Blogging from Ballymaloe

“…And we got to spend an afternoon with Darina Allen at Ballymaloe,” I said to some Irish friends back here in the UK, on my return from our bloggers’ pootle around the foodier bits of Cork and Waterford. Frequently, Irish eyes are held to be smiling. On this occasion, they all rolled back in their respective skulls with envy.

Darina Allen
Darina Allen

“Darina Allen? She’s the only person whose recipes I use! Em…apart from yours, of course, so,” said one friend, upon which she immediately started fiddling with her beer. “You are so lucky,” said another. “I would kill to spend an afternoon with Darina Allen.”

Her husband (English), shuffled away from her nervously on his bottom. “Who’s Darina Allen?”

This comes under the class of questions that you should never ask an Irish person if you do not wish to be scoffed at vigorously. “You know your woman Delia Smith? Like that, but good. And organic. And without the football and the shite food,” said one angry Irishwoman. “She is only the whole reason that Irish food is any good these days. And you know that pot-roast you like? And the raspberry roulade? And all the stuff from that big white book in the kitchen? I can’t believe you don’t know who she is.”

“Jaysus,” agreed Irish friend #1.

Steps at the Ballymaloe student cottages
Steps at the Ballymaloe student cottages

Darina is, in fact, the dynamic force behind the world-renowned Ballymaloe cookery school, set in the middle of its own 100-acre organic farm and gardens. She’s head of the country’s slow food movement, is currently very deeply involved in a project to get farmers’ markets embedded in Irish shopping culture, is the author of a vast number of cookery books, and, alongside teaching at the cookery school, works as a TV presenter and newspaper columnist. She might well be the most energetic person I have ever met – our meeting at Midleton farmers’ market resulted in an impromptu whistlestop tour of the market, followed by sublime pizzas at the Ballymaloe cookery school’s Saturday Pizza Kitchen (a business idea totally out of left-field but typically popular and successful), and a long tour of the gardens and farm. At all stages in the day, Darina was multitasking. Collecting firewood as we walked around the gardens; shouting encouragement and advice to gardening staff; swiping invisible motes of dust off pristine teaching kitchens; making sure the egg incubators were working properly; poking at piles of rotting seaweed composting down for the farm’s potatoes; discussing lists of the very few ingredients, like flour, which need to be ordered in because the farm can’t produce enough for the school, with a chef jogging alongside us; picking wet walnuts; checking the locks on the greenhouses: all I was doing was following her around, taking pictures and making notes, and it was enough to leave me breathless, exhausted and craving a glass of something strong with ice in.

It was all rather brilliant. I left wanting to take up Darina as my new exercise regime.

Utensils
In the teaching kitchen

There’s so much emphasis at Ballymaloe on the time and effort it takes to raise food properly. Cookery students¬† “adopt” a fertilised chicken egg and watch the egg’s progression from potential scramble to chick to hen. Their first task at the school is to plant seeds (a large part of the grounds is given over to student vegetable plots) which grow into vegetables over their time at the school. Food raised with care and respect costs time and money; there are good reasons why you should be deeply suspicious of a ¬£4 supermarket chicken. There is solar panelling (“Much more effective than they thought it would be, because of the reflections from the sea,” crowed Darina), rainwater collection, all that seaweed being used as a fertiliser (“We do not use cow muck from cows we do not raise ourselves. Who knows what they have been eating and what drugs they have ingested?”), a refusal to take up Government grants which might impact on the way things are done here, and more ethical responsibility in the stewardship of the land than you can shake a stick at. (Don’t, by the way. Darina will take it from you and use it for firewood in the bread oven.)

Ballymaloe gardens
Ballymaloe gardens

Because much of the food produced here is not being sold, but being used for teaching purposes, plenty of produce is made in the old-fashioned ways, exempt from EU legislation about temperature control, hairnets and bleach. So you’ll find a breezy barn whose ceiling is packed with hooks from which charcuterie dangles, a shed for cheesemaking with big fermentation tanks alongside cloth-wrapped cheeses stacked on the wooden shelves, and garlic drying in the sun.

Greenhouse
One of the cavernous greenhouses - parsley, lettuce, marigold for salads, tomatoes.

Darina and the rest of the staff at the cookery school have done the seemingly impossible – turned traditional, ethical, methods of raising, marketing and cooking food into something that’s not so much a business as a movement that seems to be sweeping through Ireland. Ballymaloe is still one of the most respected places to train as a professional chef, but also runs short courses and afternoon demonstrations for amateurs – which I mean in the word’s strictest sense of those who are passionate – in food. If you’re the short-course holiday type, I can’t think of a lovelier or more inspiring place to spend your time.

Saturday pizza
Saturday pizza from Philip Dennhardt, one of the school's tutors and winner of our group's "Chef we would most like to abduct" prize.
Darina in one of the teaching kitchens
Darina testing the day's output - a gluten-free bread for a class of coeliacs - in one of the teaching kitchens
Borage
Borage
Ballymaloe chickens
Some of the farm's chickens, enjoying a dust bath.
Gourds
Gourds from the farm, ready for Halloween.
Herbaceous borders
Herbaceous borders, which provide flowers in season for the school and restaurant.

Riverford Farm

Veg display
Veg display in the Farm Kitchen - this is representative of what was in my delivery box this morning.

