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 County Cork 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.
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.
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 four 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.
For details go to www.cookingisfun.ie
Mark Cullen appears on Canada AM every Wednesday morning at 8:40. He is spokesperson for Home Hardware Lawn and Garden. Sign up for his free monthly newsletter at www.markcullen.com.