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Friday, 30 August 2013

Myrtle Allen, an absolute Icon of food and hospitality

Shortly to celebrate her 90th birthday Myrtle Allen has been described as the single most important figure in Irish Food.

Whilst that is true it doesn't mention her huge impact and influence on the Hospitality Industry  as well.

The story of Myrtle Allen's rise to prominence is well documented, the young farmers wife, living in a house that was too large and in parts almost derelict, and transforming it to a Must GO destination - one of the "500 places to visit before you die".

That is true, but it again doesn't tell the half.

Living on a farm where food was plentiful and with  large room, Myrtle set up a restaurant, advertising in the local evening paper but without giving the actual address just a telephone number. To her amazement people came and word spread. From a small beginning Ballymaloe House got a good reputation and gradually the restaurant "The Yeats Room" allowed restoration of the house and creation of guest rooms.

It is Myrtle's strong beliefs that allowed the blossoming of the restaurant and hotel to its current high status.

Food is quite simple, but always cooked to the highest standards, as local as possible and always seasonal. Not for Myrtle airlifted Asparagus in January, no it will be Potato, Carrot, Cabbage or Kale and Leeks.  Simple vegetables but full of flavour. Giles Coren waxed lyrical about a boiled potato that he had on one visit, "floury perfection with butter melting into the potato like teenagers in the back row" was how he described it in an article now sadly marooned behind the Times paywall.

Yes the food is simple, but by eating seasonally and locally you get every ingredient at its peak and sensitive cooking enhances them rather than trying to change them.

That is the secret of Myrtle's success and cooking style. A style that has seen Michelin Stars awarded and which keeps Ballymaloe House on top of its game after many years.

That philosophy is carried through to the hotel, which feels as though you were a house guest at a Country House Weekend. And that is what you are.

Ballymaloe offers a totally relaxing experience, and it doesn't matter what your status, you are a guest and treated as such. Friendly staff, comfortable rooms, roaring fires in Winter, croquet on the lawn and a feeling of belonging.

Breakfast is all that you could wish for, from the Porridge with local cream and honey, home made Muesli, the fullest of Irish breakfasts, home made Yoghurt with fruit coulis, Jams and Marmalades, several breads topped up from the oven as the meal progresses, warm Scones and good Tea or Coffee. Often Mrs Allen will pop in for her own breakfast, it is after all her home!

Lunch is a choice of locally sourced main courses, often from Ballycotton the local harbour, or a farm in the locality all served with Ballymaloe's own vegetables from the farm, the walled garden or the Cookery School. And then there are the desserts!

Served from a Dessert Trolley, and when did you last see one of those? A wide range but always including Ice Cream and a Meringue and generous portions to boot. The Meringue is a perennial and sums up some of Myrtle's philosophy. "We use a lot of egg yolks, and rather than waste the whites there is always a Meringue", often a frozen Meringue Roulade.

Dinner is 5 courses, again following the local and seasonal path. Portions are not huge, but there is always the offer of a second helping, or the chance to try one of the other mains, and of course fresh vegetables.

Perhaps the best meals are those dinners offered buffet style where a total cornucopia of Cork foods are available and the family help serve them. Combined with a legendary wine list Ballymaloe House offers THE best.

Myrtle Allen wrote one of the definitive books on Irish Cookery

with her recipes that are still in use today at the House, and which set the style for the transformation of Irish Food, which did not have a great reputation despite having some of the finest produce in the world.

Myrtle also employed a young Darina O'Connell, then fresh out of hotel school and, perhaps unwittingly, started the great Allen/Ballymaloe dynasty that lies at the heart of modern Irish Food.

Darina learned well from Myrtle, married her son Timmy and took on Kinoith Farm in Shanagarry before setting up Ballymaloe Cookery School with her brother Rory, who had himself been head chef at Ballymaloe House for 10 years.

This year Ballymaloe Cookery School celebrates its 30th Birthday, 30 years in which it has produced some of the rising stars of the Irish and UK food scene and gained an international reputation to rival that of Ballymaloe House.
The House has continued to grow, but in a sensible and structured way under Myrtle's guidance. Most recently out buildings were converted to The Grain Store a multi purpose space for events and conferences, weddings and meals.

This has allowed a greater range of events to take place. Already very successful Wine Weekends and Music Weeks were held but The Grain Store allowed the inaugural Ballymaloe Literary Festival to take place.

Attended by some of the major figures worldwide from Food and Food Writing, many of whom came to spend time with Myrtle who had been amongst their influences.

But it is Myrtle and Ballymaloe House that inspire so many. As a student at Ballymaloe Cookery School I remember that we were all really excited to visit the House, to look around the kitchens and rooms, have Afternoon Tea and to meet Mrs Allen and hear her words of advice for aspiring chefs and food industry workers.

She did not let us down, telling us of her beliefs, and how we could best achieve our own ambitions.

Myrtle inspired us in the way that she has generations of eager food entrants, and encouraged us to do our best and to treat ingredients well to get the bet out of them.