A couple of weeks ago, I rattled down to Riverford Farm in Devon in a very drinky minibus full of bloggers. Riverford is celebrated not only for their organic vegetables and meat (you may well know somebody who gets weekly vegetable boxes from them), but also for the Field Kitchen, an outstanding restaurant using products raised on the farm, that sits next to a few acres of rhubarb and plum fields.

For once, I’m going to be brief on the restaurant part of the visit. You may well have read any of a number of glowing reviews of the Field Kitchen, and its reputation is well-deserved. We ate like kings from the farm’s own produce – tapas-style starters including a wild garlic tortilla, some simply gorgeous bresaola, a beet salad,¬† and a house-cured gravadlax. The farm’s lamb made an appearance in the main course in two presentations, pressed and roasted, alongside sweet purple-sprouting broccoli in an anchovy butter, and spring greens. Five desserts, of the proper English sort – all sticky toffee pud, rhubarb meringue and that sort of squashy nursery goodness.

Guy Watson
Guy Watson

So the restaurant is marvellous. If you’re in the area (Riverford is just outside Totnes), book a table and make an evening of it – I defy you not to love its honest, clean presentation of perfectly fresh produce. But what I really want to talk about here for a bit is the operation of the farm itself.

We were lucky enough to be invited to tour Riverford with Guy Watson, the farm’s founder. He’s a fabulous cross between a gimlet-eyed businessman in orange Converse and the sort of straw-haired, welly-wearing, salt-of-the-earth type I remember from the farms that surrounded my grandparents’ little bit of land in Lincolnshire in the 70s; Guy was in this organic stuff well before it was a twinkle in anybody else’s eye, and his passion for this way of growing and eating is palpable. He’s been successful. The business has expanded so far that one farm alone is unable to meet the volume requirements of all those boxes, so a co-operative sort of arrangement is set up with organic farmers all over the country. Riverford itself remains very much the base of operations, though, and the box that arrived on my doorstep from them this morning included produce from here in East Anglia (celery around here is famously good, and there’s a handsome bunch in there which came from Yaxley, near Peterborough, with leeks, a kohl rabi, onions, carrots and some lovely muddy potatoes), alongside little bits and pieces from other farms; I recognised the mixed salad and purple sprouting broccoli from stuff I’d seen growing in the fields in Devon, and the bag of wild garlic leaves is Devon all the way down to its pungent bottom. There are mushrooms, a cucumber and tomatoes too – the large box is enough for four people for a week, but veg enthusiasts (I’m one of them) will find that two people can easily make their way through a box in that time.

Narrow lanes, ancient Land Rover
Narrow lanes, ancient Land Rover

Piled into the back of Guy’s rickety Land Rover, which, like Proust’s Madeleines, took me right back to my childhood and days with my Grandad (although unlike Proust, what I was smelling was wet dog and whatever it is they stuff the seats of Land Rovers with), we took a trip up to the edge of Dartmoor to survey some of the fields, stopping briefly at Guy’s house to pick up some preserved artichokes he’d made last year to snack on.

The long winter this year means that some spring vegetables are arriving late this year, but it also means that there have been some bumper crops of certain produce. Purple-sprouting broccoli, which I love for its sweet stems and the tips’ ability to soak up any sauce you might choose to use it with, was going like crazy when we visited, and we picked our own straight from the fields and ate it raw, sugar-sweet and with a dark brassica bite. (Guy is less keen – he says that to his mind, purple-sprouting has an air of farts about it even before you eat it.)

Purple-sprouting broccoli
Purple-sprouting broccoli

Purple-sprouting broccoli is one of several crops that has to be picked by hand. The word “organic” brings ideas of primitive farming methods to mind, but nothing could be further from the truth at Riverford. Where possible, crops are brought in quickly by machine, which gets them into the cooling rooms fast, keeping them as fresh as possible. Fleece is spread out to keep seedlings safe from frost; polytunnels are used for tender leaves like the bitter, coppery dandelions that make part of the mixed salad. The difference from conventional farming lies in the enrichment of the soil, which is done with old-fashioned crop rotation, tonnes and tonnes of well-rotted manure, and “green manure”; crops like rye grass which are grown specifically in order to be ploughed straight back into the soil again. No pesticides are used, which means that hedgerows around the farm look the way hedgerows are meant to, dense with primroses and violets. The farm has experimented with biodegradable soap sprays against aphids and other pests, but found that predators are also killed by the soap; the best results against pests were achieved, says Guy, by leaving nature to achieve its own balance and encouraging predatory insects. And it’s true – I spotted very few pests on our farm tour.

Wild garlic wood
Wild garlic wood

We pulled leeks out of the soil to take home in the minibus, and picked plenty of rhubarb (one of my favourites). But best of all was the little ash wood at the top of a steep hill, where a huge crop of wild garlic had been seeded. It’s been an enormous success in the box scheme (Riverford recommend it in omelettes and risottos – I have a recipe here on Gastronomy Domine for a pancetta and wild garlic-wrapped chicken dish), and several other woods have also been seeded for a massive crop.

We were lucky with the weather, volcanic haze aside, but for my tastes, the wooded hills, the flowers growing in the fields alongside the farm produce all untouched by herbicides, the smell of garlic wafting in the air, and the views across the tops of the fruit trees over Dartmoor are about as close to Eden in April as England gets. More power to Riverford’s elbow. This is how as much of our food as possible should be produced, and I’m delighted I got a chance to see the farm in action.