Darina Allen: Time to take back control over the food that we eat

This month marks 12 months of Kate Ryan’s ‘WOW Bites series - in which she talks to women working in the area of food. This month she catches up with Darina Allen as Ballymaloe prepares to celebrate its 40th anniversary
Darina Allen: Time to take back control over the food that we eat

Darina Allen in the gardens of the Ballymaloe Cookery School with her 20th book How To Cook. Picture Dan Linehan

DECEMBER’S WoW! Bites column marks 12 months of features focusing on women working in different aspects of the food industry in Cork; every voice and story different.

Looking back over the interviews with 11 hard-working, resilient, often visionary women, more than once has the name Darina Allen cropped up in conversation - as a memory, inspiration, or influence.

In 2023, the world-famous cookery school, established by Darina and her brother Rory O’Connor, will celebrate its 40th anniversary. Four decades of teaching cookery skills, or essential life skills as Darina views them; but also campaigning, educating, advocating, writing about the importance of good food and eating well; 40 years of imbuing us all with a joy of food and eating together.

I asked Darina what has fundamentally changed for women working in Ireland’s food industry during that time, and what remains to be done. She begins by acknowledging her teachers who believed progress for women was a right, not a privilege.

“I was educated by Dominican nuns in Wicklow during the 1960s. They very much encouraged us girls to have a proper career - medicine, science, law, architecture - but all I knew anything about was cooking and gardening,” Darina recalls. “They didn’t think much of that for an idea, but I persisted and eventually I decided on hotel management.”

Darina applied to DIT on Cathal Brugha Street to study Hotel and Catering Management, but says her personal ambition didn’t stretch much beyond “finding a nice chap to marry with money, have a few kids and paint my nails!”

As the course drew towards completion, focus shifted to what next. Top restaurant kitchens were dominated by men, so that wasn’t an option. Most of her classmates took up roles as assistant managers in top hotels, but she says: “I wasn’t a bit interested in that, I just wanted to learn more about cooking!”

A chance discussion with a senior lecturer in a corridor one day was where Darina first heard about a woman in Cork who was cooking for paying guests at her country farmhouse.

“She had heard about this extraordinary woman who had opened a restaurant in the countryside nearly an hour out of Cork, writing the menu every day depending on what food was in her garden and what fish came off the boats in Ballycotton; her husband had a Jersey herd; they had pigs and grew lots of fresh herbs.”

“I couldn’t believe my ears – it ticked all the boxes. A few days later, I was handed a piece of paper. The name on the piece of paper was Myrtle Allen, and I was told I must write to her.”

Write to her she did. Darina remembers those early days working alongside Myrtle in the kitchen at Ballymaloe House.

“I was 19 years old, and the only one of the kitchen staff with any kind of training. Myrtle never called herself head chef; it was a totally democratic, egalitarian kitchen,” Darina recalls.

“I was like a sponge soaking up every word Myrtle said, and she reinforced my mother’s values around food.

“This gave me huge confidence. Ballymaloe kitchen was such a lovely kitchen to work in; I never had to battle the awful abuse, both verbal and otherwise, that many women went through.”

Darina says the #MeToo movement proved transformative for women in many industries – including food - but that the Covid pandemic added another layer of humility.

“A lot of people said they were not going to put up with that any longer, and I really hope that women don’t have to put up with chauvinism in kitchens anymore.”

Darina admits always being “a very curious woman”. Her love of travel and an insatiable thirst for learning has been unimpeded throughout her life, indeed encouraged, especially by her family.

“My father was a very civilised man; he adored my mother and there was never any question of ‘you’re only a woman’ or any of that. Then I married Tim (Myrtle’s son) and into a Quaker family where men and women are equal. I came up with so many hare-brained schemes and my father or Tim would say have a go at it, and if it didn’t work it didn’t work, I just learned from it and moved onto the next thing. But it didn’t make me frightened of trying, and that’s really important.”

Much has improved for women in the food industry in a relatively short space of time. But battles are still being fought, so what still needs to change?

“A lot of it comes from your own confidence and being quite clear when something is not OK. I know it’s all very fine for a 74-year-old woman to have the confidence to say that, but we need to help our young people realise it, too.”

