Twenty miles east of Cork lies the village of Shanagarry. Globally, the village is best known for the Ballymaloe Cookery School, which resides on a 100 acre plot and has been attracting would-be chefs from around the world since 1983. Its founder, Darina Allen, has been championing organic, local produce and time-honoured cooking techniques for over three decades, and has published 19 cookbooks to date. Today, sitting by the window in her kitchen overlooking the vast gardens at Ballymaloe, Darina is talking ardently about soil.

“The first recipe my students are given is one to make compost,” she says, “and the first instruction I give them is to run their hands through the soil before they sow a seed. I urge them to remember that ‘the health of the soil and the health of the plant, the health of the animal and the health of the human are one and indivisible’,” she adds, quoting Lady Eve Balfour, founder of the Soil Association.

For Darina, cooking and gardening were passions instilled from an early age, but growing up in Ireland in the 1960s she was encouraged to have “a proper career”. “The nuns who taught me were very progressive and encouraged us girls to have careers in medicine or architecture but all I wanted to do, actually, was cook,” she explains. “They said, ‘you can’t be a cook, you’ll be a career woman who has a cook and a gardener’ - because cooks at that time in Ireland, particularly women, had absolutely no status.” Darina left school and went to study hotel management in Dublin but her yearning to work with food persisted. “I was desperate to learn more about herbs and soufflé and all the things that I thought were so exotic at that time.” In the late ’60s none of the top Irish restaurants would hire a woman in the kitchen, but a chance encounter with one of her teachers led to an entirely new gastronomic path.

“My senior lecturer Mor Murnaghan told me she’d heard about a woman down in Cork who had opened a restaurant in her own country house, and she would write the menu every day depending on what was in the gardens and what fish came in from the boats in Ballycotton. I should add that it was a dream of mine to make my own ice cream and Mor explained that this woman even had her own Jersey herd and made ice cream, and I just thought, oh my God, I couldn’t have written this. It was ticking every box,” exclaims Darina. The woman in question was Myrtle Allen, the Michelin-star winning chef and owner of Ballymaloe House who defined a new era for Irish cooking using local farm ingredients and would later become Darina’s mother-in-law. Darina, along with her brother Rory O’Connell, worked at Ballymaloe House before co-founding Ballymaloe Cookery School on the adjoining farm.

Students enrolled at the cookery school experience first-hand what life on an organic farm entails, learning the vital compost cycle (“The more fertile the soil is, the more nutrients will be in the food — it’s all about the soil,” stresses Darina), working in the dairy to make cheese and ice cream and preparing recipes with the produce abundant at that particular time of year — either from the kitchen garden, the farm or by sourcing from local growers.

“It’s the most magical place where you get taught not just cooking skills but an appreciation of where the food comes from,” enthuses former student Jess Shadbolt in a short film for Food Republic. Jess, along with fellow Ballymaloe alumna Clare de Boer, went on to co-found King Restaurant in New York. “You pick the vegetables from the farm in the morning and then milk the cow and make cheese. That’s what makes it so special.” Clare adds, “there have been so many moments since opening our own restaurant where we look at each other and say ‘what would Darina do?’”

“I love having the opportunity to pass on the skills, to pass on the knowledge that's here and we absolutely love the success of the students,” says Darina. “The look of sheer delight when a student makes their first loaf of bread or their first cheese. We like to take the mystery out of cooking and watch as they make things they never thought they’d be able to.”

When Darina isn’t imparting her knowledge to her cohort of eager students, she’s a tireless ambassador for the Slow Food Movement and through the East Cork Educational Fund, she runs a programme for local primary schools to help local children learn about food from garden to plate. Darina was also instrumental in setting up the Farmers’ Market Movement in Ireland and in 2013 she helped launch the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine. “Back in the ’80s, Ireland was not known as a gastronomic destination so it was a big leap of faith for people to come to attend classes at our school,” says Darina. “Everyone uses terms like slow food, farm to fork, local, zero-waste and so on, but it’s something we’ve been doing for a long time,” she reflects. “And how lucky that we can earn a living in the country on the farm that we love and share it with people from all over the world.”

Interview by Andie Cusick.

Photographs by Cliodhna Prendergast.

Learn more about Ballymaloe Cookery School, organic farm and gardens along with Darina's Saturday letter on their website.

Darina wears a TOAST gingham dress from our archive. Shop our current collection of dresses.

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