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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

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