This is the second post in a two-part series. Read part-one. The writer interviewed Irish chef, cookbook author and cooking school founder, Darina Allen via phone.
Darina Allen is a woman with a cause. The self-proclaimed food activist has been working to educate Ireland and the world on the importance of eating fresh, local and organic wherever possible. At her Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork students are taught the importance of cooking with locally grown and raised foods. Much of what’s used in their teaching kitchens is raised on the school’s farm.
The school is only one facet of this busy woman’s life. She is an active force for eating farm to table and she walks her talk. She is the Slow Food Councillor (chairperson) for Ireland’s Slow Food Convivium. “The Slow Food movement in Ireland is very vibrant,” she says. There are 15 convivia throughout the country; she’s the leader of her local East Cork Convivium. Her commitment to this is so strong she makes time in a very busy schedule to host local slow food events.
The importance of forming good eating habits early is not lost on this group. They sponsor an East Cork Slow Food Education Program. The nine schools participating in the “grow and cook” program all maintain gardens and the Convivium provides them with a chicken coop and two hens . Periodically, during the year, fifth and sixth class students visit the farm and gardens at Ballymaloe. The group is split in half. One group tours the farm, learning about the plants and animals there; even getting to feed the chickens and put fertilized eggs in incubators. Three weeks later, they come back to see them hatch. The other group dons aprons and cooks lunch for the entire group using local bounty. There is currently a waiting list to get into the program.
Ireland has taken to the concept of fresh and local; farmers’ markets are springing up around the country. When supermarkets became prevalent, the idea of buying locally lost out to the convenience of one-stop shopping and lower prices. Allen is responsible for the resurgence of farmer’s markets in Ireland. She, saw one in San Francisco in the mid-nineties and “ a light bulb went on. “We could do that here,” was her thought and so she got the ball rolling. The rest is Irish food history. Many towns still have butchers and fishmongers. A new generation of food shops is sprouting up offering fresh, local and artisanal foods to people who can’t grow or produce their own.
For people who can’t afford to shop for locally grown, she suggests they grow their own food as much as they can. “Even people who live in cities can grow food,” she says. “They do it in Havana.” She says that people are rediscovering the wonders of growing their own food. “The need to grow things and the magic is almost as strong as the craving people have for an animal. It’s primeval,” she says. “It touched something deep down- scratch a little and it’s there.”
Another current project is keeping raw milk legal in Ireland. Darina drinks raw milk from the farm’s cows and feels others who don’t raise cows should be able to choose to drink it, too. “It builds antibodies and eating locally grown foods does, too.” She notes that “people’s bodies are subject to things they’ve never been before- hence so much disease.” After all, you are what you eat. The cleaner the food you eat and the closer you live to the source, the better it is for you.
She feels that the economy is affecting how people spend their food dollar. “It’s not about affording it, that’s a mind set,” she says. “If you don’t spend it on food,” she adds, “you give it to the doctor or chemist.” The message that she wants people to hear is that “our food should be our medicine.” She feels it’s a matter of priorities. “We make time and money for what’s important. Food seems to be way down on the list.” She’s passionate about this and it’s contagious.
And, as if Darina Allen’s not busy enough, she’s currently revising and expanding her 1995 book, Irish Traditional Cooking, which will be in shops by St. Patrick’s Day 2012. Her 2009 book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking, won both the André Simon Cookbook of the Year Award and the Listowel Cookbook of the Year Award in 2010. It is a finalist for the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) Cookbook Awards 2011. Winners will be announced in June 2011. The award-winning book takes you back to the forgotten kitchen skills no longer necessary if we eat from the supermarket. We don’t have to know how to pluck a chicken of make butter or cure ham. But, if you want to grow and raise your own food you do. It’s a Bible for using fresh, local and sustainable food effectively.
Family is front and center in this busy woman’s life. Four generations of Allens live within about 15 minutes of each other. The clan, four children and seven grandchildren and one on the way, gets together a few times a week for dinner. “Sitting around at the kitchen or dining room table is important,” Darina says. “Connecting with each other and keeping open the lines of communications.” And it’s not just at dinner that they see each other. Three of her children work with the school. Her son, Toby, helps run the school’s operations and runs their organic farm shop. Her daughter, Lydia, an artist, does artwork for them and youngest daughter Emily does some gardening on the farm. Daughter-in-law, Rachel Allen (wife of son Isaac), a cookbook author and Irish TV culinary personality, teaches at the school.
When asked what she loves most about the bounty of fresh food in Ireland, Darina’s quick to answer. “We are so fortunate to be able to produce such quality,” she says. “It’s a joy to pick something fresh and bring in and eat it. It is a true blessing and I don’t take it for granted.” Darina Allen wears many hats, but it all boils down to a commitment to eating fresh, local and sustainable food from the land. Thanks to people like her, it’s still an option. But, if people don’t get on the bandwagon, it may not be for long.
May 9th to 15th was the first Eat Only Irish week. It’s an interesting concept. Read more here.
If you want to learn more about eating fresh and local in Ireland, here are some websites to explore:
Irish Farmers Markets
Good Food Ireland
Irish Food Bloggers Association
If you have any relevant sites we can add here, we’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment or contact us directly.