Some simple staffs of life

Myrtle Allen's restaurant in Ballymaloe is famed for perfect Irish food. Michael Bateman meets County Cork's modest pioneer of excellence NEW BRITISH CLASSICS 5: IRISH SODA BREAD
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The Independent Culture
It is many years since I first saw Myrtle Allen cook Irish stew. It was on television, a 10-minute cameo which effectively stemmed my headlong flight from the food of my childhood. Irish stew was a dish we had at school most Thursdays. It was tasty enough, more of a thin soup really, the meat cooked to rags, which I didn't mind. To its credit, all the greasy fat had been skimmed off.

It wasn't hell, but making Myrtle Allen's Irish stew all those years later was heaven. It is the epitome of a farm dish, where everything is to hand, fresh, good and cheap, the cuts of lamb, the potatoes, the vegetables. All you have to do is take the trouble to cook it without short cuts or compromises.

And that really sums up the philosophy of Myrtle Allen who has, for three decades, been gathering accolades from food critics and guide book writers for her country house in Ballymaloe, Shanagarry, County Cork.

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that many of the very fine restaurants which flourish in Ireland today owe something to her pioneering genius. Though genius is a strange word to use of someone whose approach to cooking is so simple, for all she seeks to do is find the best produce, and serve it in the best and simplest way.

When I stayed at Ballymaloe recently we had fresh garden vegetable soup for dinner, followed by roast pork from a pig farmed by daughter-in-law Darina Allen, with apple sauce and red cabbage. And potatoes, which were in the form of a featherlight mash. This turned out to be her version of Ireland's famous potato dish, champ, with the merest touch of spring onion. To finish came the most marvellous local cheeses, Cashel Blue, Milleen's from West Cork and Michelstown cheddar from down the road.

Breakfast the next day was porridge with oatmeal from a stone mill two miles down the road. Rashers of bacon and eggs were local. So was the fresh butter. The jam was home-made - what else? - the bread freshly baked. Ballymaloe bread is famous the world over. Their soda bread is made with buttermilk and the brown bread is enriched with black treacle. What need is there for fancy cuisine, you wonder, when local produce is as perfect as this?

Myrtle Allen is a strong-minded lady in her seventies, ruling over the Allen family and fiefdom (husband Ivan, eight children, 22 grandchildren), a 32-bedroomed country house (with 14th- century keep), 400-acre farm, craft shop and, three miles away, the Ballymaloe Cookery School run by her charismatic daughter-in-law Darina Allen, food writer and television cook.

It comes as a surprise to learn that Ireland's most famous cook has no formal training. In fact, says her husband of 50 years, Ivan, when they came back from their honeymoon he found she couldn't cook at all. Not even Irish stew. "I had to teach her to scramble eggs," says Ivan. "She didn't have any idea."

"In Ireland," says Myrtle Allen, "the best way to eat has always been in a country house where they had their own meat, and grew their own vegetables. You were lucky to get an invitation to such a house. All the roast meats, the steak and kidney pie, the Irish stew, I set out to teach myself to cook them."

A turning point came when The Farmers' Journal came to interview her husband about the farm. "At the end, they said: 'That was a lovely lunch. Would you ever write and tell us how to cook it?' That was the start of it all. I wrote for them for three years, and you learn a lot when you write about it."

In 1964, they decided to try their luck with a country house restaurant. "There weren't any good restaurants anywhere in Britain or Ireland at that time," she recalls. "It wasn't actually until 1960 that the Sharrow Bay country house opened in the Lake District."

They opened Ballymaloe with just 10 rooms, doing dinners at first. Two years later Egon Ronay recognised them. The Cork Examiner threw in its support, and they took off.

Their aims were modest, she says. "You are what you are. You're not trying to be English. There wasn't any thought of importing expensive ingredients, we were so remote from the gourmet markets. I wouldn't have known how to cook them, anyway. I was a farmer's wife, you see, not a chef. You cooked with what was growing in the garden, bought meat from the local butcher and, as we were lucky to have a coastline, fresh fish daily.

