Helen Peacocke meets foodie heroine and dynamic Irish chef Darina Allen

There are times when I’m fortunate enough to meet a person whose personality is so charismatic it’s difficult to know where to start when describing them.

Darina Allen, the talented and dynamic Irish cook who founded the Ballymaloe Cookery School, Shanagarry, County Cork, is one such person. If asked to list her attributes I’d have to begin with her beguiling smile – what a smile, it lights the whole room when she enters. I don’t think I have ever met anyone who smiles so much.

Darina was in Oxford last week to attend the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery and give the annual lecture which was chaired by Oxford food writer Geraldene Holt. Darina’s chosen subject was Food and Markets, a subject that is covered in one of the chapters in her latest book 30 Years at Ballymaloe. Her lecture, which was open to the public as well as those attending the symposium, was followed by a quite remarkable dinner prepared by Allegra McEvedy MBE, broadcast, writer and chef, known for making much from simple unadorned flavours. Among many things Allegra gained fame through The River Café where she became head chef at just 24.

I should have known a dinner for us at St Catherine’s College by Allegra would be different from anything I have experienced. Never have I been confronted by a brown paper bag filled with pea pods when I sat down at the table. But there they were, ripe, sweet, tender peas waiting to be released from their pods and enjoyed by the hungry guests. There were no knives and forks laid on the table. Guests were expected to use their fingers to snap open the pod and pick at the many market-fresh salad vegetables also dished out ready for us. It was ingenious because this was synonymous with the fruits and vegetables you munch while walking around a market, including a large bun stuffed with slices of warm roast pork.

I was amused to discover instructions for serving freshly-harvested peas in a brown paper bag as a first course in a chapter of Darina’s book. Patrick Holden, chief executive of Sustainable Food Trust, writes: “you pick the peas and pop them into a deep bowl for each person. Serve as a first course — everyone will love them, both the peas and the experience. As the peas had been harvested that morning we did indeed enjoy the experience.

Darina became involved with farmers’ markets after visiting San Francisco in 1995. She said it was like no market she had ever seen before. “Stallholders were a mixed bunch of urban farmers and professionals who had chucked in their careers in favour of a more agreeable self-sufficient lifestyle.” On noticing the stalls packed high with fresh succulent produce, she explains this became her lightbulb moment. At that time the Irish supermarkets had gone over to central distribution and in some cases were actually discouraged if they bought their produce locally, which had a devastating effect on local producers who were too small to be in the system.

The Oxford Times:  The Oxford Times:
Pod: Fresh peas and hot poek in a bun, right

By 1996 she and her mother-in-law Myrtle Allen opened the first new-age farmers’ market in Cork. Her Simply Delicious television series was broadcast at the time. She still laughs on remembering the public’s reaction when they saw her attending two trestle tables covered with a blue gingham and piled high with fresh garden produce.

Her cookery school, which she co-founded with her brother Rory has now gained fame throughout the world. It is set in the middle of its own 100-acre organic garden which provides an abundance of fruits and vegetables for the students to handle. The school opened in 1983, offering 12-week certificate courses and shorter courses ranging from half a day to an entire week. Cookery demonstrations are offered virtually every afternoon throughout the week too. Since it first opened its doors the school has grown in size from a small kitchen adjacent to Darina’s house to a beautifully converted apple store complete with demonstration kitchens, four hands-on student kitchens, dining rooms, prep classes and a shop.

Darina wrote four books before embarking on her latest, 30 Years at Ballymaloe, which celebrates the school’s 30th anniversary.

She has also written a weekly food column for the Irish Examiner since 1998. She is no stranger to television either. Her popular cookery programme Simply Delicious, now in its ninth series, has been broadcast throughout the world. She won the Veuve Clicquot Buisness Woman of the Year 2001 and the IACP’s Cookery Teacher of the Year Award 2005. In 2013 she was awarded the Guild of Food Writer’s Lifetime Achievement Award for her incalculable contribution to culinary education.

No wonder this lovely woman with a huge smile is considered Ireland’s National Treasure.