Darina Allen is an award-winning chef, author and TV personality, she runs a world-famous cooking school and has been dubbed Ireland's Delia Smith. We spoke exclusively to the TV chef about the ongoing success of Ballymaloe Cooking School, her largely sustainable one-acre farm, a foodie festival that recently took place in County Cork as well as her favourite culinary adventures.
Ballymaloe Cooking School
Some of the world's top chefs have visited Ballymaloe Cookery School. Who were you most excited about?
"That's a really tough question. Our guest chefs read like a Who's Who of the culinary world - Madhur Jaffrey, Jane Grigson, Claudia Roden, Alice Waters…… It's impossible to say. I'm always thrilled to be able to invite my food heroes to the school."
How has the school changed since its beginnings? You have a 100-acre farm, what can students/visitors find there?
"Gradually, over the years, the school has become a little bigger and the farm and gardens have become more integrated into the school. We use the organic farm and glasshouses as an outdoor classroom and the school as an indoor classroom.
"The glass house is full of seasonal produce year round, we have a herb garden, vegetable garden, a fruit garden and a handful of Jersey cows which are milked each morning in our milking parlour. Students learn how to make cheese and butter at the adjoining dairy. On the farm there are both dairy cows and suckler cows that graze on organic pastures with lots of clover. I can't tell you how delicious the Jersey cream is. The dairy breeds are Jersey and Friesian/Jersey cross and the suckler breeds are Kerry (a traditional Irish breed), Dexter and three Aberdeen Angus. We have four traditional breeds of pigs, Gloucester Old Spot, Saddle-back, Tamworth and Berkshire, and lots of piglets and we have about 400 hens! The four main breeds are Leg-Horn, Sussex , Black Barred and Maran which the students feed daily with vegetable scraps from the morning's cooking.
"Sustainability is at the heart of everything we do and are trying to achieve here at the cookery school.
"We make every effort on our organic farm to reduce, reuse and recycle. We are committed to dramatically reducing food waste and limiting our carbon footprint through utilising solar energy.
"Although an overused term, it really is a "Farm to Fork" experience. We are often told this is unique, virtually, worldwide."
Tell us a bit about the amazing Ballymaloe festival that took place recently. It's been happening for three years now, how do you see it in ten years?
"We are really overwhelmed by the reaction and support that the festival has received. Although only in its third year it has already established itself firmly on the international calendar of food and drinks events. Our aim is to invite the leading voices in their field each year. The movers, the shakers and the influencers. We don't want the festival to grow too much in numbers necessarily but we are aiming for it to be recognised throughout the world, to become the 'Sundance' of food and drinks festivals."
How long does it take to plan the festival and how do you decide on the speakers?
"As soon as one festival is finished we pretty much start all over again, beginning with a meeting on how we can make the following year even better, and then we begin inviting the guests for the following festival.
"First and foremost we are looking for the 'elder statesman', so to speak, the best in the world. Not only do they need to be able to cook beautiful food and make superb drinks, wine, spirit, beer, cider but also have written scholarly books and really good prose. As a result the participant line-up each year so far, has attracted people from all over the world. People come from all over - Korea, Japan, Australia, India, America, Russia, the UK. This year we had 26 nationalities represented.... that we knew about. It's a once in a life-time opportunity for many people to hear and meet their heroes!"
TV Chef and Ballymaloe Cooking School founder, Darina Allen
Your culinary adventures have seen you travel to Greece, Italy, Mexico and Denmark, San Francisco and more. What has been your favourite foodie experience abroad?
"There have been so many but more recently on a trip to Turkey I did a six-hour walking tour in Istanbul and tasted over 20 local street foods including Simit, Dolma, Balik Ekmer, Icle Kofte.... a mind-blowing experience."
What's been your most recent foodie discovery, whether it's a dish or a restaurant?
"Carrot Top Pesto that April Bloomfield from the Spotted Pig in New York demonstrated at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest. I am always encouraging people to grow some of their own food and I love when I can tell people about vegetables where they can use every scrap."
Who is your favourite British chef?
"There are many but fresh in my mind are (founders of the Exmouth Market restaurant Moro) Sam and Sam Clark. They gave an amazing cookery demonstration based on homemade warka at the Litfest. It was mind-blowing. I love that kind of food. Real food - no twiddles, bows and smarties on top."
Where are your favourite places to holiday in Ireland?
"West Cork and Inis Meain, one of the Aran Islands."
What seasonal ingredients should we be cooking with at the moment?
"There is an abundance of fresh produce at the moment - soft fruits such as raspberries, strawberries, blackberries and blueberries. There is loads of beetroot, tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, courgettes, beans, peas, figs, cucumber, lettuce, peaches, nectarines, apricots, new season's potatoes, garlic, radishes, and sweetcorn too."