What she did not tell us was that she would be one of the panel assessing our practical cookery exam, and we did not find out until someone spotted her in the school waiting to taste and mark!

I have to say that having Myrtle Allen's signature on my certificate is one of the proudest moments of my life. To be validated by an icon is beyond measure.

So Myrtle Allen is an icon, her influence spans years and continents and her legacy will last for many years to come.

I am pleased that  RTE will be broadcasting a tribute to her on Tuesday. If you aren't in Ireland to watch live you will have to catch up on RTEplayer, but whatever you do don't miss it.

Foodies100 Index of UK Food Blogs
Morphy Richards

Friday, 23 August 2013

Celtic Cook Off - foodie fever mounts



How do you showcase the produce of a region?

Well, if it is as good as that from West Cork - think Caherbeg Free Range, Ummera, Gubbeen, Woodcock Smokery, Irish Atlantic  - you almost don't have to. Great Cheeses, Meat and Charcuterie, Fish and Seafood, Vegetables and some brilliant producers and processors, and a powerful hospitality industry.

So West Cork Week is a celebration of the best produce and producers, as well as a showcase for the region.

But how do you show it off to the best?

Gather a strong selection of chefs and have them cook off against each other using only West Cork produce ( and one "joker" ingredient of their choice).

Then introduce an extra element of competition by selecting one chef from each of the Celtic Nations and Regions, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man. The Celtic Cook off is born.

Now in its third year the competition goes from strength to strength and is back on September 11th in the West Cork Hotel Skibbereen.

On the night two sets of three chefs cook off in front of a live audience of over 200 food enthusiasts with commentary and interviews by event compere John McKenna of McKenna's Guides.

Members of the audience will have a glass of sparkling wine, and canap├ęs made by the contestants before settling in to enjoy the evening. A ballot amongst the audience will also produce an audience panel who will have the chance to taste and comment.

Six judges, working in pairs will taste the dishes before retiring to mull over the food and announce the winner.

A wide range of interest and experience is shown by the make up of the Judging Panel which includes Veronica Steele of Milleens Cheese, Virginia Sumison of Loch Fyne Oysters, Aoife Cox editor of The Daily Spud, food writer Joe McNamee and last years winning chef Gary O'Hanlon.

As all of the chefs will be using local produce, an Indoor Market featuring the best of West Cork artisan produce and producers will be held on the evening so the dishes can be replicated at home later.

But it is so much more than a cookery competition, an added theme this year is encouraging new and trainee chefs into the hospitality business. Neil Grant of the organising committee, and West Cork Hotel, explained how this would work, "All of our Celtic Cook Off Chefs have a fantastic ethos of working with local, seasonal produce and we all are passionate about great food. We want more chefs to enter the business with that thought process to help keep up the standards and increase the pool of available, passionate, skilled cooks. So we are involving trainee and commis chefs in a Master Class during the day of the Celtic Cook Off evening.

A large group of them will work with previous competitors Martin Shannahan, Jack Stein, Gary O'Hanlon and Kevin Williams, using West Cork produce to make lunch for the producers themselves, visiting journalists and invited guests. Education has always been an element of the Celtic Cook Off and this year we are bringing it to the fore. We will start the event with the winners of last year's Taste of West Cork Schools Competition working with one of the professionals to cook their signature dish, It should be really exciting.

Neil also highlighted another direct benefit from the interaction that the competition had produced " A direct result of the Celtic Cook Off has been the growth of a virtual Celtic Food Network where we all bond, share ideas, promote good food in the Celtic Regions and keep in touch. There have been some amazing examples of this already where previous competitors have taken part in joint ventures at food festivals all over the Celtic Territories" One example of this is Ondine Restaurant in Edinburgh having a special menu during the Rugby Six Nations where West Cork produce was combined with Scottish to make brilliant dishes.

I am really excited about attending the Celtic Cook Off 2013, and hope that in future years it could become a Culinary Six Nations with each region hosting an event and promoting local food and producers.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Hywel Jones to cook Festival Supper

The super on the evening of the Newport Food Festival is becoming a tradition and a must. This year it will be on 4th October and back in the Market Hall.

That is just one of the changes as the Supper develops.

So far the three courses have each been made by different local businesses but this year Michelin Starred Hywel Jones of Lucknam Park will produce the entire menu.

Hywel is a great friend of the festival and a Newport boy as well.
The supper will consist of a three course meal, created and prepared Hywel  with most of the produce sourced from Newport Market.
Not only has Hywel done demonstrations and Masterclasses but he also judges the Teen Chef competition and encourages youngsters to get into catering.

The winning team in the competition get to spend a morning in the kitchen at Lucknam Park as part of their prize. Rumour has it that last year’s winners will be involved in the kitchens at the Food Festival prepping part of the supper, a great experience for them.

