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.
"She used to help me teach," Mrs. Allen explains. "We used to teach here in the wintertime when things were very slow and we needed money to pay the staff wages."
Darina's brother Rory O'Connell is also on the staff. Mr. O'Connell, a chef, has been nicknamed "the Sorcerer's Apprentice" for his wizardly way with a recipe.
"I call it 'country house cooking,' " says Mrs. Allen of her signature style. "It's very Irish-influenced; I use Irish ingredients almost entirely."
Her cuisine mixes "cottage cooking" with the cuisine of the area's Anglo-Irish gentry, and with a handful of international influences: "I haven't traveled a great deal," she says, "but I took a long holiday in India, and I'm very fond of Indian food. And like everyone in Europe, we can't help being influenced by France."
(For a time, Mrs. Allen even had an Irish restaurant, La Ferme Irlandaise -- the Irish farm -- in Paris. It was successful, but the logistics of running restaurants in two different countries proved too difficult.)
If country house cuisine has a trump card, it is the local products: seafood delivered direct from nearby Ballycotton Bay, chickens and turkeys purchased from neighboring farm women, butter and cream from the dairy farms that dot southwestern Ireland, a wealth of absolutely fresh fruits, vegetables and nuts. Some of the produce is grown on Ballymaloe's 400 acres. But, Mrs. Allen says, Irish farming has become so competitive that farmers are forced to specialize. Ballymaloe's main crops are sugar beets (which the kitchen does not use), potatoes (which it does) and sheep. Mrs. Allen admits that the lamb and mutton she serves come from elsewhere, though; it would upset customers to think that the sweet little lambs they see frolicking in the fields might turn up on their dinner plates.
Since Ballymaloe opened as a restaurant, the tastes of its customers (who come from all over the world) have gotten much more sophisticated, the owner finds. And she caters to these tastes. While most of the recipes chosen for the new book are old-fashioned and classic, the Ballymaloe kitchen also turns out nouvelle-influenced fare; a recent favorite among customers is a warm salad called salade tiede, prepared with lamb kidneys and oyster mushrooms.
Anyone reading the cookbook will certainly be aware that this is not food for dieters or nutritionists. Red meat, butter and heavy cream are used freely, and chicken fat, mutton fat and suet also appear.
The possible protests don't bother Mrs. Allen. (Although she does admit that visitors from the United States tend to be cholesterol-conscious, and does provide leaner items on her menu.)
"You must remember that traditional Irish cooking is based on the cow. You can't escape it," she says. "For 2,000 years we've been living off the cow. It's only been in the last few years that people have decided that meat's bad for you. That's nonsense. It's what we're made of!"
Myrtle Allen recommended the following meal as a rich and satisfying springtime feast. The recipes are from "Myrtle Allen's Cooking at Ballymaloe House" (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 1990, $24.95).
Tomato juice Makes about 3 cups.
2 1/2 cups (about 1 pound) peeled and coarsely chopped very ripe tomatoes
L 1 scallion, including the green part, cut into 1-inch pieces
3 fresh basil or mint leaves or 1 sprig of fresh tarragon
2 teaspoons white-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
In a food processor puree the tomatoes, scallion, basil, vinegar, oil, salt, sugar and pepper until smooth. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a bowl, stir in 1/2 cup water, and chill the juice for up to 12 hours.
Grapefruit, lovage and cucumber salad Makes 2 servings.
1 grapefruit, peeled, halved and sectioned, discarding the membranes
1/4 cucumber, peeled, halved lengthwise, seeded and sliced thin crosswise
1/2 lovage (or celery) leaf, crushed, plus 2 whole leaves
In a bowl combine the grapefruit, cucumber, and crushed lovage leaf. Chill for at least 1 hour or up to 12 hours. Remove and discard the crushed leaf and let the mixture return to room temperature.
Put 1 whole lovage leaf in each of 2 small plates or in each of 2 stemmed glasses. Divide the grapefruit mixture between the plates or glasses, partly covering the leaves.