"You were going to cook with what there was around you. If there was a glut of cauliflowers you suddenly had to find ways of cooking cauliflower. In soups, in salads, cauliflower cheese."

The kind of chain of local supplies she built up is the envy of many a country restaurant, but it wasn't achieved without difficulty. As time goes by, finding the best food becomes both easier and harder. It gets easier in the sense that more people understand and demand prime quality; it gets harder because some invaluable small pro-ducers are being bludgeoned out of business by the hard-nosed EC.

Cheese is the most obvious instance of this, she says. Country farmers from the beginning of time have made cheese to deal with seasonal surpluses of milk (in May in particular, when they are feeding their calves). "A farmer's wife, making a few cheeses a week, can't accommodate the massive investment in safety measures that the EC now demands, so she closes down."

Flour is another example, she says. "A picturesque whitewashed mill making some of Ireland's best flour is required to do away with the traditional whitewashing, and completely modernise itself, to the satisfaction of Brussels," she says. At what cost to the consumer, she wonders?

Bacon is another case. The quality of Myrtle Allen's breakfast bacon rashers is legendary. But the number of good bacon makers is diminishing. "I've closed down more bacon factories than anyone in Ireland," she jokes. "As soon as I find one who's making perfect bacon by traditional dry-curing methods, they are persuaded it's uneconomical, and go over to modern factory methods, brine injection and so on."

Eating at Ballymaloe you have no sense of such problems. You get the impression of tumbling into a time warp, fed by a rural cornucopia of olde-worlde goodness. There is no shortage of riches: rib and sirloin of beef; pork, ham and bacon; lamb; in winter, venison. Goose, turkey, ducks. Locally-caught lobster, crab, oysters, mussels, clams, brill, turbot, sole. Butter, cream, fresh eggs, buttermilk, fine cheeses. Vegetables, apples, stone fruit, berries. Oats and newly-milled wheat for fresh bread and cakes and biscuits.

If they succeed in creating an impression of the timelessness of their food, it is a brilliant artifice. In truth, it was not always thus. Ah, if only it had been. We are only 130 years from the Great Famines of the 1860s.

Myrtle's husband Ivan, for one, remembers his own childhood when potatoes were almost the only food served on the farm. "When I was a boy the labourers ate 12lb of potatoes a day. They were heaped in a pile in the centre of the table. The men grew one nail long to reach out and spear them."

But scoff not at the Irish potato. Not so long ago, he said, one of the girls working for them suddenly disappeared. She returned three weeks later and said she'd been to London. "If you'd taken all the trouble to get to London, why didn't you stay longer?" "I couldn't eat the potatoes," she said.

Soda breads, made from both white and wholemeal flour, are another of the glories of rural Ireland. Originally baked in a pot oven or "bastible" beside the open fire, white soda bread is often referred to as cake bread. The word bastible seems to be a bastardisation of Barnstaple, the town in Devon where these iron baking pots were made. The finished loaf can be cooled on the windowsill in the time-honoured way.

WHITE SODA BREAD

From Darina Allen's Irish Traditional Cooking (Kyle Cathie pounds 19.99).

Makes 1 large loaf

450g/1lb plain white flour

1 level teaspoon salt

1 level teaspoon bicarbonate of soda, sieved

350-375ml/12-13fl oz buttermilk (recipe below)

Preheat the oven to 450F/230C/Gas 8. Sieve the dry ingredients. Make a well, and pour most of the milk in at once.

Using one hand, stir in a full circle to mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more buttermilk if necessary. The dough should be softish, not too wet and sticky. When it all comes together, turn it out on to a floured board and knead the dough lightly for a few seconds, just to tidy it up. Pat it into a round about 5cm (2in) deep and cut a cross on it - to let the fairies out! Let the cuts go over the sides of the bread to make absolutely sure of this.

Bake the bread for 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 400F/200C/Gas 6 for a further 20-30 minutes, or until it is cooked (tap the bottom of the loaf; it should sound hollow when you do so). Cool on a wire rack or windowsill.

