It would be hard to overstate the significance of the contribution that Darina Allen and her extended family at the Ballymaloe Cookery School have made towards the development of a new food culture fit for the 21st century.

In my book, Darina is nothing short of a national Irish treasure. Over the last thirty years she and her husband Tim have created at Ballymaloe what I believe should be seen as one of the templates upon which our future food systems should be designed. Ballymaloe is a truly inspirational example of a project which combines training and education in culinary skills, local production and sourcing and the integration of the cultural and social dimension, and it is upon this fusion that I believe the longterm success of all truly sustainable food production systems will depend.

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I first met Darina around 20 years ago, in the early 90s, at a time when the Soil Association ran an annual conference on sustainable and organic food production at the Royal College of Agriculture, Cirencester.  It was typical of Darina, who was already a well known food celebrity in Irish circles, with her own hugely popular television show, that she came year after year as a delegate and participant, thus greatly contributing to the extraordinary conviviality and energy that characterised the Cirencester conferences at that time.

After capitulating to her irresistible offer of a visit to Ballymaloe, I was immediately intoxicated and inspired by the atmosphere of the cookery school, the openness and generosity of Darina and Tim and the unique and unforgettable Irish hospitality which has become a hallmark of all the ventures of the Allen family and the Ballymaloe community.

photoAs she showed us around the cookery school, I could only marvel at the story of its genesis, as she related how when she and Tim took on the 100 acre family farm, situated close to the already famous Ballymaloe hotel, they not only had the vision to imagine the piggery converted into a cookery school, but also the courage to press ahead and convert the building, despite the polite refusal of the local bank manager to give them a loan!

Since those early beginnings, they have developed the cookery school to the point where it now has an international reputation and is widely regarded as the best institution of its kind in the world.  It is a remarkable testament to Darina’s extraordinary qualities – her tenacity, openness, warmth, enthusiasm, integrity, but above all the brilliance of her talent for communicating what she has learnt and understood to others.

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I can only deeply admire Darina’s lifelong dedication to what could perhaps be described as the fusion of science, art and alchemy, required for the successful preparation and transformation of high quality ingredients into delicious nourishing food, eaten in the company of friends and loved ones. For me, this must surely be the ultimate physical and cultural expression of quality in the life in all civilised societies.

I’ve always known that high quality raw ingredients grown sustainably should form an essential element of food culture, but without people like Darina, the sustainable food movement always risked failing to break into the mainstream and remaining confined to a ghetto of well meaning but worthy practitioners.

By way of a ‘case study’, my daughter Alice was lucky enough to have a more than a taste of the Ballymaloe experience after Darina, at virtually no notice, generously allowed her to join one of her legendary 12 week cookery courses.

photoThe experience was to prove a turning point in Alice’s career development, not only providing her with the foundation of culinary skills which have been of inestimable value to her ever since, but of equal significance, through some sort of osmosis, she returned intoxicated with the spirit of Irish magic that pervades Ballymaloe. This has shaped not only her subsequent thinking, but also her career pathway as a grower and champion of the emergent food culture. This has been especially gratifying for me, since it is becoming clear that her generation is now taking over the baton from their ageing parents!

One of the key reasons that this has happened is because in addition to being a cookery school, Ballymaloe has also become a centre for culture and the arts, a magnet for young people who would otherwise have probably migrated to Dublin or equivalent cities, but for whom the combination of the atmosphere and social attractions of a community built on sustainable food foundations with added career opportunities in education and culture, in the end proves to be a more a seductive option.

In summary, the entire Ballymaloe project has become one of the beacons of inspiration which will hopefully inform the evolution of a new 21st century food culture and it should definitely be regarded as a place of pilgrimage for all those who decide to travel along this path.

Featured image: Wilf Whitty

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