It’s butter. Rich creamy butter, the product of Ireland’s rich emerald green pastures, that excites Rachel Allen, the woman who put Irish cooking back on the map, and who recently visited Australia as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival.
“I always come back to dairy.” says the TV chef, cookbook author and champion of local artisan produce. “I love our butter. I love our cream.”
Then there’s the seasonal foods. “That meal, the last of asparagus, the first of the wild salmon, the new potatoes, hollandaise sauce and a glass of white wine. It’s heaven.”
And her last meal? “A plate of wonderful cured meats. At the cookery school, we have been curing a lot of our own hams, Jamons, and making chorizos and salamis.
“I think sometimes of beautiful meats with fresh Irish soda bread and great butter,” she says adding that flour isn’t as evil as people think.
Allen, who started her cooking career in 1983 and now teaches at the Ballymaloe Cooking School at the southern tip of Ireland in County Cork, says that it’s just as difficult to define Irish cuisine. It’s not about the clichés of Irish food such as potatoes, Colcannon, Irish stew, and Guinness with oysters. Or anything dyed green for St Patrick’s Day.
“People so often ask, ‘What’s Irish cuisine?’,” she says. “And, of course, we don’t have one, really. It’s produce. It’s definitely produce-led. It’s the same in the UK. It’s almost taken for granted. I don’t know if Irish people realise how unique our produce is. “It’s very much what Ballymaloe is all about.”
Some of that produce is the product of the lush countryside – dairy, butter, cream and cheese. But it is also the fruits of the sea – lobsters, scallops, oysters, Dublin Bay prawns and wild salmon, unparalleled thanks to the cold Irish seas – that really excite her.
While Allen has come to form her own definition of Irish cuisine, her cooking styles are plucked from around the world, as she chooses to keep it simple and only use the best produce. “You start with a really great ingredient and you don’t do too much to it, and then you’ll end up with something really great.”
It’s a philosophy that has been followed since her mother-in-law, Darina Allen, first started hosting cooking classes at Ballymaloe in 1983. Rachel still remembers her first day, when Darina got the students to plant a seed. “She spoke about compost and chemicals on food,” says Allen. “I’d never heard of the word organic before; it wasn’t in our vocabulary. She was talking about seasonality and provenance and sustainability.
“She was very ahead of her time.”
Rachel Allen moved to Cork at the age of 18 to take a short cookery course at Ballymaloe. “I wanted to travel, so my parents told me that I needed a skill… so I learnt how to cook. And then the travelling came later.”
She liked the place so much that she stayed and cooked in the restaurant for a year and a half. But her real love was the cookery school where the emphasis is on seasonal, local and sustainable ingredients.
She says this philosophy is not a novelty and the cooking school farm always provides jobs for the students. They can choose whether to milk cows (and later make cheese) or feed the hens and see that their feeding directly produces eggs.
The emphasis is on sustainable and local food, and she laments the selling of Irish fishing rights, which have led to overfishing of the native salmon. “Last year, there wasn’t a salmon season at all,” she says. “Years ago, in June and July, you were allowed to catch salmon and there was a limit. Then it got to about six weeks’ long and then we had none.”
Her rise from a cookery school teacher and cook to a TV celebrity was an unexpected one. She’d had her first child and was expecting her second when, 10 years ago, TV producer David Hare came to do a baking course.
He asked if she was interested in TV, which led to a bread program, which she co-presented at the cookery school. Hare then asked whether she’d ever thought about a TV show of her own. With one toddler and a baby on the way, “We shot a pilot and he came back,” she says.
Her husband, Isaac, had grown up with his mother, Darina, being a TV presenter, and was well equipped to run the business side. First off, he told her to write a cookbook.
Her style of cookbook draws on her travels and is simple for the home cook. “I don’t assume that people are very experienced cooks. I’d like anyone to be able to pick up my books whether a complete beginner or more experienced.”