Interview with Chef Darina Allen of Ballymaloe Cooking School - County Cork, Ireland

October 2011

Situated in the middle of a 400-acre farm in East Cork, Ireland, Ballyamaloe is the centre of a group of enterprises owned and operated by the Allen family. The collection of family businesses includes the Ballymaloe Inn and the Ballymaloe Cooking School. Darina Allen, daughter-in-law to the Allen’s, owns and operates the school. It offers courses for those who wish to pursue a culinary career or for anyone who wants to discover the secret of cooking with confidence in their own home.

A well-known chef, Darina is a prolific cookbook author, having penned at least 11 books on numerous topics, mostly focusing on Irish food. We asked Darina to tell us a bit about the school, and we asked her to explain some of Ireland’s traditional dishes.

Patricia Greaney: How did the Ballymaloe Cooking School start?
Darina Allen: It was a logical offshoot of Ballymaloe. I started about 20 years ago. I was lucky to use the name Ballymaloe but it was a heavy responsibility to live up to the name. It's situated on a 100 acre farm, we grow all our own vegetables, we have 150 free range hens for eggs, a herd of Kerry cows. Kerry cows are an endangered species so that's why I'm building a herd of them, they are Irish cows with black horns. We also have pigs that are a rare breed that are reared for flavor. We have some ducks, geese and sheep. It's quite a menagerie.

PG: And the classes?
DA: We converted some of the barns into accommodations and the other farm buildings into the cookery school. We now operate the whole year round with two, twelve week professional courses and some other short courses which are anything from a day to a weekend on all sorts of subjects. They range from 'Irresistible Breakfast' to 'New Trends in Cooking'.

PG: What do you feel is the most important lesson you teach your students?
DA: I like teaching complete beginners. My whole mission is to help people feel that cooking is not a mystery and to give them confidence.

PG: There are so many dishes and ingredients at Ballymaloe that seem foreign to me even though my heritage is Irish. For instance the dish, Champ. Can you explain what it is?
DA: You can make champ really easily. If you use Yukon Gold potatoes, boil them in their jackets. Use what we call "old" potatoes, not in the sense that they are "old" but they are the winter crop. When they are cooked, peel and mash them. While you are mashing them you are heating some cold milk, full cream milk that is, with chopped up scallions in it. Add salt, pepper and butter. Beat that into the mashed up potato. It gets all lovely fluffy and delicious and it's flecked with scallions.

Traditionally people ate champs on Fridays because there was a fast on Fridays, you couldn't eat meat and for those that lived away from the coast, fish was out of the question. They would make big plates of this with a knob of butter melting in the center and you would take each forkful of potato and dip it into the melting butter.

PG: What is Colcannon?
DA: It's a mashed potato dish but this time you cook cabbage separately and mix the cooked cabbage through the fluffy mashed potato. Again put the melted butter in the center. There have been songs sung about the dish. They're wonderful.

PG: Then there is something called “boxty”.
DA: Boxty is yet another potato dish (Darina giggles). Yes, potatoes were so important that the monarch of the house was doing her best to try to make it taste a little different. It was actually considered to be a bit of a luxury because they grated the raw potatoes and mixed it with the cooked potatoes and some white flour. Now, white flour was a luxury because it was wheat flour as opposed to barley or rye flour which were more widely available. It was quite treat. So, they mixed the grated raw potatoes that they strained and the liquid that came out had lots of starch in it. They actually kept the starch for starching the collars of men's shirts. Sometimes they make boxty in big pans or even poached it in boiling salted water and when they take it out they'd let it get cold and they sliced and cooked it in butter the next day. It's the sort of thing that if you're reared on it you still really love it. Then there is a third type of boxty that was a pancake which they added more buttermilk and make a kind of batter and cook it off on a griddle. They'd eat it with honey or with rashes for breakfast.

PG: Buttered eggs intrigue me. Can you explain what they are?
DA: Ah yes, buttered eggs were a way to preserve eggs in the short term. They would be taken warm from the roost and slathered with butter, which seals the shell. It gives the egg a really wonderful texture and are wonderful poached. Eggs were actually kept by the farmers wife and were hers to sell as "hat pin money" or in other words for little luxuries.