I’m thrilled to introduce Donal Skehan as the final guest to post an entry on my festival blog. In this entry Donal share his early memories of watching Darina Allens seminal cookery programme “Simply Delicious” and explains how she and Ballymaloe impacted his cookery career:

Donal Skehan

Yes, I’m afraid to admit, that bespeckled boy with the tea towel on on his head, demonstrating how to make homemade pizza, is me… You may be wondering why the strange get up, but to me it was quite clear at the time, that with my jam jar glasses, I was a dead ringer for the Queen of Irish food, Darina Allen.  It made complete sense to set up my dad’s video camera with the help of my best friend, dressed as Delia Smith, to present the forgotten episode of Darina’s TV show “Simply Delicious: The Cook Off”, complete with my best impression of Darina’s dulcet tones.  Clearly it would have been a ratings winner!

Donal Darina_3 Donal Darina

While I was growing up, Darina’s prime time RTÉ TV show, “Simply Delicious”, was something my whole family sat down to watch, listening intently as she dished up delicious recipes and the gospel of good quality Irish ingredients.  Not only was Darina invading my TV screen at the time but my aunt and my two uncles had also just finished the world famous Ballymaloe Cookery course, which meant classic recipes like cucumber pickle, poached whole salmon and Ballymaloe brown bread were passing my lips at birthdays, baptisms and first communions.

Full of inspiration and armed with the complete collection of the Simply Delicious cookbooks I worked my way through the recipes and even used to sell the biscuits and cakes I would make to the neighbours, though you will be glad to hear, my mom insisted I left the tea towel at home.  The confession I have to make today is that despite the impact Ballymaloe and Darina has clearly had on me, I have never been to Ballymaloe House, which is why I am literally brimming with excitement for this weekend’s LitFest which features some of the most influential names in the food world.

Donal Skehan

I feel extremely privileged to be included in the line up speaking as part of the New Voices In Food taking place on Saturday alongside Thomisina Myers, Rachel Allen, Stevie Parle and Claire Ptak and chaired by the legendary Matthew Fort.  It’s moments in life like this that you have to stand back and appreciate things and I’m guessing if you told the be-speckled, tea towel headed boy that he would grow up to write cookbooks and present cookery programs he would be jumping for joy and beaming with pride, I know I am.


Only 2 days to go!

“Too many cooks spoil the broth”… but it you get enough of them together you end up with an almighty festival unlike any other!

With the first ever Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine only two days away, I thought it would be fun to share some behind the scene pictures from around Ballymaloe House. Everyone at Ballymaloe is working very hard to make this the festival of a lifetime which, I’m sure you will agree, it will be.

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IMG_2119   Making Chandelier for The Big Shed

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Guest blog entry from Matthew Fort

I’m so delighted to introduce Matthew Forts guest blog entry. Here Matthew whets the appetite by sharing his expectation for the first ever Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine…

Matthew Fort

‘Reading other people’s blogs, it makes you think. Well, it makes me think anyway. and what it makes me think is crikey, they’re all so well organised. Thoughts as clear as gin. Firm sense of direction. Calm, order, sense, purpose. Even counting down the days. Well, I’m none of these things. I know I’ve got to chat with the magisterial John Mckenna at some point; listen keenly to the fiery young radicals of food writing, Stevie Parle, Rachel Allen, Claire Ptak, Thomasina Miers and Donal Skehan at another;  finally try and  bring order to Stephanie Alexander, David Thompson, Rowley Leigh, Madhur Jaffrey, Claudia Roden and Ben Reade. Blimey. This is like the finest attacking line up ever put together. Formidable folk every one of them. The words wing and prayer spring to mind. Look for me in the bar.  Whatever happens, it’ll be a riot of words, food & fun, not necessarily in that order, and possibly with the emphasis on the word ‘riot’.

Our big day out!

