I’ll admit, I didn’t fully understand the significance of Ballymaloe in Ireland before I came here. I didn’t know about Myrtle Allen’s revolutionary influence on cooking in Ireland and the legacy she created. I’ve since learned that she is arguably one of the most notable cultural figures in Ireland. She truly changed how people view Irish food and Irish cooking through her strong belief in using fresh, seasonal ingredients, and cooking them simply and deliciously. Before Myrtle, the (nonexistent) food scene in Ireland was largely second-rate French food and not much else.
When Myrtle Hill married Ivan Allen, a vegetable farmer, she didn’t even know how to scramble an egg. After Ivan helped her past that first hurdle, in addition to some self-teaching and coursework, Myrtle began her life in food. A few years later, in 1947, the couple bought Ballymaloe and the surrounding land. In the years following, Myrtle wrote for the Irish Farmers Journal while taking care of their six children and Ivan farmed their beautiful land. It wasn’t until the children were at boarding school that Myrtle, with an empty nest, commercialized their estate and opened Ballymaloe House.
In their restaurant, Myrtle used the beautiful produce her husband grew and prepared it simply and deliciously, in a way that showcased her appreciation of quality, seasonal ingredients, which was something she became very passionate about. She supported other small local producers in her restaurant, crediting them on her menu. She would even wait until the very last minute to write the menu if she hadn’t seen what fresh produce or fish was available for that day. She was a part of the eat local, farm-to-fork movement decades before it was part of any conversation. She truly was a revolutionary.
The opening of Ballymaloe House was described by food writer John McKenna as the “Big Bang” of Irish food. From then on, Ireland was no longer seen as a culinary joke, but a place where magnificent food and quality ingredients were made a priority.
To some, a woman opening a restaurant from her massive estate in the middle of nowhere seemed amateurish. All naysayers were silenced after mentions of the amazing food coming out of Ballymaloe started popping up in The Irish Times and other guides, which doubled, sometimes even tripled, their nightly dinner guests.
With their booming success, Myrtle needed to find a way to sidestep their main problem: that they weren’t allowed to serve alcohol to their guests, which is a particularly serious problem in Ireland. Hotels, however, could serve alcohol to their patrons, so Myrtle converted 10 of the rooms at Ballymaloe House into guest rooms in order to apply for a hotel license and legally serve alcohol. I mean, that’s not going above and beyond or anything.
Then a young woman called Darina O’Connell came along. She wanted to work in the industry but, at the time, none of the big restaurants hired women. But she wanted to learn, so she found herself at Ballymaloe and soaked up everything Myrtle had to teach her — her whole ethos for living. To work the land and feed your body with wholesome, fresh ingredients.
Darina later married Myrtle’s son Tim and in 1983, she and her brother co-founded the Ballymaloe Cookery School where people from all over the world (like me) have come to learn and live on this beautiful, bountiful land.
Myrtle, Darina, Darina’s daughter-in-law Rachel, and all the other branches of the Allen family have created something truly special here and it all started with a Cork mother of 6 and a vegetable farmer. Myrtle may not have Ivan with her anymore, but she now has 22 grandchildren and 33 great-grandchildren, and still lives at Ballymaloe, the house they bought together.
This a very surface-level introduction to the Allen family — so much has been written about them. Much of my information I got from the RTE documentary A Life in Food that we watched our first day here. I loved Myrtle’s story and I wanted my people to know it too!