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Breakfast with Irish cook Darina Allen

Posted by Sheryl Julian  September 12, 2012 02:57 PM

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This morning over breakfast at Henrietta's Table at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square (no loose tea!), Darina Allen and I sat by a window while she regaled me with stories about Ireland, County Cork, and the 100-acre farm/cooking school operation the Allen family runs at Ballymaloe.

God can this girl talk! And it's all interesting, beginning with her rural girlhood in County Laois, where she was the eldest in a large family and making butter was routine. She went to hospitality school in Dublin and when she told the staff she wanted to cook, that she was "desperate to learn souffles and pates," someone at school told her about a woman down the road who had a farm, a herd of Jersey cows, and wrote a menu every night for a country restaurant she ran in her house. That was unheard of. People kept their menus for decades. The staff member "handed me a piece of paper with the name Myrtle Allen on it. That changed the course of my life."

She went to work there, eventually married Myrtle's eldest son, Tim, and almost 40 years later, the place is thriving.

In the 1960s, they nearly went broke. "We were heating five greenhouses the old-fashioned way," she says. Oil costs skyrocketed, the country had high inflation, there was no one to work the land. "We almost lost the roof over our heads."

So they brain-stormed about what they did have and decided to convert one of the buildings into a cooking school for 11 students (today there are more buildings and 62 students, with a teacher for every six).

darinabook.jpgRecently, Darina re-issued "Irish Traditional Cooking," in which she went to cook with older women, to stand between "the woman and the scales," she says. One day in a farmhouse, over tea, a woman told her about preparing lambs' tails when they cut them off the animals, and how much she dreaded taking a razor blade to the fur, then boiling the tails, and finally roasting them over an open fire. But she did it because they didn't waste anything and her husband loved them.

"I got them and cooked them," says Darina, "and they were delicious. Peasant food can be so similar in many places where every scrap on the animal is used."

After a visit to San Francisco, she returned home and started the farmers' markets in Ireland. When she wrote about it in "Irish Farmers Journal," she received hate mail. "How dare you suggest that we go back to selling from a stall on the streets?" they asked. "We would have to be on our knees to do that."

Eight years later, she wrote another "Farmers Journal" article on markets, with a kit on how to set up a stand and the readers were more appreciative. There are 160 markets now.

There's more. Much more. But I'm thinking of going.

About Dishing

What's cooking in the world of food.


Sheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.

Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.

Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.

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