Scott, a colleagues of mine, was once overheard saying “JR would go to the opening of an envelope, on an island, at midnight in a storm!”. And it’s true, I probably would! I have always loved a good day out. And given the chance I will pop up at any food and wine event that I can make it to when not in work. Taking a train, boat or even a flight only adds to the fun! Last Thursday saw the launch of the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and wine and with it, the opportunity for my much loved “Big Day Out”.
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Traveling with Darina Allen is always great fun, not only because of her wonderful stories and great sense of humour, but because it seems as thought anything is possible! On Thursday I was under strict instructions to be at Darina’s house for an early 6am start! I have become accustomed to early mornings, usually because I am the first person in the Ballymaloe kitchen making soda bread for breakfast, but on this morning I got up before sunrise for a different reason!
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After a pleasant taxi ride to the station, Rebecca, Rory, Darina and I boarded the 7am train to Dubin. Unluckily the locomotive of the train broke down only a few kilometres outside Cork city. Minutes later the train turned back and before we knew it Darina had us in a Dublin bound taxi! Our driver knew there was no time to spare and got us to Dublin’s Cake Cafe without a moment to loose. We were welcomed to the cafe by it’s fabulous owner, Michelle Darmody and there the delightful Neven Maguire joined us. The photographer took some sweet pictures of Michelle, Darina, Neven and Rory and, as luck would have it a ray of sunshine, at just the right moment, really was “the icing on the cake”.
Darina, Neven Michelle & Rory at Litfest launch 2013
After a delectably fine lunch at the Greenhouse Restaurant and a cup of really good coffee at Brother Hubbard we made our way to O’Connell’s restaurant where the festival was officially launched by the authoritative John Bowman. Journalists and friends were totally inspired by the thrilling words John used to describe why, he felt, the festival was going to be a historic gathering of minds.
Darina, John & Rory LitFest launch 2013
So, if you you fancy a slice of the action and want to hear from Michelle, Neven, John, Darina, Rory or one of the other 40 plus food and wine stars at this historic festival make your way to East Cork this May bank holiday weekend. And if like me you find yourself getting up early, come find me in the the pastry kitchen and I’ll treat you to some well buttered, freshly baked, homemade soda bread.

Guest blog entry from Skye Gyngell

Skye Gyngell, one of my all time favourite chefs and food writers, shares her excitement of returning to Ballymaloe for the first ever Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine in her guest blog entry:


Skye Gyngell

The festival is getting closer – by my calculations  only 13 days to go. I for one am very excited – for so many reasons. Firstly to see Ballymaloe again, it seems like ages since I was last there and along with a small handful of other places it is one of my favourite destinations on earth. Secondly to see Mrs Allen,Rory, tim and Darina again, although im sure that it will be only the tiniest of glimpses over the weekend. – spending any time at all with them reconfirms to me my chosen profession and makes me feel excited about food and produce all over again. Thirdly the line up of guests is so amazing that I feel star struck, nervous, excited and slightly breathless.  Im participating in three events, which in my usual style Ive paid as little attention to as possible . Not because I don’t care, far from it but the more I think about things the more I agonise over them and then I begin to feel sure that whatever I do will be disastrous.


Rory is gently nudging me now to let him know what I am planning to cook on the Saturday evening at Darina’s house. I’ve used as many delay tactics as possible to buy some time – hoping that the perfect menu will come to me if I just sit quietly and wait. I know from experience this never happens and I just need to decide on something and hope for the best.  The truth is I’ve been out of the kitchen for over a year and I have very little confidence! Im feeling very much that I cant cook and have very little to say that will be of any interest to anyone. It’s been a really interesting year and in many ways I’ve learnt a lot – but  mostly I’ve learnt that  being out of a kitchen and not having the privilege of working with an incredible group of passionate people feels very soul destroying – I feel like half a person and the best half of me has gone. What I have learnt on a positive note is I’m going to stay working in restaurants (cooking at home for me is not the same thing at all) until I simply physically can’t anymore – if possible I’m going to drop dead right by the stove.

 Skye Gyngell Books

This festival has come at just the right time for me for I know I’m going to get a much needed injection of  knowledge and enthusiasm. I’m going to immerse myself in everything, be everywhere, see all that I can and however nervous I feel, I’m going to give of myself 100 percent !


See you on the 3rd !


Guest blog entry from Stevie Parle

I’m delighted to introduce the next guest blogger Stevie Parle. Stevie’s blog entry really gets the mouth watering with his passionate words. Here he shares the source of his inspiration and explains his approach to cooking. After reading his post, I’m sure you will agree, it’s easy to see why Stevie is hailed as one of the hottest voices on the London food scene:


I’m extremely excited to be coming to Ballymaloe for the literary festival. Not just because of the incredible line-up (pretty much all of my most influential food people are there) but because Ballymaloe is where I started cooking seriously-  more than 10 years ago.


Over the last few years, with three cookery books, a west London restaurant and a TV show under my belt I’ve done more than a couple of interviews. People often ask where I started out and how I learned to cook. I talk about travelling a lot as a child, and my dad cooking at the weekends, my grandpa’s attempts at Yorkshire pudding and my early days at River Café. And of course about Ballymaloe, people ask what I learned there, the truth is it’s hard to say. Obviously I learned a whole host of techniques and recipes, proper “old-skool” things like all the mother sauces and how to make choux pastry. Important stuff which gave me the a good grounding, allowing me to experiment but nothing I ever cook now yet the influence of Ballymaloe is still evident in my cooking today. But what is it that’s still there if not the recipes?…. It’s hard to say…. A perspective I suppose, an approach, a sensitivity. Something about integrity and truth to ingredients, a connection made between produce and growers that wasn’t there in my child hood in Birmingham, and could have never been made had I gone straight from school to professional kitchens in London.


