Some days I think I’m crazy for leaving my life and career back home to move to a farm in Ireland and cook. And some days I don’t. Today was one of the later.
Today we walked through the school gardens and ate things. In other words, we foraged. (One can make good money foraging for restaurants in London these days, we learned. But considering I don’t really like to pick things, for myself let alone other people, I’m not sure I’ll be signing up for that as my new career just yet.) And then we went for tea at Ballymaloe House — the bigger, older sister to my school, where this all started. While we’ve been learning about Ballymaloe House, and the restaurant, and the hotel, and the cafe, and the gift shop, and and and…. this whole time, it was somehow felt different to be sitting within the walls of the mansion on the farm, where Myrtle Allen started it all.
Mrs. Allen was a farmer’s wife, who got married at 19 and moved into an old house on a huge farm, installed some heating and got on with it. She wanted to start a restaurant and her husband said she could, but he wouldn’t buy her one. So, she started it in their house. She is credited with being the “renowned matriarch of modern Irish cuisine” — as important to her country’s cuisine as Alice Waters is to America’s. Mrs. Allen was having a wee sleep today when we came to visit, so we sadly did not get to say hello in person. At tea today, her son, Rory, described her passion and tenacity and the fact that she always just did the next logical thing, not thinking too much about it. He also said, “Food is in her.” And I can’t imagine a greater compliment.
On the first day of school, we watched this amazing documentary about her life — and the history of food in Ireland. I can think of a few inspiring women in my life who have something to do with me being here — my mom, my Godmother, Martha Stewart, to name a few — and when I watched that film I knew immediately that I would be adding Myrtle Allen to that list. I loved when she said, “I can’t think of anything so unique and precious that you shouldn’t write about it,” when describing the Ballymaloe Cookbook. And the next day, I started this blog.
For the last three months, I’ve been living in a cottage attached to Myrtle Allen’s son and daughter-in-law’s house. (They’re in the part attached to the gazebo, and I peek at them from my little window directly to the right of it.) Next Saturday, I have to move out and go back to the real world, where I won’t be waking up at 7am to milk cows in the dairy, pick herbs in the glasshouse (greenhouse to us Americans), bake brioche in the freezing cold morning kitchen or do yoga in my room looking out at the grand gazebo of Tim and Darina’s house.
Yesterday was St. Patrick’s Day, my first one spent in Ireland. Leprechauns everywhere, including James Joyce’s grandnephew, whom I met in the pub last night. Only in Ireland. I donned my green glitter shamrock earrings and orange, green and white boa at night, but during the day I took my patriotism into the kitchen and created a St. Patrick’s Day cupcake: toasted coconut, lime curd, cream cheese frosting and dehydrated carrot. Considering I didn’t even know how to make lime curd or dehydrate carrot before I came here, I was pretty proud.
I will miss these days in the kitchen, where the world is my oyster and the only thing standing between me and my next creation is my imagination. It’s way more of an empowering feeling than I ever imagined it could be. Maybe because after these three months, I’m finally becoming more confident with my cooking and as the great Ms. Allen did 50+ years ago, I’m just getting on with it. At the end of last week, my teacher was recapping my efforts and progress and after her inspiring and humbling summary she said to me, “You love food and food loves you.” And I can’t imagine a greater compliment.