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Ireland’s Darina Allen talks local eating

Darina Allen, author of 'Irish Traditional Cooking'

Darina Allen, author of 'Irish Traditional Cooking'

I’ve been a fan of Darina Allen’s since 1998 when my sister brought me a copy of Ballymaloe Seasons: Cooking from an Irish Country House” after a visit to Ireland. Ballymaloe is a hotel, internationally acclaimed cooking school, and 100-acre organic farm in County Cork, Ireland, that Allen has run since 1983.

Allen relies on farm-grown and local ingredients for her seasonal recipes, drawing from traditional Irish dishes while integrating Asian, Italian, Latin-American, and Indian flavors. My dog-eared copy is stained and taped in certain places, but I still turn to it for the reliable, unfussy recipes and seasonal inspiration. The carrot and cumin soup, quesadillas with squash blossoms and mozzarella, spinach with raisins and pine nuts, and fresh apricot tart are now part of my repertoire; her use of squash blossoms was a revelation to me back then.

Allen is simultaneously a teacher and cook and that’s what I love about her books; the instructions are no-nonsense and written in a friendly voice that makes you believe she is right beside you in the kitchen. It’s no wonder she won the 2005 Cooking School Teacher of the Year award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals.


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A student picking lettuce in the Ballymaloe garden. Credit: Ballymaloe Cooking School.

Her devotion to seasonal cooking is a constant in all of her cookbooks and reaches beyond the kitchen. Allen founded the first farmer’s markets in Ireland and is an active member of Slow Food. Her newest book, Irish Traditional Cooking,” is an updated edition of her classic. Allen’s attention to detail and exhaustive culinary research are evident in the authentic recipes. There are 300 recipes total –100 of them new — with beautiful color photographs. This is everything you wanted to know about Irish cooking, and then some.

Allen spoke with Zester Daily and revealed her go-to ingredient (butter, of course), her culinary inspiration, and why we should be eating carrageen moss.

You are what I like to call the Alice Waters of Ireland, in the sense that you have been growing, and raising, much of your own ingredients at Ballymaloe since the early 1980s. You were also one of the first Irish cooks to promote local, organic ingredients. Do you think that’s an appropriate description?

I am honored and delighted to be compared to Alice Waters. I greatly admire her philosophy and achievements and, of course, we are both passionate about education and fresh produce and understand the importance of connecting with local farmers, fishermen, and artisan producers.

Not surprisingly, there is a growing awareness in all our countries about food issues as more and more books, TV programs, and films are devoted to educating the public about how much of their food is produced and where it comes from — not a pretty picture and an unpleasant revelation to many people. There is a deep craving for real food that people can trust; hence, the rise of the farmers market, farm-to-table movement, backyard vegetable gardens, chickens, bees on your roof…

Are you surprised by how the local, organic movement has spread in the United States? Have you seen similar shifts in eating habits in Ireland?

In Ireland there is a similar movement though dampened by the challenging fiscal situation. However, the “GIY” (Grow It Yourself) movement is going viral — over 10,000 members in two years. GIY’s three priorities are awareness, support, and education. There are nearly 100 GIY groups around Ireland and approximately 7,000 people involved between our community groups and their website.

GIY aims to inspire people to grow their own food and give them the practical skills they need to grow successfully.

When you teach cooking classes, what is the most important lesson you hope to leave your students with?

It’s all about the ingredients. If you start off with good quality ingredients, you need to do so little. Otherwise you will need to be a magician — cheffery, bows, and twiddles on top to compensate for the fact that the flavor wasn’t there in the first place. Sourcing fresh, naturally produced, seasonal food is vital. Remember, all good food starts in the good earth — rich fertile soil, clean water.

Is there one Irish dish you think Americans should be cooking (and eating)?

Carrageen, moss pudding — light, delicious, and brilliantly good for you. Historically, carrageen moss and dillisk have been widely used as foods in Ireland. Now there is a renewed interest in seaweeds as more people realize the value of this completely natural source of minerals and trace elements: iodine, bromine, iron, zinc, and magnesium.

In our family, the babies are weaned onto carrageen moss pudding and we ourselves, and guests at Ballymaloe House and the cookery school, enjoy it at least once a week. The name means “little rock” in Gaelic.

Fred Dawes (a local foraging expert) taught me how to forage for and harvest carrageen moss. He picked it off the rocks in the little cove of Ballyandreen in East Cork after the spring tides.

Do you use other cookbooks, besides your own, when you’re cooking?

Of course. I have a huge cookbook library and I get new cookbooks all the time and test recipes on a regular basis.

What inspires your dishes and recipes?

The produce, fresh from the farm and garden and the local area; meat from the local butcher; and fish and shellfish from Ballycotton. But we also use lots of wonderful spices, olive oils, and ethnic ingredients from abroad.

What is your go-to ingredient in the kitchen?

Irish butter.

What is your favorite kitchen tool?

A pestle and mortar and a coil whisk.

What was the last meal that left you speechless?

Dinner at Noma in Copenhagen — totally inspired and brilliant!



Zester Daily contributor Laura Holmes Haddad lives with her husband, daughter and son in Northern California, where she writes about wine and food and runs her website, Her latest collaboration is "Plats du Jour: A Journey Through the Seasons in Wine Country" with the girl & the fig restaurant in Sonoma, California, released in November 2011.