Fresh, crusty bread is mouthwatering, but some people prefer a much softer crust. Years ago a clean flour bag would have been wrapped around the hot bread to soften the crust, but a tea towel gives much the same result.

BUTTERMILK

This is one of the ingredients needed to make really good soda bread; it is like a thin, natural yogurt. Myrtle Allen's daughter-in-law, Darina, insists that supermarket buttermilk is a poor substitute for the real thing made at home. She gave me her instructions for making my own buttermilk plant, which I followed and now renew frequently.

1 pint milk

1oz sugar

1oz dried yeast

Scald the milk, heating it to nearly boiling point. Remove from the heat. When cool enough to hold your finger in it for 30 seconds, stir in the yeast and the sugar. Leave covered with muslin or a clean J-cloth for two or three days. Initially the buttermilk smells of fermenting yeast. By the third day, the milk will have soured. It will keep for up to a week in the fridge.

Make a new batch each time by reserving four tablespoons of the buttermilk as the starter, then making it up with a pint of warm milk which has been scalded, then cooled. The buttermilk plant improves with continued use.

BUTTERMILK PANCAKES

Makes about 20

450g/1lb plain white flour

1 teaspoon bread soda (bicarbonate of soda)

large pinch salt

55g/2oz sugar

1 egg, free-range if possible

600ml/1 pint buttermilk (recipe above)

This recipe is also taken from Darina Allen's Irish Traditional Cooking (Kyle Cathie pounds 19.99). Mix the dry ingredients together in a bowl. Make a well in the centre, add the egg and enough buttermilk to make batter of a dropping consistency (it usually takes the full amount). Drop spoonfuls of the mixture on the lightly greased hot griddle and cook for 3 to 4 minutes on one side before turning over. The pancakes are ready to turn when the bubbles burst. Flip over gently and cook until golden on the other side. Serve warm with butter and jam, or honey for tea.

Note: you can cook the pancakes rather less romantically on a non-stick pan at medium heat and use a generous tablespoon of batter for each pancake.

BALLYMALOE BROWN BREAD

If your basic ingredients are fine, very simple food tastes delicious - and none more than the famous, moist, rich, sweet, Ballymaloe bread. It is both joyously quick and very easy to make. It needs no addition other than fresh farm butter, though some home-made jam will turn it into a gourmet feast.

This is a bread in the fast track, made with plenty of yeast, treacle to speed up the action of the yeast, and a wet mixture which also allows it to rise quickly. The dough should be too wet to knead. The main ingredients, wholemeal flour, treacle and yeast are highly nutritious. The recipe is the Ballymaloe version of the Grant loaf, created by Doris Grant, the pioneering health food reformer.

Makes two 2lb loaves (halve quantities for one)

112kg/312lb newly-milled wholemeal flour

114 litres/214 pints water at blood temperature

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons black treacle

2 tablespoons baker's yeast, or 1 tablespoon dried yeast, or a packet of fast-action yeast

Mix the flour with the salt (if you're not enduring summer heat, you should warm it in the oven). Dissolve treacle in the water and crumble in the yeast. Leave for five minutes in a warm place till it froths. (If using fast-action yeast, mix it dry with the flour as per packet instructions). Mix flour and liquid in a bowl, put in greased bread tins, cover with a tea cloth and leave for 20 minutes by which time they should have risen by a third of their original size.

Bake at 450F/230C/Gas 8 for 45 minutes or until they look nicely brown and sound hollow when tapped.

CLARAGH CHAMP

Serves 8

1.8kg/4lb old potatoes, eg Golden Wonders or Kerr's Pinks

55-110g/2-4oz butter

600ml/1 pint milk

450g/1lb young peas, shelled weight

8 tablespoons parsley, chopped

salt

freshly ground pepper

Cook the potatoes in boiling salted water until tender; drain well and dry over the heat in the pan for a few minutes. Peel and mash with most of the butter while hot. Bring the milk to the boil and simmer the peas until just cooked. Add the hot milk mixture to the potatoes. Season. Beat until creamy and smooth. Serve piping hot with a lump of butter melting in the centre. !

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