Irish TV chef and food writer Darina Allen has trained generations of chefs at her Ballymaloe cookery school but fears a loss of skills in the kitchen. She talks public health, the perils of oat milk and the agrarian revolution.
For more than three decades Darina Allen has been tempting would-be chefs and curious food folk from around the world to a single bucolic corner of County Cork in her native Ireland. The lure? Her world-famous cookery school Ballymaloe, which has trained generations of international chefs and food entrepreneurs from home and abroad. Her mission? To change our relationship with food, farming and the land for the better, one step at a time.
Allen has written 19 cookbooks, made countless television shows and steered the course of international cookery away from trickery, fuss and foam towards fresh ingredients, time-honoured techniques and sensible farming practices.
Her enthusiasm is undimmed and she’s got ideas – and answers – aplenty. Just don’t offer her a skinny latte.
Has the farm-to-fork movement changed our attitude to waste and given us better food?
Sadly not enough has changed because the message nowadays is that academic skills are important but practical skills aren’t. Big mistake. We’ve let at least two generations out of our houses and schools without equipping them with the life skills to feed themselves, which feeds right into the hands of the multinational food companies. We’ve handed over complete control over the most important thing in our lives really: our health. We’re failing in our duty of care to our children and the next generation.
So teaching hands-on cookery skills and where our food comes from should be higher on the agenda?
I mean, I could be teaching algebra or geometry or something. And of course that’s hugely important but you can’t eat a flipping maths book. I feel fortunate that I’ve found something that I totally love doing and feel like jumping out of bed every day at 71 years of age. Maybe not quite as fast as I used to but still.
What’s the first recipe that you share with students who attend your three-month certificate course at the cookery school?
Compost. I introduce them to the gardeners and the farm manager, and maybe I’ll have a bunch of carrots or something. I say, “Look at these lovely carrots. It took Eileen the gardener three months to grow these carrots so don’t you dare boil the hell out of them.” We go out into the fruit garden and Eileen will have a wheelbarrow full of soil there. And actually it’s humus [decaying soil]. They stand around me in a big semicircle wondering what’s happening and feeling a little awkward. I run my hands through the soil and I say to them, “Remember, this is where it all starts.” So they think I’m some aged hippie on a mission but I have to shock them out of thinking that food is something that comes wrapped in plastic off a supermarket shelf.
You’ve said elsewhere that you’d have liked to be a soil scientist. Why?
We’re totally dependent on the health of four or five inches of soil around the world for our very existence. Farmers are really worried about the diminishing fertility of the land because we’ve wrecked the soil with very intensive monoculture over the years. We can’t go on with business as usual – we have to go back. As a farmer I feel a strong responsibility to look somebody straight in the eye and know that that food is going to nourish them rather than make them ill, which is happening with a lot of food nowadays.
How has science helped us understand that relationship with food better?
There’s been an enormous amount of work done on the link between the health of our gut and our mental and physical health – and that’s obvious when you think of it. I’ve watched this over 30 years. For the past five, six, seven courses we’ve had at least one doctor, sometimes two; at the moment we have three doctors on the 12-week cooking course. These are medical professionals who tell me that they feel there isn’t enough training in nutrition but who are now demanding the proper information so they can answer their patients’ queries properly.
So many patients have conditions that can be at least helped, and often cured, by diet. But where do you get nutrient-dense food? A lot of people don’t have time to buy directly from farmers but there are other ways and alternative routes to market. In the UK you have Farmdrop, where the growers get 80 per cent of their price, which is fantastic. So many farmers are not being paid enough to produce nourishing, wholesome food: just 30 to 40 per cent if it’s sold through a supermarket. I’m always encouraging people to try to grow something themselves too.
How do you account for the rise in gluten and dairy alternatives?
There is so much misinformation. There is a sort of desperation and huge confusion. People are trying to make sense of all the different advice. There’s such emphasis on the plant-based diet now but the real problem is the whole cheap-food policy. There’s no such thing as cheap food. In health terms, in socioeconomic terms, it’s a complete and absolute disaster. In Ireland, 46 per cent of all food that’s bought in supermarkets is ultra-processed. We are destined to be the most obese country in Europe by 2030. Our health service can’t cope until a huge amount of money is spent on getting the message across that we need to eat real food.
So are people unduly concerned?
People are not imagining the food intolerances and the allergies. People are not imagining that they feel bloated or get rashes, or whatever, after they eat a very squishy slice of bread. For the first three years of the school, which opened in 1983, I’d never heard of coeliac disease. If you’re coeliac, you’re coeliac; that’s a disease and it’s lifelong. But today I suppose a quarter or a third of all the students will say they have some kind of mild intolerance. By the end of the 12 weeks I guarantee that nobody will be dairy free or have a gluten intolerance. That’s because they’re eating 48-hour fermented sourdough bread. They have the choice to drink raw milk. They’re eating a completely different kind of food and they cannot get over how different they feel. And so their big mission when they leave us [as either chefs or to their previous vocations] is to link in with local farmers. And, if they’re starting a business, to try and develop a network of small producers to buy from.
No oat milk in that flat white then?
I just want whole milk, please. If you go in for a coffee you’ve got this big, long spiel: “Do you want soy milk, coconut milk?” No. Just the real deal. That’s what we all need but it’s so hard to find.