The Gannet Q&A

Darina Allen

2nd May 2017

Interview: James Hansen
Photograph: Kristin Perers

A towering figure in the Irish food world, Darina Allen built her career around the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Co Cork, which she co-founded in 1983. From there she branched out into writing cookbooks, including Forgotten Skills of Cooking, and presenting cookery shows on TV. The annual Ballymaloe Litfest, one of the many projects that benefit from her inexhaustible store of energy, takes place at the school and nearby Ballymaloe House from 19 to 21 May.

If you could revisit one meal in your life, which would it be?

I was in Paris with my husband, in the 1980s, and I remember going to one of my first three-star Michelin restaurants, Guy Savoy. It was a simple lamb dish with a salad and a simple jus, with the magical flavour of earthy truffles running through it. It really opened my eyes to the magic of truffles.

What’s your most food-splattered cookbook?

Apart from Myrtle Allen’s The Ballymaloe Cookbook, which I love, it would have to be Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking – you could cook your life away out of that book. One recipe in particular for winter would be the cassoulet: so warming.

What’s the worst supposedly-good thing you ever ate?

I think it would have to be sheeps’ eyeballs, which I had at Bror in Copenhagen. Of course in Copenhagen it’s very difficult to find bad food, there are so many good restaurants, so chefs feel they have to do something crazy or ridiculous just to get headlines. The thing about the eyeballs was the texture – spongy and gloopy. Very odd and unpleasant. And the way they served them, having them stare up from the plate, was disconcerting. They put a pair of eyeglasses on the side for extra drama.

Describe your perfect breakfast…

It depends on context, but definitely fresh coffee and fresh-squeezed juice – orange or blood orange or whatever’s available. When I say fresh-squeezed, I’m talking about cutting it in half and squeezing it by hand, with a citrus juicer – that’s my investment in my health (laughs). If it’s winter, a bowl of Macroom oatmeal with Jersey cream and soft brown sugar, then some sourdough bread with some jam or marmalade. I’d have homemade kumquat marmalade, or real, dark, bitter seville orange marmalade. On weekends it’s nice to have a rasher or two with everything else: the full works.

No restaurant is perfect, but which one, for you comes closest, and why?

There’s a little restaurant in Teotitlán del Valle, in the Oaxacan valley in Mexico, called Tlamanalli. It’s run by three sisters, the Mendoza sisters, and it’s just a simple place with an open kitchen. That’s not for show, it’s just the way they’ve always done it – you see them there cooking as you wait for your meal. They start off by grinding the corn on the metate [a stone tool used to grind grains] to make the tortillas, all done entirely from scratch with the sisters cooking together – a bit like Como agua para chocolate, where they’re all cooking together. The village it’s in is also famous for handmade rugs and carpets, so you can wander round after your meal. I’ve been back a few times, most recently about two-and-a-half years ago.

What’s your favourite food scene in the movies?

I’d probably go for the film I just mentioned, Como agua para chocolate: there’s a scene where they’re all sitting at the table just desperately trying not to enjoy the food. They struggle against it but it takes over them – Tita’s emotions coming through the food – as it’s so delicious.

What do you listen to when you’re cooking?

Probably Radio 4 or Newstalk. I do like the radio. It would be music if I could find good music (laughs) but it might sometimes be Lyric FM, or Radio 3. We don’t listen to music so often here, actually.

If you had to limit yourself to the cuisine of just one country, which would it be and why?

Apart from Ireland, where I think we’re blessed to be able to use such amazing produce, it would have to be India. It’s a very diverse cuisine, a very sophisticated cuisine, lots of vegetarian food – even though I’m not a vegetarian.

Describe the thing that most annoys you as a customer in a restaurant.

Fake. The twiddles and bows and smarties. And food with a million fancy ingredients in one dish, which the chefs have put on there because it sounds sexy. I feel saddened when chefs put emphasis on garnish than actually the flavour. Just keep it pure and simple. I can’t stand foams, either – and I’m not the biggest fan of sous vide. In the hands of a good chef it can be great, but often it isn’t.

What’s your biggest food aversion?

I’ll eat almost anything, but I struggle with brains. The texture of brains – kind of spongy and soft at the same time (laughs). The sheeps’ eyeballs I had in Copenhagen were very similar. I eat anything within reason.

Describe a kitchen object you can’t live without.

My desert island kitchen utensil, if I could only have one, is the coil whisk. Not one of the electric ones, and not a balloon whisk even though that’s more cheffy. The coil whisk gets into the corners of pans and whisks things that balloon whisks just can’t – I use it for so many things. Pestle and mortar would be the other one.

What was your favourite food when you were 10?

It would have to be my mother’s home cooking, all the wonderful food she made. A favourite dish would be her scalloped potato, with lots of beef kidney running through it, a great lump of butter melted on top. It was delicious.

What ingredient or food product are you currently obsessed with?

Well it’s the new season for it so we’re using rhubarb in a myriad of ways. Then you have all the new wild garlic and foraged greens, the lovely fresh stuff, and we get remarkable seaweeds from the coast. We’re putting them in seaweed salad, bread, sauces…

Just lifted the forcing pot off the Rhubarb, lovely red tender stalks. #ballymaloecookeryschoolgarden @ballymaloecookeryschool #rhubarbe #forcingrhubarb

A post shared by Tim Allen (@timanddarina) on

What’s your biggest food extravagance?

My food extravagance has got to be pata negra, only from Andalucía. The bellota, but I’m talking pigs fed on whole oak acorns, not cork oak. There are two types that they use and whole oak is the better one. Cinco Jotas would be my favourite.

Share a useful cooking tip.

This is a funny thing to say, but I think water is the forgotten ingredient in the kitchen. Often students here find they’ve made something too strong and they don’t know what to do. Obviously I tell them taste, taste, taste – always – but water is the thing that will reduce the concentration, and of course it has to be good quality. Just recently there was a pasta sauce that was too concentrated. It might taste delicious, but you have to ask yourself whether you’ll still be enjoying it by the end, rather than just from one spoon. If it’s too concentrated then you won’t be enjoying it, and water can fix that.

Ballymaloe Cookery School, Shanagarry, Co. Cork, Ireland;

Follow Darina: Twitter | Instagram

Posted 2nd May 2017

In The Gannet Q&A


Interview: James Hansen
Photograph: Kristin Perers

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