Culinary queen is set to celebrate 70th birthday

As Darina Allen turns 70 next week, CHRIS DUNNE caught up with her and some former pupils, who pay tribute to the woman who inspired them
Culinary queen is set to celebrate 70th birthday
Darina Allen. Picture: Denis Minihane.

EVEN though Darina Allen is 70 years old next Monday, July 30, she doesn’t feel any older.

“Yes, I’m still whizzing around,” says the world-famous chef, who arrived at Ballymaloe, Shanagarry, 50 years ago last month, in June, 1968, and who opened Ballymaloe Cookery School in 1983.

“I don’t feel any older. We have a very good team here, including Rory and Rachel. It’s our own Ballymaloe Cookery family. I totally love it.”

How will she celebrate her seven decades?

“With a family dinner, which is always my favourite way to celebrate good things,” says Darina.

Darina turns 70 on July 30. Picture: Denis Minihane.
Darina turns 70 on July 30. Picture: Denis Minihane.

It will be Simply Delicious.

“Simply Delicious is right!” says Darina, quoting her signature phrase from the successful TV cookery series that made her a household name.

Darina, sitting in a sun-dappled spot in the garden with a cup of tea, still keeps an eagle eye through the dining room door on her students, comprising 12 nationalities, setting tables for lunch.

“I feel very fortunate to have high energy levels and I don’t take anything for granted,” says Darina, who has just returned from a whistle-stop tour of China.

“I travel quite a bit,” she says. “I always learn something new and then I come back to the school and keep an eye on what’s happening.”

The cookery school is her baby.

“Often, on my travels, out of the blue, I get a tap on the shoulder and someone says; ‘Hi Darina!’ It is always one of my ‘babies’, a student who learned their trade here at Ballymaloe. I have ‘babies’ from over 156 countries.”

Darina Allen, nee O’Connell, didn’t travel too far from the homestead in Culohill, Co Laois, where she grew up, to Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry; 89 miles. Nor did she depart a lot from what her mother taught her about home-cooking.

“My mother was very resilient,” says Darina, who published her 16th book, Grow,Cook, Nourish. It won a special cookbook award at Gourmand World Cookbook Awards.

“Feeding us and nourishing nine of us with wholesome food to keep us well. Nothing was wasted. Both my grandfathers were keen gardeners. My maternal granddad, Granpappy, was a self-sufficient farmer and he loved his garden. We always had a vegetable garden and fruit trees, gooseberry and currant bushes,” says Darina.

Darina Allen at The Ballymaloe Cookery School in the 80s.
Darina Allen at The Ballymaloe Cookery School in the 80s.

“When I arrived here to Ballymaloe in 1968 after graduating from Cathal Bruga Street, I was really keen to cultivate my own tiny vegetable plot near the kitchen door. We had great fun planting it.”

Darina felt right at home.

“It was a case of go out into the garden, go out to the farm, cook simply everything from scratch. There was no question of buying any produce, the same as it was at home with mummy. During the ’50s and ’60s, we all ate simple nourishing food from our garden and local area. There were three shops in our village and only a handful of processed foods.”

Is it true she can make a meal out of nothing?

She laughs.

“I always knew how to make a meal out of nothing. Myrtle had exactly the same values” says Darina, referring to her late mother-in- law, Myrtle Allen, who passed away on June 13, 2018.

“We literally cooked side by side every day,” she said.

The students who worked side by side with Darina and her team over the last 25 years have gone on to achieve great things in their own culinary careers. “Yes, people who did the 12 week cookery course have forged their own successful careers and they have great businesses of their own.”

Past pupils of Ballymaloe Cookery School include chefs, Catherine Fulvio, Clodagh McKenna, Paul McVeigh and Thomasina Miers.

“From starting in 1983, it is amazing to have had such an impact at this stage,” says Darina.

“There was no grand plan. One thing led to another and we always put back more resources into the cookery school and into the gardens.”

Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School in the 80s.
Darina Allen at Ballymaloe Cookery School in the 80s.

Myrtle Allen, a world-renowned cook, founder of Ballymaloe House, blazed a trail that her family continued to follow.

“And it is wonderful that all the grand-children are within a five-mile radius,” says Darina.

Close bonds were formed over the years.