Makes 8 servings.
1 5-pound stewing hen
1 onion, sliced
1 carrot, sliced
a bouquet garni, made by tying together 1 sprig each of parsley and thyme, and 1 bay leaf
12 large button mushrooms (about 1/2 pound), quartered
16 peeled and blanched pearl onions or 6 scallions
3/4 stick (6 tablespoons) unsalted butter
5 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 pound lean salt pork, cut into 1/2 -inch cubes, parboiled for 10 minutes and drained
10 ounces commercial or homemade puff pastry, thawed if frozen
an egg wash made from 1 large egg beaten with 1/4 teaspoon salt
In a heavy kettle combine the chicken with 2 inches water, the onion, carrot and bouquet garni. Bring the water to a simmer on top of the stove.
Bake the chicken mixture, covered, in a 350-degree oven for 1 to 2 hours, or until the chicken is tender (the time will vary according to the age of the chicken).
Remove the chicken from the kettle and let it cool. Remove the meat from the bones and cut it into neat slices.
Strain and degrease the cooking liquid and reserve 2 1/2 cups for the sauce.
In a large skillet cook the mushrooms and onions in the butter over moderately low heat for about 4 minutes, or until the onions are just softened. Stir in the flour and cook over medium heat, stirring, for about 2 minutes. Off the heat stir in the pork and chicken. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the entire mixture into a 3-quart shallow baking dish.
Roll the puff pastry on a lightly floured surface to fit the baking dish with a 1-inch overhang on all sides. Drape the pastry over the filling, crimp the edges decoratively, and brush the pastry with the egg wash. Cut 2 or 3 steam vents in the pastry and bake the pie in a 450-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the filling is hot and bubbling and the pastry is a rich golden brown. Serve hot.
Almond meringue gateau with chocolate, rum cream Makes 6 servings.
1/3 cup blanched and skinned almonds
2 extra-large egg whites at room temperature
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons confectioners' sugar
CHOCOLATE AND RUM CREAM:
1 ounce semisweet chocolate, chopped
1/2 ounce unsweetened chocolate, chopped
3/4 cup heavy cream, all but 1 tablespoon chilled
1 tablespoon dark rum
8 skinned whole almonds, cut in half lengthwise and toasted
To make the meringues, line a baking sheet with parchment paper and draw two 7 1/2 -inch circles on the paper, using a baking pan or template as a guide.
Chop the almonds fine in a spice or nut grinder or in a food processor along with 1 tablespoon of the confectioners' sugar.
In the large bowl of an electric mixer beat the egg whites with the remaining confectioners' sugar at medium-low speed until the whites just form soft peaks. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until the mixture forms stiff peaks. Fold in the chopped almonds.
Divide the meringue between the 2 measured circles and spread evenly out to the edges. (Some people may find a pastry bag makes this step easier.) Bake in the middle of a 300-degree oven for 40 to 50 minutes, or until crisp on the outside and lightly colored. Let the meringues cool slightly on the baking sheet, then carefully peel the paper from the bottoms and let the meringues cool completely on a rack. (If the meringues begin to crack as you remove the paper, don't worry. Simply stick them back together. They will be frosted and the cracks won't show.) The meringues may be made 1 day in advance and stored in an airtight container, with wax paper separating them.
To make the filling, melt the chocolates together in the top of a double boiler set over hot water or in a low oven. Blend in the 1 tablespoon unchilled cream and the rum until smooth. Let cool to room temperature.
While the chocolate mixture is cooling, whip the remaining cream in a bowl. Carefully but thoroughly fold the cooled chocolate mixture into the whipped cream until blended.
Use 2/3 of the filling to sandwich the meringues together, using the better-looking meringue for the top. Spoon the remaining filling into a pastry bag with a decorative tip, pipe rosettes or some other decorative border onto the top, and stud the rosettes or border with the halved almonds. The dessert may be assembled a few hours in advance and chilled, loosely covered.