NOURISHING, wholesome food was always on the menu at the O’Connell table in Co Laois when Darina Allen and Rory O’Connell were growing up.
“Our life revolved around food,” recalls Rory, whose second cook book Cook Well, Eat Well hits the shops this month. His sister, Darina, has also just launched her 16th book, Grow Cook Nourish.
“As children, we’d just have finished our lunch and we’d ask ‘What is for supper?’” says Rory, the second youngest of nine O’Connell children.
“Our mother was really resilient, feeding us nourishing, wholesome food to keep us well. Nothing was wasted. But even she couldn’t come up with a dinner menu that soon!”
Was there ever rivalry between the siblings?
“No,” says Rory. “Darina is 11 years older than me, so she was away at boarding school when I was a child. If Darina and I have a disagreement about work, it is very brief. And it’s business as usual.”
“I adore Rory,” Darina chips in. “And he adores me. He is super. We have mutual respect for each other. ”
No spats then at the Cullahill homestead where their parents ran a General Merchants store. What about in the kitchen?
“We work very well together,” says Darina. “And we complement each other.” Rory, with his soft, melodic voice, seems unflappable.
“Not always,” he admits. “Not always!”
Rory wasn’t always in the kitchen. Even though he started Ballymaloe Cookery School with his sister in 1983, his first job was on reception.
“I studied law for one year and realised that it wasn’t for me,” says Rory. “Then I dabbled in fine art and auctioneering.”
He made a good career move.
“I went into the Ballymalloe kitchen, learning to make exotic things like Hollandaise sauce and Béarnaise sauce. I was lucky; I seemed to have a natural flair for cooking and for organising.”
Rory says it is important to be organised before tackling a recipe.
“Weigh out all your ingredients at the start. Follow the recipe to the letter. Read it properly. A good recipe book is a great investment.”
Good, heavy-based saucepans are a good investment too.
“And a good knife is one of the most important tools for a chef or a cook to have in their kitchen,” says Rory.
Cook Well, Eat Well contains seasonal balanced three course meals for entertaining and elegant eating. The recipes are divided by seasons.
Now that it is the season for students returning to college, does Rory have any sage nutritional advice for them?
“Nobody should leave school without learning how to cook spuds, pasta or how to roast a chicken leg,” says Rory.
“A basic tomato-based sauce can be used to compliment any dish. A simple thing like a grilled lamb chop with a green vegetable is easy and fast for students to cook. They need to realise how to shop to maximise the money they have. A balanced diet is what it’s all about, not getting carried away with the latest food fads.”
There’s another plus when getting your act together in the kitchen.
“It is trendy now for young people to able to cook,” says Rory. “For me, it is my job, but so much more. When you get going, the physicality and the emotion involved in cooking is very pleasurable. Simplicity is key, and not being hysterical about short-lived faddy diet trends.”
Darina’s latest book, meanwhile, is titled Grow, Cook, Nourish — and she is very passionate about all three words.
“I wanted to use the title; For God’s Sake Grow some of your Own Food, she says. “It is vital for people to take back control of what they are eating. But that title sounded too ‘preachy’ on paper, so I settled for Grow Cook Nourish.”
Darina doesn’t settle for quick fixes to do with our health and wellbeing.
“This may well be the most important book that I’ve written to date,” she says. “We have gone from being a society who shopped for our fresh food and provisions on a daily basis, to one that has handed the power over our food choices to five or six multi-national companies which can scarcely be expected to have our best interests, either our health or enjoyment of food at heart.
“Since the first ready meal arrived on the supermarket, the start of the rise of food allergies, food intolerance and diabetes 2 happened. It wasn’t that simple; there were other contributory causes. But things went horribly wrong. And there is no sign of things cheering up. It seemed that cheap and convenience was all that mattered. That’s a myth. The real cost is to our health system. GP’s say 80% of health problems presented are directly a result of our diet. We must take back control in the interest of ourselves and our children.”
Darina’s passions were ingrained in her at an early age.
“As a child in the 1950s, we ate simple, nourishing food from our garden and the local area,” says Darina, 69.
“There were only three shops in our village and only a handful of processed foods. We always had a vegetable garden with apple trees, gooseberry and currant bushes, a few raspberry canes and a row of strawberries that never seemed to produce many. Both my grandads were avid gardeners.”
Later, when Darina got married, she cultivated her own vegetable patch close to the kitchen door.
“I was longing for my own vegetable patch and we had the best fun planting it.”
It was fun heading down to Darina’s latest project, The Urban Garden, in a golf buggy. En route, we passed the auditorium, erected in a prime sun-spot where cookery demonstrations take place in midsummer.
“Anyone can grow, anywhere, in any space,” says Darina.
The Urban Garden is planned on size and scale to mirror a typical three bedroom semi where the same-size garden fits all. The facade, complete with door and windows is the ‘back door’ leading to the garden.
“Even if you live in a skyscraper or a high-rise flat with a balcony; you can grow your own,” says Darina, plucking a ripe radish for lunch-time salad.
“To grow, all you need is a seed, some soil or compost, light and water. Get family, friends and neighbours involved.”
What about the obligatory green fingers which some people lack?
“You don’t need green fingers,” says Darina, in her no-nonsense tone. “You don’t even need a garden. You can grow on a windowsill, a balcony, in a few pots, tubs, baskets, in fact, in any kind of well-draining container.
“Go to your vegetable shop or the supermarket and get a few cardboard boxes or those light boxes that fruit comes in. Or it could be an old drawer, an old bath, a wheelbarrow, anything. Just put in some soil in it, sprinkle a few seeds and see what happens.”
What if you are not a gardener?
“Then plant a perennial vegetable bed,” says Darina. “Perennials are something that comes back year after year. Rhubarb is dead easy, as is kale.
“Also, consider growing vegetables that grow quickly such as beetroot. This can be grown in a tray which takes three or four weeks. You can also eat the stalks and leaves of beetroot. Chop them up and boil them or toss them in olive oil. In that vegetable, you have three vegetables.”
There is a lot of effort required?
“Even small acts can produce big rewards,” says Darina.
“For God’s sake, don’t feel you can’t do anything. You can do something, no matter where you are. Ok, not many people can grow enough to feed themselves. But whatever you grow yourself in rich, fertile soil without chemicals, you know it’s going to be good. And it’s magic.
“You put a potato into the ground or into a plastic bag, and where every single potato is; you get a whole meal. It’s absolute magic.”
Grow Cook Nourish, containing 500 of Allen’s own recipes, is available to pre-order from Amazon for €32, see amazon.co.uk
Cook Well, Eat Well, also available to pre-order from Amazon, is published by Gill Books and available in stores and online now, priced at €24.99.