Tributes and anecdotes abound for ‘mother of modern Irish cooking’

Tributes and anecdotes abound for ‘mother of modern Irish cooking’
Tributes and anecdotes abound for ‘mother of modern Irish cooking’

So passionate was she about Irish produce, she once carried a heavy suitcase stuffed full of locally grown apples on board a flight to New York where she had been invited to deliver a cookery class.

Just one of the many anecdotes which emerged yesterday from friends of Ballymaloe founder and “the mother of modern Irish cooking”, Myrtle Allen, who died in Cork on Tuesday, aged 94.

Potter Stephen Pearce, who established his Shanagarry pottery brand a few corn and barley fields from Ballymaloe cookery school, recalled how he met Mrs Allen in the departures area of an Irish airport at some stage during the 1980s as they were both about to board a flight for New York.

“She asked me to help her with a particularly heavy suitcase,” he said.

“I lifted it and said, gosh Myrtle, what’s in it? She told me she was bringing her own apples with her for a cookery class because she knew they didn’t have the right apples in New York.

“I was initially stunned, but at the same time, not surprised that she would do that. She was just so passionate about Irish produce.”

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He also revealed how after his father helped Myrtle’s late husband, Ivan, buy Ballymaloe House in the late 1940s, they shared the property with the Allens before they opened the restaurant.

“Myrtle was like a second mother to me,” he said. “My mother and her were best friends. We lived like a tribe in the house, until 1953, I think.

“I remember camping in an old army tent on the front lawn, visits to the many strands around this area, and having picnics. She and my mother would bring food and biscuits, and they had a tea-making machine.

“They were very, very nice occasions. But when we were young, we would never have guessed that she was going to be a woman of such importance. She was just so busy getting on with everything.”

He said Mrs Allen never set out to establish a “smart restaurant” or to be famous.

“She didn’t care about that. She was an innovator and absolutely fearless. She just cooked the way she knew to cook and had the loyalty of all her suppliers. She expressed herself, and her ideas continued and developed with Darina,” he said.

He also said that he supported the Allens through difficult times, and that they, in turn, supported him when his business hit the rocks in 2008.

“We stood rock solid by each other through thick and thin,” he said.

The Taoiseach and Tánaiste were among hundreds of people, from local farmers and fishermen, to former cookery school students and Michelin-star chefs, who also paid tribute.

Leo Varadkar said he had the pleasure of dining with Mrs Allen once in Ballymaloe and was among several people to describe her as a “true lady”.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said she was a “beautiful person who had a pioneering influence on Irish hospitality, ambition and food”.

“When she and her husband, Ivan, opened a restaurant and hotel more than 50 years ago they could hardly have imagined that, not only would they put Ballymaloe House on the map, but also onto supermarket shelves throughout Ireland and the world,” he said.

“Myrtle Allen’s success is down to her hard work, high standards, sheer determination and overwhelming pride in Irish produce. Many other successful Irish brands have followed the route she pioneered.”

TV chef Neven Maguire, who runs MacNean House and a cookery school in Cavan, described her as “one of the greatest ambassadors for Irish food”.

“I had the pleasure to interview her and meet her many times — I always admired and looked up to her,” he said.

John and Sally McKenna, authors of the McKennas Guides, said she was one of “the most important individual creative talents in the history of the Irish State”.

Eurotoques Ireland, the European-wide chefs’ group co-founded by Mrs Allen, also paid tribute. Its general secretary, Manuella Spinelli, said: “Her innovative thinking, collaborative views and passion for Ireland’s culinary heritage will live on forever.”

Liam Kirwan, the head chef of Mikey Ryan’s, in Cashel, said the Ballymaloe cookbook was his very first cookbook, and played a big part in his love of cooking.

JP McMahon, whose Cava Bodega, Aniar and Tartare restaurants in Galway specialise in local, artisan and seasonal produce, described her as a “titan of Irish food”.

“All that I do continues her legacy … of making Irish food world class,” he said.

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