold. I’m looking forward to next year already. Well done Kerrygold. I never left butter. I think it would be akin to shooting myself in the foot as a dairy farmer. I’m sure Myrde and Darina would agree with me. ------------------------------------------------------This article was written by Katherine O’Leary for the Irish Farmers Journal24 May 2014 COUNTRY LIVING