Most of the prep will be done by Hywel’s own team and whipped over the Severn Bridge in refrigerated transport. Thanks to the Support of Relais and Chateaux, who own Lucknam Park, Hywel will also bring in some of his brigade from the Michelin Starred restaurant.
The exciting menu is reproduced here
Tickets go on sale on Thursday 22nd August through the Box Office

Friday, 16 August 2013

Mark Sargeant added to Newport Food Festival!

The latest exciting addition to a very strong Chef line up at the Newport Food Festival is Michelin Starred Mark Sargeant!

Kent born and based Mark will be one of the highlights of this year's festival on 5th October and will, I am sure, draw even more to attend.

Running two restaurants in Folkestone, Rocksalt and the Smokehouse Fish and Chips, Mark was previously best known as a mainstay of the Gordon Ramsay group being head chef at Claridges and co-writing some of Ramsay's books, as well as appearing regularly on Hell's Kitchen and advising on Kitchen Nightmares.

Photos of Rocksalt, Folkestone
This photo of Rocksalt is courtesy of TripAdvisor

Mark uses local and seasonal produce as much as possible and has access to two farms for vegetables and eggs as well as having the harbour not just near, but under his cantilevered restaurant! Doesn't get much more local than that!

Photos of Rocksalt, Folkestone
This photo of Rocksalt is courtesy of TripAdvisor

I love the fact that the children's menu at Rocksalt is called Small Fry and features such dishes as Big Strong Mussells, Fish Fingers (and Thumbs) and Grown Up Steak. No pandering to children here with nuggets and curly chips, but a scaled down adult menu presented with an attractive sense of humour.
According to some interviews Mark's favourite piece of kitchen equipment is his Sausage Machine and the development of in house charcuterie would bear this out.  Some dishes are very simple but pack real flavour and texture, for example a starter of Radishes with Anchovy Sauce, two ingredients and a little sourdough on the side but the kind of starter that really does act as an appetiser, refreshing the palate and making you crave more.
In addition to co-writing Gordon Ramsay's books Mark also has his own, My Kind of Cooking out and it has been one of my well thumbed books for some years.
Adding Mark to the line up shows how the Newport Food Festival is gaining a strong reputation although only in its third year. With Masterchef finalists Larkin and Dale, rising star Matt Dawkins and Spice Supremo Anand George already confirmed the chef line up goes from strength to strength, and there may well be some more additions to come.
Mark will be one of the really hot tickets for this year, and once the box office opens the lines will light up, so get in early or miss out.
By visiting the Newport Food Festival website you can register to get news about the box office opening.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Top Chef line up for Newport Food Festival

Now in its third year Newport Food Festival goes from strength to strength and the line up of chefs for Demos and Masterclasses shows this well.

Unlike Abergavenny which reflects its position on the UK stage and attracts the global chefferati, Newport is firmly based in Wales, and showcases many of our best chefs.

Brilliant Indian chef Anand George will return with his modern take on Indian food and, with the Purple Popadom being voted Wales best, yet again he will have a lot to offer. Last year he showcased his special Deep Blue menu and it is likely that this year's Summer Menu "Ocean" will provide the highlight.

Rapidly rising star Matt Dawkins returns to demonstrate the kind of food that is making the Star Inn Llansoy a destination pub. Matt and I first met some years ago when we competed in the short lived Taste The Nation competition on TV. Still a student then Matt produced our only winning dish as we lost 2-1 in the first round.

Completing his course Matt was soon snapped up by the Star, and heads a team using local and seasonal ingredients to produce the kind of food that has seen him crowned Chef of the Year.

Keeping with the local theme and strong Chefs it is a festival debut for Dale Williams and Larkin Cen, Cardiff's Masterchef finalists. Lawyer Larkin and Recruitment specialist Dale fought off the opposition to reach the final where they were just pipped at the post by Natalie Coleman. Along the way the two Cardiff boys forged a strong friendship and they will soon open a restaurant in Cardiff. Hokkei will specialise in South East Asian food, the kind of dish that served them so well on Masterchef.

Dale and Linton would be a great attraction on the outdoor cooking stage where Bob from the Waterloo Hotel wowed the crowds last year.

As usual there will be demos in the Market Hall both upstairs on the main stage and down on some of the stalls, Masterclasses in the Riverside, and some street demos as well. New for this year are interactive demos.

Using a unit within the Market Hall a number of hands on demos have been arranged where you can try your hand at new skills. Over the last couple of years Lisa Fearn (Pumkin Patch Cookery and Gardening School and chef on S4C's Prwnawn Da) has run very successful children's workshops and this year the adults get their chance.

Teaming up with local chefs and producers a programme of demos have been arranged where you can have a go, whether it is making Pasta, Kneading your own bread dough or making little snack samosas and the like. These events will be ticketed to make the numbers manageable, but tickets will be free from the Box Office.

Though not announced yet I would be surprised not to see Festival Stalwarts Hywel Jones, Stephen Terry, and James Summerin not involved somewhere, and perhaps Newport boy Matt Tebbutt.

More chefs will be added to the line up and I expect at least one major name to be confirmed next week.

Foodies100 Index of UK Food Blogs
Morphy Richards