Recipes: Celebrating the champions of local producers

The Allen family were bestowed the 2020 Producers’ Champion Award recently by Blas na hEireann. KATE RYAN catches up with the trio of Darina Allen, Rory O’Connell and Rachel Allen about the accolade
Recipes: Celebrating the champions of local producers
Pictured at Ballymaloe Cookery School (and observing social distancing guidelines) were Darina Allen, Rory O’Connell and Rachel Allen who were chosen collectively as the year’s joint Blas na hÉireann Producers’ Champions. Picture Clare Keogh 

SINCE 1964, the Allen family have been at the beating heart of Irish food.

They have consistently protected the traditional ways of growing and cooking, promoted the best of Irish hospitality from the first patrons of Yeats’ Room, and supported Irish makers of great artisan foods for close to six decades.

One of my favourite Cork food stories stretches back to 1978 when Myrtle Allen first encountered a taste of Veronica Steele’s farmhouse cheese, Milleen’s, and immediately ordered a round to be sent to Ballymaloe House to feature on the cheese board for her guests, and ever since.

In 1983, Darina Allen opened the Ballymaloe Cookery School with her brother Rory O’Connell, and was later joined by daughter in law, Rachel Allen, to establish what is, and always has been, regarded as one the pre-eminent cookery schools in the world.

Whether through the school, the hospitality shown every night in the restaurant, cookbooks, column inches, television shows or panel discussions on symposia at home and abroad, Darina, Rory and Rachel consistently and selflessly champion Irish food.

This year, in recognition of their activism, they have been awarded the 2020 Blas nah Eireann Producers’ Champion Award for their lifelong dedication and passion. This award is extra special for the Allens, voted, as it is, by the very producers they seek to champion.

At Ballymaloe Cookery School, Darina Allen, Rory O’Connell and Rachel Allen. Picture: Clare Keogh
At Ballymaloe Cookery School, Darina Allen, Rory O’Connell and Rachel Allen. Picture: Clare Keogh

“Our goal at Blas na hÉireann has always been to help Irish producers to tell their stories,” says Artie Clifford, Chairperson and founder of Blas na hÉireann.

“We here at Blas were delighted when we saw the results of the producers’ vote from across Ireland. After all, it is the producers that choose their Champions. The ethos and legacy of Myrtle Allen is in safe hands. All three of this year’s winners, Darina, Rachel and Rory, constantly highlight the very best of Irish food and the producers that make it. The awards show that producers recognise the work they do on their behalf and they wanted to say thanks.

“The respect that all three command means their narratives have helped bring valuable attention to the sector. Together with our previous Producers’ Champions — Neven Maguire, Simon Coveney, John and Sally Mc Kenna — we are building the dream team.”

I caught up with Darina, Rachel and Rory and asked them what it means to them to win the Blas nah Eireann Producers Champion Award for 2020.

Darina Allen.
Darina Allen.

Darina Allen

“Such a brilliant surprise in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are so touched and honoured to be chosen as the Blas na hÉireann Producers’ Champions 2020.

“The award feels all the more special because we were selected by the producers themselves.

“For me, this is also a tribute to my late mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen, who built up a wide network of local farmers, fishermen, butchers, fish-smokers, cheesemakers, poultry producers, beekeepers, foragers… to provide Ballymaloe House with the quality of produce she needed to cook her deliciously simple country house food.

“Some we saw just for a few weeks in the year when they had a supply of currants or berries or some marsh samphire, others came every week with their beautiful fresh produce.

“When I was a young chef in Ballymaloe kitchen in the 1960s, I always remember her asking a local farmer’s wife who had brought one of her free-range ducks for Myrtle to taste ‘What do you need to be paid to rear ducks of this quality for me’? Myrtle had such respect and admiration for her producers, she always paid them what they needed and on time, so they could continue in business... an example to each of us.”

Rory O'Connell.
Rory O'Connell.

Rory O’Connell

“I am delighted to share this honour with Darina and Rachel. The work of small Irish producers is central to my work and without their produce and products, my work would not be possible. The breadth, depth and quality of what is being produced in this country is growing all of the time and we now are developing a cuisine based on those products that is a match for the rest of the world.

“I wish all producers good health and good luck at this exceptionally difficult and uncertain time and thank them greatly for continuing to keep us nourished and for bringing the joy of local food into our homes.”

Rachel Allen. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins
Rachel Allen. Picture: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Rachel Allen

“I’m so honoured and thrilled to win this award and am in such great company with Darina and Rory.

“As any cook knows, good food is all about the produce, so really I’m just delighted to be able to help to showcase what incredible food we have here in Ireland.”

In the midst of Covid-19, we are all keeping ourselves safe at home and cooking more —Darina, Rory and Rachel are doing the same with their families too!

To keep you inspired to cook in the kitchen, try Darina’s recipe for cocooning deliciously with Mary Walsh’s Currant Cake; or Rachel’s easy to make Brownie recipe to make with your children; or Rory’s indulgent Tart of Macroom Buffalo Ricotta, Roast Red Onions, Mushrooms and Herbs.

Mrs Walsh's Currant Cake
Mrs Walsh's Currant Cake

Darina Allen - Mary Walsh’s Currant Cake

“Like all the other valiant over 70s, I’m cocooning at present, cooking lots of comfort food and one- pot dishes on my ancient Aga. Here’s a recipe for Mary Walsh’s Currant Cake, which I hadn’t made for years — a delicious trip down memory lane which evokes childhood recollections of so many people of my generation.”

