County Cork Cookery

March 10, 1991|By Lynn Williams

Guaranteed: Reading about Ballymaloe House will make you hungry. Hungry for fresh, abundant fare prepared with a combination of Irish simplicity and Continental finesse by owner Myrtle Allen and her cadre of chefs. Hungry, too, for life as it is lived in this 500-year-old County Cork farmhouse, which has gained a reputation as one of Ireland's most elegant small hotels.

Both the food and the place are vividly evoked in "Myrtle Allen's Cooking at Ballymaloe House," recently published by Stewart, Tabori and Chang. And both are stunners. Mick Hales' photographs show a mouthwatering array of Irish edibles: Irish stew and dark ale sitting in a window overlooking a flowering courtyard, a platter of rainbow trout in spinach cream sauce on a white damask tablecloth, a picnic spread out near the rocky seacoast, a mound of succulent blackberries.

Ballymaloe (pronounced "ballymaLOO") itself is no less mouthwatering, from its vine-decked Georgian facade to the ancient honeysuckle-draped stone cottage where the farm workers take their tea. This is a place for serene, civilized pleasures -- the rooms have pots of fresh flowers, not TV sets -- and many American readers will find themselves yearning to spend St. Patrick's Day not in a rollicking Irish bar, but eating hot soda bread and butter while looking across the fields at real Irish sheep.

When Myrtle Allen is reached for a phone interview it is the middle of a busy business afternoon in Baltimore, but it's the quiet after-dinner hour in Ballymaloe. Dinner is a major affair at the hotel, according to Mrs. Allen; in high season they might serve 100 dinners a night, and this time of the year about 30. To take care of the kitchen for three meals, seven days a week, Ballymaloe employs 18 chefs, who work in shifts.

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And Mrs. Allen has an additional responsibility right now; she i about to embark on a tour of North America to publicize her book.

Ballymaloe wasn't always such a big business, she explains in her engaging accent. But, she adds with considerable understatement, "It's a rather big house."

"We have 400 acres, which around here is a biggish farm. Not enormous. We bought it way back in 1947. I came here with two baby children, and it was very big for us!"

The building, she says, was originally a Norman castle, which was added to in 1660, 1750 and around 1815, with "bits of it knocked down and more modern buildings put up." The meaning of the name, a corruption of old Irish, isn't certain, but Mrs. Allen believes it is either "the place of flat lands," or "the place of honey," both appropriate in view of Ballymaloe's terrain and its expansive gardens and orchards.

The Allens' intention was not, at first, to open Ballymaloe as a hotel. It was, instead, a private home and family farm, run by Mrs. Allen's husband Ivan. Myrtle Allen was not born to farming -- "My father was a professional. I married a farmer, that was enough," she says -- but she lived the active life of a farmer's wife, and raised six children.

In 1964, with her children growing up, Mrs. Allen decided she needed another challenge. The area needed a restaurant, the Allens realized.

"I had come to a full stop in my life with other things, I had the time, and I thought, 'Let's have a go!' " she remembers.

She also had the cooking skill, from feeding a family and hungry farm workers for the better part of two decades, from doing a lot of entertaining and from writing a cookery column for a farming paper. As a food writer she had read extensively about cooking techniques, and as a farmer she knew how to deal with seasonal produce.

"With no easy access to shops and markets, and crops coming in gluts, one soon learns every possible way of cooking whatever cannot be profitably sold," she writes in "Cooking at Ballymaloe House."

She compiled her recipes from handwritten family cookbooks, from friends (and later, customers) and from cookbooks and magazines, and adapted them to suit her needs and her local ingredients. Since becoming a professional, she has also studied cooking more formally, learning techniques from British food maven Jane Grigson, from Simone Beck in Paris and at the Cordon Bleu school in London.

The Allens began their public career by opening their dining room five days a week as a restaurant. Then bedrooms were opened, and Ballymaloe became a guest house. As the Allen children grew up and married, they and their spouses and children became involved as well, and the business has expanded to include a number of what Mrs. Allen calls "spinoffs": One daughter, Fern, runs a second restaurant in an art gallery in Cork. Another daughter, Wendy, is in charge of Ballymaloe's craft and kitchen shops. A daughter-in-law, Hazel, manages the household and gardens, and another, Darina, runs the Ballymaloe Cooking School in a converted apple packing house on the property.

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