“That is very true,” says Darina. “And we’ve had lot of romances and weddings happen here too.”

Arun Kapil of Green Saffron, met his wife, Olive, at Ballymaloe.

“I arrived from London to Ballymaloe in 2004,” says Arun. “It looked to me like a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere. The minute the door opened, I fell in love with it.”

And he fell in love with Olive, who was the Ballymaloe School receptionist at the time.

“We had our wedding reception at Ballymaloe, with a potpourri of Indian and Irish dishes. It was magic.”

As well as remembering the magical day he said his wedding vows; Arun remembers sage words from Darina.

Arun Kapil of Green Saffron. Picture: Elaine Hill Photography
Arun Kapil of Green Saffron. Picture: Elaine Hill Photography

“And don’t forget to scrape out the bowl. Because what’s left in there is, what? Profit! We’d all chime back to Darina’s query as she stood behind the demo counter whipping up another delight,” says Arun.

“Yes, the cookery school re-focused my energy, taught me the importance of well-sourced ingredients and delicious food. But it was much more. Darina would daily instill in us the value of food, the pleasure of simplicity and the need to make a difference. A difference in whatever we wanted to achieve.

“Every day I wake up happy, and strive to make Green Saffron better. I have always admired Darina’s energy and ethos when it comes to Irish food.

“She has made a real true impact on the food culture in Ireland and Ballymaloe Cookery School has to be up there as one of the best in the world. Happy Birthday Darina!”

Lily Higgins
Lily Higgins

Cobh based food writer and blogger, Lily Higgins felt that powerful impact too.

“It is impossible to really estimate the influence that Darina has had on my life,” says Lily.

“From seeing my own mother bake scones from her cookbooks, watching her TV shows a child and then attending Ballymaloe Cookery School, where I witnessed every day how she is the ultimate force for food teaching an sharing everything she knows.

“She is such a generous teacher, passionate about sharing her vast food knowledge. Darina is a simply delicious whirlwind travelling the world to spread the word about the connection between food, responsible farming and sustainability. We are so lucky to have Darina and all that she has created. Wishing Darina a happy, healthy birthday.”

Giana Ferguson of Gubeen Farmhouse. Picture: Paul Sherwood
Giana Ferguson of Gubeen Farmhouse. Picture: Paul Sherwood

Giana Ferguson, producer of Gubbeen Cheese, values Darina’s support over the years.

“Darina has done so much for all us artisan food makers. From the very start she used our foods and her belief in us was hugely important.”

Kevin Ahern of Sage, Midleton, agrees.

“I’ve always admired Darina’s energy and her ethos when it comes to Irish food,” says Kevin.

“She has made a real, true impact on the food culture in Ireland and Ballymaloe Cookery School has to be up there with the best in the world. Happy Birthday Darina!”

Ballymaloe Cookery School changed the course of Tom Gleeson’s life. He owns Bunsen Brothers with his brother, Dan, who also attended Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Kevin Ahern of The Sage restaurant Picture: Eddie O'Hare
Kevin Ahern of The Sage restaurant Picture: Eddie O'Hare

“I attended Ballymaloe Cookery School in 2010 to fill a gap of three months, little realising that my experience there would radically alter the course of my life,” says Tom.

“Darina is the force of nature behind it all. She manages it with a delicate balance of iron will, good humour and inspiration.

“She simultaneously maintains the country’s culinary heritage whilst setting an example for us all as a pioneering business woman.

“In Ballymaloe Cookery School, the mantras of the good life and the Epicurean living are underpinned by hard work and incredibly high standards of quality, particularly in sourcing the ingredients.

“Hopefully I have carried some of these through to my business in Bunsen today. I’d like to wish Darina a Happy 70 th birthday. Long may she continue.”

Darina continues to spread the good word about Irish food and Irish produce.

“My publisher is bringing out 100 classic recipes around Christmas time from the Simply Delicious books,” says Darina.

“Some of my students tell me that their grandmothers and their mothers have copies of at least one Simply Delicious book of recipes in their kitchens. The recipes are timeless.”

Darina herself seems timeless. She buzzes about with a finger in every pie around the cookery school. She wipes the lens of her timeless red spectacles.

“Come in and have some lunch. It is simply delicious,” she says.”

Some things never change.

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