A Life in Food

08 Jun 2009

The story of the Irish cook Myrtle Allen, who received a Mention of Honor at the Slow Food Award Ceremony in Naples in 2003.

I was born in Cork City, Ireland, and went to school in Ireland, except for two years from thirteen to fifteen, when I went to boarding school in England. My father was looking for something interesting in education, and he decided to find the sort of progressive school that suited him. I left because the war broke out.

They didn’t make me come home. I’d been fitted with a gas mask and that worried me, I didn’t like the implications. After I got home, I was sent to a boarding school in Ireland, and the first thing they did was fit me for a gas mask.

It was a very good school, and I was very glad to make my connections with the country. If you’re brought up in a small country like Ireland it’s a great thing to get out and also to get back.

I came from a family of generations of architects, a very old family business. But the war was on, and building stopped. My father didn’t have any money, so he couldn’t afford to send me to architecture school in London.

I met my husband and married at nineteen. I was introduced to him by mutual friends in the dining room of the house I now live in; we bought the house eventually. Cork and Ireland is a small place, you meet people. He was a fruit grower and was exporting an enormous amount of fruit: tomatoes, cucumbers, mushrooms, apples—everything.

I struggled at nineteen trying to manage a house. We had no petrol, virtually none. Enough to keep a truck on the road to get our produce to the station. If somebody came to visit us you had to entertain them, so I managed somehow to feed people before they moved on.

On the farm everything came in to my back door. Butter, cream, milk, mushrooms, tomatoes, apples and ordinary things from the garden. The butcher would call once a week. You would send him a postcard and tell him what you wanted. Sometimes someone would come with a donkey cart with fresh fish from the sea. I didn’t know how to cook it.

But I got books. In the two years before I was married, I collected the cookery books of the day. I had all sorts of books, whatever was published. The Aga Cooker book was very good and reliable. With good ingredients you
got very good simple food.

My husband was a great gourmet. When I became more well known for cooking, he would always remind me the night we came home from my honeymoon, he taught me to scramble an egg. Everything I cooked was remarked on.

I had six children in a big farmhouse; the house itself was quite big. I had some help; my husband would bring in
guests to be entertained. Being in deep country, if somebody called, you had to feed them before they went on. Everything’s quite different now. I was just so busy.

My husband wanted to branch out into mixed farming. We didn’t have enough land for it. We looked for land, then this house, Ballymaloe, came on the market. Nobody wanted to buy it. It was too big and too expensive. My husband went to the auction and nobody bid. It was only two miles down the road.

After a while, he and his partner talked about it and they decided that they would make an offer for what they thought it was worth. They carefully assessed what they thought it should cost. They offered that money and he accepted it. We bought it for the farm, not for the house. At that stage, 1947, I had only two small children. We moved in in ’48. We brought up the children in the house. It was still too big, so we divided it in two and had various people living in half of it. Eventually the rent helped, but it didn’t at first.

I opened the restaurant in 1964. Two or three years later we went into bedrooms. The most pressing of various
reasons was to get a license for selling alcoholic drinks other than wine. Particularly in those days, people would like a brandy after dinner. It’s not so common now but in those days it was very much the custom, and they could do that once we had bedrooms.

I was afraid to advertise. I knew how to cook by then. I was writing a cookery column in farmer’s paper, and it was a great help to me—I don’t know if it was for my readers, but it was great for me. We did a good bit of entertaining, and I was very interested in food and cooking. I ran the restaurant to start with. But I had no training, and I didn’t have anybody who had any training. My eldest daughter was at school in Paris at domestic science school. Very cultural, something like a finishing school. She went on to do languages in hopes of being an interpreter. She came and helped in the summertime.

We had to learn. We had twenty covers. I always insisted that people book in advance. If there were no bookings we’d all go off that night. If we had bookings we tried to put on a dinner, do as best we could.

I still run it almost the same way. There’s a choice of three starters and three or four second courses. I really meant people to have soup or a second course but people wanted both, they still do. I started with one fish, fowl or
Meat. Now I have two fish, one fowl, two meats. We have a dessert trolley, and serve cheese first, as they do in Ireland.

