Toronto Star column, November 2, 2013
While touring the Republic of Ireland earlier this fall as a guest of Tourism Ireland, I had the very good fortune to visit an extraordinary farm: Ballymaloe in CountyCork in the south. While there, I enjoyed a four hour visit with the founder and whirling dervish of an operator, Darina Allen. She describes herself as a ‘farmer, teacher, food writer, newspaper columnist, cookbook author, and television presenter’. She also works for a large number of not-for-profit agencies including Slow Food International and the Soil Association.
At 65 years old you might think that Darina is making plans for a quiet retirement somewhere. She has, after all, been the driving force behind Ballymaloe for 30 years. In talking with her, however, I understood very quickly that retirement is far from her mind. There is, after all, much work to do.
Ballymaloe is the only cookery school in the world located in the middle of its own 100-acre organic farm and garden. I didn’t just make this up: I saw it for myself and was blown away by the size, scope, and depth of the activity on this amazing property.
Ballymaloe – for foodies
If ever there was a place where food and gardening intersect in a powerful and meaningful way, this is it. This is a cookery school like none that you will likely find anywhere else in the world. The dynamo Darina and her extensive staff and family are making sure of it.
You can sign up for a 12-week session that takes you through traditional cooking styles including many French and Italian techniques. You will learn how to prepare a pig for the table ‘from nose to tail’ as Darina puts it.
Learn to Cook Locally Produced Food
Over a homemade lunch of soda bread, pea soup, and home-farmed chicken, Darina explained to me that the concept of the certificate course is based on a gamete of experiences meant to enlighten the students. As she put it, each student learns how to prepare food ‘from bleed to seed’. In other words, at Ballymaloe, if you can eat it and it is natural you will likely learn about preparing it for the table. Today, the expansive ‘cookery’ includes a full-time restaurant, gift shop featuring farm fresh cheese and produce, children’s tours of the livestock and one-acre propagation greenhouse, sessions that cater to the locals that are only a couple of hours long, plus the famous 12-week certificate course.
The certificate course provides a shared experience between the 50 students who are taking the course at any one time in a staggeringly beautiful location. Students work together to produce three or four course meals for lunch each day using produce exclusively from the organic farm. Our lunch on this day is one such meal, minus the imported lemons. Students discover the essential disciplines of time management and task prioritisation in the kitchen. Afternoons are devoted to demonstrations from cooking specialists and cheese tasting or wine lectures.
Alternatively, for the casual cook or devoted professional there are short courses that range from only a couple of hours to several days in length. Choose from over 100 courses and sessions.
As it turned out, there was a Canadian taking the 12-week course at Ballymaloe when I was there. Katie Rosa is a 20 year old from Richmond Hill who is passionate about what she is learning at the cookery. Students come from every corner of the world for the experience. For the most part they reside on the property, though some room off campus.
I asked Katie what she plans to do with her new knowledge of cooking after she graduates and she said that she is looking forward to working in the industry and sharing her knowledge with family and friends when she returns home at Christmas.
Lunch with Darina
Meeting Darina personally was an exceptional treat. She is a visionary of culture with the ability to marry art and food, food and family (she has 4 generations of her family working in the enterprise) and, of course, food and gardening. She exclaims breathlessly, “Today is the most exciting time ever to be in this business. Never before have we understood the meaning of food as it relates to human health and never before have we understood the value of good soil as it relates to food.”
At The Root of It
Before I left Ballymaloe I needed to know the secret of their success and did not want Darina to scoot off in another direction until I had the answer. Here is what she said, “The cycle of life begins right here, not in the food that we eat but where and how we grow it. Everything we eat, after all, comes from plants [ed. by extension she is right as livestock need to eat plants in order to live]. It is imperative then that we pay close attention to the soil in which we grow our food. It must be nutrient-rich, full of compost, and organic.”
Darina suggested that the death of plants and the decomposition of them into soil is the basis of all of her success at Ballymaloe. She added, “Our veterinarian says that if all of his clients had livestock as healthy as ours he would be out of business.”
The formula for success is simple, when stated in these terms. My ‘take away’ was that if we care about the quality of ingredients that go into our work as much as Darina cares about the ingredients in her cooking, we will raise healthy families and businesses and enjoy living in a pretty nice country. It is the intersection of gardening and cooking that create the magic of better health through better eating habits. These are two crafts that require knowledge, time, and hard work.
The Irish are very open about the economic crash of 2008, when their economy and banking system came down with a thud. Since then there are signs that things are turning around.
Interestingly, Darina told me that her courses are sold out for some time and that business is better than ‘pre bubble’ which is code for the 2008 crash.
It seems to me that she has a tiger by the tail. Given their historic connection to food (the Irish acknowledge the dreadful days of the potato famine openly), they perhaps have a deeper appreciation for the effort that it takes to grow and produce quality food plants and to live healthier lives as a result.
The ‘pre bubble’ Celtic Tiger may yet rise in Ireland. It just might be hiding in the organic fields of Ballymaloe.
For details go to www.cookingisfun.ie