Confidence comes from instilling young people with essential life skills. Cookery skills, the ability to feed yourself, is one example and Darina is a life-long campaigner for more and better food education in schools. This year, she launched an Uplift campaign online calling on the current Minister for Education, Norma Foley, to embed practical cooking classes for every child in the school curriculum. At the time of writing, this campaign is less than 500 digital signatures away from hitting its goal. Darina sees the teaching of cookery to young people at a duty of care, its absence from the curriculum a failure of it.

Cookery is never just about what’s on the plate. Through it, we learn what it takes to grow and farm the food we eat, where it is grown and how, the impact on the environment and our health, animal welfare, nutrition, and community. Darina wants Minster Foley to explain to her why it’s not a priority to teach children how to cook.

“When you learn to cook, you get pleasure from being able to cook, of sharing food with friends, you can start a business, you’re more independent. It’s a whole different feeling and attitude to cooking.

“We really must empower our young people to cook; too much depends on food. Food should and could be our medicine. If you can’t cook, you’re totally dependent on other people.

“These days, people know more about the lives of celebrities than they do about how their food is produced – its just crazy. We really need to take back control over the food that we’re feeding ourselves and understand the importance of it.”

After two years of pandemic, we face global food shortages from climate change and war. Understanding food and cookery is more important than ever.

“We’re going into such uncertain times – we must realise that we need to concentrate on re-skilling or upskilling ourselves because there’s no question that young people will see food shortages in their lifetime.”

All these reasons and more are the driving motivations for how the cookery school has expanded to incorporate more to learn and engage with food. Bread and cheese making, fermentation, smoking and curing; organic farming and composting. Cookery and food have evolved at Ballymaloe to reflect the holistic way the cycles of food production should be viewed and practiced – not as monocultures of plants and animals, but as mixed, diverse farms.

“Any proper businessperson would have a five-year plan, but I never did one, the next thing I needed to do just became obvious.

“When it became more difficult to get really good home grown produce, we decided to grow it ourselves. Then came the bread shed, the micro dairy and the fermentation shed. I noticed students were not just interested in cooking, they were asking more questions about how something was grown or produced. We’d take them on tours to see cheese being made or fish being smoked and then wanted to learn those skills here in-house, so we gradually added them.”

The series of Forgotten Skills courses came about from a student who had overwhipped cream and was about to throw it out, not realising she had almost made butter.

“I realised the students didn’t know butter comes from cream. I was lucky enough to learn this as a child from my great-aunt in Tipperary - how to cure a pig, making black and white puddings, etc. I knew I must pass those skills on.

“There’s so much going on in food all over the world now, I would need three more lifetimes to learn everything! Because food is my subject, everywhere I go I learn something, taste something different and meet so many fascinating people - that keeps me motivated.”

There’s no end to Darina’s pride in the achievements of students who have passed through the doors of Ballymaloe Cookery School and gone on to forge successful careers as chefs, producers, writers, teachers.

“We’re so proud of all our babies all over the world! Almost 30 have written best-selling books, they’re on TV, some have restaurants...”

Maybe the sense of pride is so strong because that’s where Darina was herself once as a student of food. Her most treasured memory of Ballymaloe Cookery School is a simple, homely one.

“Just cooking along side by side with Myrtle, it was always this lovely companionable thing. Early on, in the summer, we’d have a family lunch of fresh mackerel from Ballycotton with home-made tartare sauce, lovely fresh tomatoes from the greenhouse, and a green salad. I just loved that simple meal, sitting with the family at the front of the house having lunch together. From the beginning, I was treated as one of the family.”

Darina has been driven by curiosity her whole life. When I ask what advice she would give women looking to begin their career in the food industry, her response reflects exactly that.

“Be super-curious. Read lots. Have a high standard. Source really good produce. Do lots of research, find the person making the best pasta or whatever, then ask lots of questions. If you want to work with someone, write them a letter and ask – the worst that can happen is they say no, but never say there’s no point.

“If you really love something, give it your all, that way you’ll always succeed or have the comfort of knowing you gave it everything. Do it with confidence.”


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