A Village Life

Friday, December 17, 2010

My Food Hero, Darina Allen

Last weekend there were two write ups in the newspaper about Darina Allen's new book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking.  On closer inspection I noticed that actually she was going to be in New Zealand doing a book signing at Cook the Books, a bookshop in Auckland specializing in cookbooks.  I promptly ordered my ticket for the event and spent the past week feeling incredibly giddy inside at the thought of seeing Darina again.  Back in 1997 after travelling around Europe with some friends, I hopped on a ferry from France to Ireland after learning that I finally had scored a coveted spot at the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School.  People questioned my going to Ireland to learn how to cook but Darina and her mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen were way ahead of the game back then.  The school is set in the middle of a 100 acre organic farm.  Students live in little cottages around the farm and all the food for the school is grown or reared on site.  It was magical, to say the least.  This was real cooking, french technique, with real food.  I had only read a paragraph about the school in the Guide to Cooking Schools that is published every year and this sounded amazing.  After spending 12 weeks living and learning how to prepare every type of food imaginable from soups to desserts and everything in between, I was ready to get stuck into working in the industry.  Darina's passion for fresh food served simply but elegantly is infectious.  People looking for chefs go to Ballymaloe to scoop up the newest students who are willing to work all over the world.  Fresh from the course, I headed first to Switzerland as a chalet girl. This opportunity was great while it lasted and very hard work but unfortunately I ended up back in California doing physiotherapy after a ski accident ended my chalet girl career.  I spent the next 3 months desperately searching for more exciting work and once again Ballymaloe came through.  I flew up to the Shetland Islands north of Scotland to work at the Burrastow House.  After this summer stint I spent time on a yacht in California as a temporary stewardess, I worked at The Organic Farm Shop in Cirencester, UK and then I went on a string of interviews in the UK all thanks to Ballymaloe.  The highlight was my interview with the Queen of Greece!  I chose to take the job that was in the most interesting location and headed to Brunei on the island of Borneo to be chef to the British High Commissioner.  After a year and a half working that post, I went off to work on yachts and the rest is history.  Now back to Darina.  I ran into her once years ago at the Culinary Institute at Greystone in California and she seemed so delighted to run into one of her past students.  Last night's event was the bit of inspiration I needed after a challenging day at home with the kids.  She was as infectious as ever and so passionate about her new adventures.  They are now running a year long horticulture course and her new book highlights lost arts such as butter making, foraging, smoking foods, plucking and skinning birds and animals, preserving and bread making.  She is an ambassador of slow foods and sitting down with your family to enjoy a meal of real wholesome, nutritious, homemade food.  Nothing flash, just simple honest food.  Of course I had to refresh her memory of who I was after nearly 15 years since my course but she was just as delighted to see me as she was in California.  She introduced me to Annabelle White who took this photo of us.

Also in attendance was Lauraine Jacobs, a well known Kiwi food writer. 
If you ever get the chance, head to Ballymaloe.  They run day courses, weekend courses and week long courses as well as the 12 week diploma course.  It will change your life, as it has mine.  Their philosophy cannot be ignored.


  1. wow meg.......you must have been so excited!! so good to get some nice fresh inspiration!!!


  2. How fabulous that you got to see her again in NZ! I think I still have some of your letters from Ireland stashed somewhere. I loved hearing about your experiences in cooking school and beyond.
    Matthew is so jealous that you went to Ballymaloe, he took a tour there some years back and still talks about trying to go for a short course sometime.
    What a lovely adventure this school set you on...