It was at Ballymaloe House that we had the pleasure of experiencing first hand Myrtle Allen’s food philosophy of ‘local, seasonal, organic, flavoursome, sustainable and superbly cooked food”. ’The result was one of the best meals we’d ever eaten.
Our five-course dinner began with RoséWine Sorbet flavoured with Sweet Geranium Leaves (from the garden); this was followed by Hot Buttered Ballycotton Lobster (Ballycotton harbour is 4 miles down the road); next we enjoyed Traditional Roast Duck ( from Nora Ahern’s Middleton Farm up the road) with Chive Buttered Potatoes (from Willie Scannell in Ballycotton) with Carrots and Salad leaves ( from the garden); we then tasted a selection of superb Irish Farmhouse Cheeses including Ardsallagh goat’s cheese ( from Jane Murphy up the road) and finally a desert of Meringue ( eggs from Ballymaloe Cookery School) and Fruit (from the garden.) The dinner was East Cork on a plate.
The next morning I spent an unhurried hour interviewing Myrtle. It is she who almost single-handedly raised the status of Irish cuisine. As well as establishing Ballymaloe House, she co-founded the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School, wrote cookery columns and books and invigorated local producers, for all of which she has won a Michelin star and numerous awards. Now her large extended family are taking the endeavours forward but Myrtle, who was born in 1924, is still incredibly lively and enthusiastic.
I interviewed her to find out how her story here had begun.
Question: Myrtle, how did you come to set up Ballymaloe House?
Answer: Well, it was through my husband.
Q: How did you meet him?
A: I was at a Quaker school in Waterford during the war and one of the first questions I was asked by the other girls was, “Do you know Ivan Allen?” He was a very young member of the school committee and was considered ‘rare’ – what you’d now call ‘cool’ by the girls. I was friendly with one of the other girls and so met him at parties.
Q: And how did this bring you here?
A: He knew two people, the Strangmans, who were both unmarried who were farming at nearby Kinoith ( now the site of the Ballymaloe Cookery School) but finding it hard to make a living as they had no markets for their produce. They had no heir so they wrote to Ivan’s father and asked if he’d like to come and help with the place. So he came down to Shanagarray. After the summer season they sent him to learn about apple growing and while there he investigated the glasshouse industry. He returned and when he’d sold all the apples he set about building a glass house. He was very good at building. Then he started growing tomatoes and other vegetables. He had a little packing shed and he packed tomatoes and mushrooms and ran a little van up to the boat or train to send them to Wales. I remember writing the names of all the little stations in Wales.
Then in 1948 this house came on the market and he and his partner Mr Strangman made an offer and bought it and we moved in. It had an outside bathroom but wasn’t in too bad a state and we spent a bit of money doing it up; put in central heating and brought water up to the house.
Q: Were you interested in cooking as a child ?
Well, I was not allowed into the kitchen, it wasn’t that sort of house, but I did collect a lot of cookery books when I was engaged. Then I worked for a friend who had a hostel for old people and then went to stay in London with a friend who had a baby and so by the time I got married I knew a bit – and we loved having dinner parties.
Q: Was the farm going well by then?
A: Yes, before long we had all our own produce. We had Jersey cows for milk and cream.
Q: And you found time to travel?
A: Yes, we started going on farming trips with the Irish Grassland Association in the 50s and Ivan, who was a sort of homespun gourmet, kept saying ‘the produce here is not as good as we have at home’
Q: And so you had the idea of a restaurant?
A: We had discussed how badly a restaurant was needed here in East Cork but did nothing about it while the children were at home but I remember sitting down in front of the fire one day thinking, ‘What are we going to do with this big house?’ I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life cleaning… So I revived the idea of a restaurant.
Q: Was Ivan keen?
He didn’t mind and neither did the children. Timothy was at school and when he got the letter saying that we were starting the restaurant he was excited, thinking that when he got home he’s be eating wonderful fancy food. When he did get home he said, ‘It’s just the same food as we usually eat.’
Q: How did you go about establishing the restaurant??
A: We did hardly anything, just put an advert in the Cork Examiner, “Dine in a County House, telephone for reservation.” No, actually we put ‘Dine in a Historic Country House…’ I remember because I had to swat up the history. We called it the Yeats Room and had a notice put on the front gate. I had a connection with Jack B Yeats and had some of his paintings which we put up and I thought if they don’t like the food they can look at the pictures.
Q: And at the time you were writing?
A: Yes I wrote a cookery column for The Irish Farmer’s Journal and my first cookery book
Q: Was the restaurant large?
A: When we began it was very low key. We had 20 seats – but we made awful mistakes. We had a picture of Raymond Postgate, the critic in the bar so that if he turned up we would recognise him. Elisabeth David didn’t come but a mutual friend took me to meet her in London and I was a bit frightened of her. She was good at what she did but a very scary person.
Q: And so how did you manage to make the restaurant a success and establish Ballymaloe as a Guest House?
Q: We were lucky and got good reviews in the paper. It grew steadily.
In Ireland the Inn Keepers Act only allowed a restaurant licence to serve wine – not beer or spirits. As my husband used to say, ‘No Irish drinks’, so I had the choice of being a pub or hotel. I didn’t want the pub trade with the children little and also it was expensive as you had to buy a licence from a pub going out of business. If we were a hotel we’d have had, by law, to serve travellers without reservation – another law from stagecoach days I think. I then found out I could get a licence for a guest house which I did.
The morning we left Ballymaloe Myrtle was there to say goodbye. As she shook my husband’s hand he remarked how cold she felt. ‘Oh I’ve just been for a swim,’ she replied. ‘In the pool?’ he asked. ‘Oh no,’ replied Myrtle, ‘In the sea. I do so every morning.’ What a wonderful, unforgettable lady.
Ballymaloe House: www.ballymaloe.ie
Ballymaloe Cookery School: www.cookingisfun.ie