Irish culinary legend Myrtle Allen died last week at age 94.
Ireland Hopping | Margaret M. Johnson
Newspapers throughout Ireland reported on June 13 that Myrtle Allen, internationally renowned as the “matriarch” of modern Irish cuisine, died at the age of 94. She was the founder of Ballymaloe House in Shanagarry, East Cork, and one of the most influential Irish people of the past 50 years.
The Irish Times said, “She put the historic Norman house on the map as one of Ireland’s leading restaurants,” and in 2015 the venerable home was named on a list of the world’s top 100 hotels. It remains as one of the most sought-after destinations in Ireland, not only for its accommodations, but also for its prestigious restaurant and cookery school, now run by her daughter-in-law Darina Allen.
So how did this farmer’s wife rise to such acclaim and create what was, arguably, a culinary revolution in Ireland? In her 1990 cookbook, “Cooking at Ballymaloe House,” she modestly explained how her life in food developed:
“The main part of my cooking experience has been gained at Ballymaloe,” she said, “a big house on a 400-acre farm where I have lived since 1947. Cooking in a farmhouse means that one has very fresh produce at hand and a hungry tableful of helpers and family waiting to be fed. With no easy access to shops and markets and crops coming in in gluts, one soon learns every possible way of cooking whatever cannot be profitably sold. We loved to entertain our friends as well, so in 1964, I felt that I had enough experience to open part of our house as a restaurant. It grew and grew, rooms were opened for overnight stays, and this soon became one of the main lines in our farming business.”
The Ballymaloe Shop.
This explanation sounds simple enough today, but as the Times reported, “Her approach was regarded as revolutionary at the time: local, seasonal, organic, flavorsome, sustainable, and superbly cooked.” With some of the best natural ingredients at hand — “a marvelous bounty” she once called it — Mrs. Allen established her reputation by reviving traditional Irish dishes such as Irish Stew, Dingle Pie and Apple Cake; other chefs followed her lead. She has been recognized by chefs internationally, and in April of this year, she received a Hall of Fame award from touRRoir/Good Food Ireland, for her work on bringing Irish food and Irish tourism to the world’s attention.
Fern Allen accepted the award on her mother's behalf and said, “The restaurant at Ballymaloe could not exist without the support of our local farmers, fishermen, and all the producers of our wonderful ingredients, which put Irish food firmly on the world map. This award means so much to me and all of us at Ballymaloe.”
On a personal note, I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Allen and her husband, Ivan, when I visited Ballymaloe in 1991. She was a sublime hostess, and when she learned of my interest in Irish food (I was working on my first cookbook at the time) she invited me into her family’s sitting room. It was less an interview and more of a friendly chat, and before I left she scurried out to her office and returned with her cookbook for me. “Use what you need, Margaret,” she told me. “I hope you find it helpful.” My signed copy remains a treasure.
BALLYMALOE BROWN CHEESE BISCUITS
Mrs. Allen made these simple biscuits to serve with cheese and fruit.
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1 tablespoon cream
Water as needed
- Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, whisk together flours, baking powder and salt. With a pastry blender or your fingers, cut or rub in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Moisten with cream and enough water and make a firm dough; form into a ball.
- Transfer to a floured surface and roll out to a 1/8 -inch thick disk. With a 2-inch round biscuit cutter, cut out rounds; transfer to prepared pan and prick each with a fork. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until lightly browned and crisp. Transfer to rack to cool completely.
FISH IN HERB BUTTER
This recipe from “Cooking at Ballymaloe House” is a great example of Mrs. Allen’s food philosophy. In the notes before the recipe, she says, “Any flat fish can be used instead of plaice in this recipe. I use mainly plaice because it is caught in abundance in Ballycotton Bay; the flavor is delicious when the fish is freshly caught from a small boat with a small trawl. . . extremely simple cooking is appropriate to fully appreciate the flavor.”
2 whole plaice or small flounder
2 to 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 teaspoons finely chopped mixed fresh herbs, such as parsley, chives, fennel and thyme
Lemon wedges, for serving
Preheat oven to 350° F.
- Clean whole fish thoroughly (or have your fishmonger do this for you), then lay it flat on a cutting surface. With a very sharp knife, cut through the skin all around the fish about ½ inch from edge.
- Lay the whole fish in an oven-proof skillet, add about ½ inch of water, and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until fish is cooked through.
- In a small saucepan, melt butter; stir in herbs. When fish is done, gently peel the cut skin away and place on plates and spoon herb butter over it. Garnish with lemon wedges and serve immediately.
Margaret Johnson’s “Recipes” page now includes “Ireland Hopping: Adventures in Food, Drink, and Travel.” For further details on her work, including how to order her cookbooks, visit www.irishcook.com.