We still do the same pattern. It doesn’t pay you to change, you know. If you’re running a restaurant, people come for what you do. If they come for that and you change, they’re disappointed. Not the format but the way you cook something can change.

After about two years, the restaurant got a mention in Egon Ronay guide and it was lovely. It was reported in the
Irish Times and our business exploded. Immediately we did three times what we were doing. But we were ready then, and we could manage it.

We had a walled garden. The vegetables were wonderful, organic. The poultry has improved, actually. If somebody came and had good produce I always paid them without question what they asked, and I never dropped them.

I took what they had. Always. If someone came to my door with fresh fish I took it. I would never send them away and
say, I have enough. You have to do that. It’s good quality, and I can use it somehow. If you send them away they might
never come back again and you lose your supply. And where would they go? I took what they had and paid what they

A woman came to me a week before Christmas with turkeys and asked could I take them. I said I would. She didn’t know what to charge me. I found what I’d paid for the last lot in other circumstances. I said it’s this much, and here’s your money. I gave her the going rate. She said she’d never had so much had so much money in her hand ever. She still sells me turkeys and ducks and geese.

I think chefs are beginning to understand you have to pay the fair price. In those days, almost by training it was more usual to beat down the person at the door with produce. We’re farming ourselves, we also know what it costs. As well, I think one of the worst things at the moment is … Well, there are two things that are destroying the world really.

One of them is the way that we conduct business through shareholding, so that instead of rewarding supplier, you reward the people who have put money in your business. They have to get money no matter what, not the people who are producing for you.

Also ethics. I wasn’t brought up to be a Quaker, but the principle of that religion is that if you produce something, you ask for what you feel it’s worth. You don’t ask for more, you don’t ask for less. If you’re paying someone for something they produce—like my husband, who was a Quaker, like his partner—you offer them what it’s worth. It’s immoral to do anything less. This was also the theme in our Slow Food lecture this morning. What right do you have to give people less money than they need to produce? It’s not correct.

No one served traditional Irish food in restaurants. It was quite bad quite often. I remember saying to somebody who ran a restaurant … it was springtime … I said, “Oh it’s great, I can serve rhubarb”. They would look at me and say, “We wouldn’t serve rhubarb”. They’d have some exotic import. They wouldn’t serve the native.

I based my whole restaurant on the food of the country houses. I believed and still believe that the best food in the country—certainly at the time—the best food was in the country houses. In the sixties you had labor, help, a gardener.

They knew the best butcher, the best place to get anything they wanted that they didn’t grow themselves, and knewexactly how to cook what they grew. They were educated people. It would be the same for the richer merchants in the little towns. You need a little bit of leisure, money, knowhow, friends who come in from England.

Everything travels from country to country, and friends in France brought recipes to England. That’s how cooking travels through Europe. Or did then. People guarded their recipe in case it would be made in someone else’s house as well.

We were a big house in the country. You are what you are. Fast food wasn’t invented. I did the food of the day. I was ambitious, really, I must admit, wanting to do things perfectly if I could, but using the ingredients of the village.

Sometimes I would do Irish stew. I had a woman who would help me and she did a very good Irish stew. We often did that. We in Cork would put in lamb, onions, carrots and potatoes. In other parts, they use other vegetables.

Those traditional dishes are accident-prone. You’ve got to know how to do them properly. It’s a matter of touch and judgment. Restaurant recipes are much more robust. It’s easier to get them right and put out the same dish all evening. But this is home cooking, peasant cooking, and it’s very vulnerable to mistakes.

The Irish relate to food now quite differently. Chefs are now very keen, very interested. Not to blow my own trumpet too much, but I was the first. The chefs were amazed when I started getting food awards. One year I got Michelin, Ronay, Good Food—all the guides that were going. The chefs couldn’t understand. I wasn’t trained, I wasn’t in the chef’s tradition. I had trained myself, and took my lines from the local household. Then they tumbled to using local ingredients.

Everybody now understands the importance of local, fresh ingredients. We’ve started farmers’ markets. It’s my daughter-in-law Darina who’s started it. The chefs now are wonderful. The standard now is very different from what it used to be.

As told to Corby Kummer (see “Corby’s Fresh Feeds” at http://food.theatlantic.com/)

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