Mary Walsh lived in the little village of Cullohill in Co. Laois, where I lived as a child, she’s famous for her ‘Currant Cake’, which falls somewhere between cake and very rich soda bread.

“She usually made it on Sunday mornings and as children we used to fight about who would collect the milk from their farm so we could have a slice of fresh ‘cake’ from the oven.

“One of the secrets of why it tastes so good is that she uses sultanas, not currants, despite the name!

Ingredients

450g plain flour

1 small teaspoon bread soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

150g good quality sultanas or 90g sultanas and 60g currants

25g candied citrus peel

50g butter

25g caster sugar zest of 1 sweet orange

1 free-range egg, whisked

300ml buttermilk plus

2 tablespoons cream crunchy brown sugar a round or square cake tin 21.5cm (8 1/2 inch) or a baking sheet

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F/Gas Mark 7.
  • Put all the dry ingredients into a bowl, rub in the butter, add the grated orange zest, sultanas and mixed peel. (Mary suggests plumping up the dried fruit for a minute or two in the oven or in a saucepan with some fresh orange juice.) Whisk the beaten egg with the buttermilk and cream. Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, add in enough of the liquid to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured board, shape gently into a round and put into the greased tin.
  • Mark the top with a cross, the traditional blessing and prick in the four corners to let the fairies out! Brush the top with a little of the remaining liquid. Sprinkle with some crunchy brown sugar.
  • Put in the preheated oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 180°C/400°F/Gas Mark 4.
  • Cook for 35-40 minutes (on middle or lower shelf of the oven – cover the bread with parchment paper if the top of the bread begins to brown too much).

To test for doneness, tap the base of the loaf.... when it is cooked it will sound hollow. Cool on a wire rack. Cut into thick slices and eat while still warm slathered with Irish butter.

Rachel Allen – Chocolate Brownies

(Makes 16)

Ingredients

175g dark chocolate

175g butter, cubed

25g cocoa powder

3 eggs

225g caster or soft light brown sugar

1 tsp vanilla extract

100g plain flour or ground almonds

A 20cm square cake tin, base and sides lined with parchment paper

Method:

  • Preheat the oven to 180°C/350°F/ Gas Mark 4.
  • Melt the chocolate and butter together with the cocoa powder in a heatproof bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Do not let the base of the bowl touch the water. Remove from the heat. In a separate large bowl, whisk the eggs, sugar and vanilla extract for 2 minutes until light and creamy.
  • Continuing to whisk, add the chocolate mixture until well combined. Add in the sifted flour or the ground almonds and mix together well.
  • Tip the mixture into the prepared tin. Bake in the oven for 19-22 minutes. When cooked it should be dry on top but still slightly ‘gooey’ and ‘fudgy’ inside, it’ll feel almost set in the centre, but not quite. Don’t be tempted to leave it in the oven for too long or you will have cake and not brownies. Allow to cool in the tin, then dust with icing sugar and cut into
Macroom Ricotta Mushroom , Red Onion by Rory O'Connell
Macroom Ricotta Mushroom , Red Onion by Rory O'Connell

Rory Allen - Tart of Macroom Buffalo

Ricotta, Roast Red Onions,

Mushrooms and Herbs

“This thin and crisp tart is really lovely and I am thrilled to be able to use Irish ricotta that comes from Macroom, where the buffalo who produce the milk for the cheese are grazing away happily on Irish grass. I find this kind of sustainable development in Irish food production quite thrilling and congratulate all involved who had the vision and energy to run with an idea that may have sounded hare- brained to many.

“The tart can be served as a starter or main course and I always serve a salad of leaves with a simple olive oil dressing to accompany. Change the filling for different vegetables or fruit.

Ingredients

250g puff pastry

2 medium red onions, peeled and each onion cut into 8 even sized wedges

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 large sprigs of thyme

100g ricotta

25g parmesan

2 teaspoons olive oil

½ teaspoon thyme leaves

1 large flat mushroom

2 teaspoons marjoram leaves

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Method:

  • Preheat oven to 200°C/400°F/Gas Mark 6.
  • Roll the pastry out and cut into a 22cm circle. Place on a parchment paper lined baking sheet. To achieve a rim on the cooked tart, cut another circle 1cm in from the edge of the pastry. Your knife should pierce the pastry about 1mm deep and should be an obvious cut not just a mark.
  • This 1 cm rim will be the risen edge of the cooked tart and hold the vegetables in place.
  • Pierce the pastry inside the 1cm rim all over with a fork. Chill the pastry until ready to assemble the tart.
  • Toss the onions in olive oil, add thyme, season with salt and pepper. Place on a roasting tray and cook for 30 minutes until tender. Cool completely.
  • Mix the ricotta with the parmesan, 2 teaspoons of olive oil, thyme leaves and season with salt and pepper.
  • To assemble the tart, spread the ricotta mixture over the base making sure not to go on to the pastry rim. Arrange the onions on top. Cut the mushroom into 1 cm thick slices and place cap side down, stalk side up in a circle on top of the onions. Season the mushroom slices and add the roasted thyme sprigs.
  • Cook for 30 minutes until the pastry is crisp and cooked through.
  • Add a final few grains of sea salt and the marjoram leaves and serve hot.

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