An understanding of where food comes from is lacking in our society as a whole but also surprisingly apparent in restaurants too. We see huge volumes of produce, of extraordinarily good quality (in my restaurant anyway) and it can be easy to be somewhat reckless with it, to forget that meat has been reared and butchered extremely carefully and that a huge amount of care is taken to grow the wonderful vegetables we use and that for us to receive them in such perfect condition is a near miracle. If you have a proper understanding of just how hard it is to grow stuff, you’d never dump boxes of spinach on top of each other, or leave a pig in the plastic wrap it is delivered in rather than hang it carefully. My chefs probably think I’m obsessed about looking after the produce because I want to cut wastage and make more money, which is true, I am after all a business man ,but most importantly it’s about respect. The respect for ingredients and producers that I learned at Ballymaloe when I was 16.

Stevie Parle - realfood

Food for Thought

From bright and bold to simple and sweet, food and wine has provided great inspiration for literature over the past centuries.

Pastry at Ballymaloe House Lemon Meringue Pie IMG_0476

As a child I spent hours thumbing the pages of my great aunts aged cookbook collection. I guess you could say I was a cookbook “geek”!… I say geek because not many 7 year old children read cookbook’s in the 1990′s, let alone ones without pictures! Her disheveled copy’s of “Mrs Beeton’s Book of household Management” and Maura Laverty’s “Full and Plenty” were most certainly my favourite. We used the books as a way of deciding what to cook together, and more importantly what to eat. First we would see what ingredients were in the kitchen and pantry and then find a recipe to match, often resulting in anything from curried eggs to her infamous mulberry wine.

Full-and-PlentyMrs Beaton

But my food and wine library today consists of hundreds of mouth watering books, of which only a fraction belonged my great aunt. Now my most beloved books contain the refreshingly zesty words of some of the hottest new voices in the industry. Claire Ptak, Thomasina Mires, Donal Skehan, Rachel Allen, Stevie Parle and Skye Gyngell, to name but a few, not only spice up my book collection but will also excite at the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine. Hear first hand what these cutting edge writers have to say about whats hot and whats not!


And if your mouth is watering at the thought of hearing from the newest voices in food, you’ll love to join in the conversation with Regian Sexton about “The Early Writing of Myrtle Allen” when the now great dame of Irish food was herself the hottest voice in the press with her bite sized articles. But as with everything, food writing also evolves and no one knows this better then Dennis Cotter, of the famed “Cafe Paradiso”, who will look at his own collection of writing as a package. While Matthew Fort and John McKenna tuck into the discussion of food writing evolution, from cave drawings to recipes in “the cloud”.

And if that’s not enough for you, make sure to bump into me at one of the festivals delectable events and I might even offer you a glass of that well aged mulberry wine!

Guest blog entry from Tom Doorley

To spice things up a bit, I will invite some of the speakers who will be at the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine to contribute special entries to this blog. I am delighted to introduce Tom Doorley as the first guest, and here is his post:

Tom Doorley


When I was at an impressionable age, somewhere around 12, I was a keen viewer of a TV programme called The Galloping Gourmet. It was very much of its time, i.e. the early 1970s, as can be seen from the use of the word “Gourmet” without any obvious sense of irony. And the fact that the personable Australian presenter, Graham Kerr, regularly swigged his way through a bottle of wine in the course of each episode.

These days the forces of political correctness would have him slaking his thirst with Evian. Maybe even green tea.

Somewhat before my time came the formidable Fanny Craddock: wearing a fresco of make-up, the kind of clothes that would make Barbara Cartland seem like Coco Chanel, and bearing a toxic grudge against her long-suffering and rather hopeless husband, Johnny, who appeared on set solely as a target for her ire.

It’s bizarre to think that the Craddocks were amongst the hottest properties in television in the 1960s, bigger than Ramsay and Jamie and Nigella combined – for the simple reason that there was no comptetition.

A lot of people believe that we here in Ireland had no celebrity cooks, that this was the preserve of the BBC. But nothing could be further from the truth. I can just about remember Jimmy Flahive, who was chef at Dublin Airport at a time when this was, by the standards of the day, a breathtakingly sophisticated place to eat, appearing on dozens of black-and-white Late Late Shows. His best trick was slicing onions – very finely, at Formula One speed and without drawing a drop of blood. All of Ireland would collectively hold its breath as Jimmy wielded the Sabatier.

Maura Laverty was, as they say, huge in the 1950s and 1960s. A creative writer by instinct, she larded her cookbooks with homely little stories of how good food and true love come together, even for the most confirmed of bachelors and spinsters in the bleakest bits of old Ireland. Her monumental book “Full and Plenty” was published by the Irish Flour Millers in 1960 and it was the cookbook with which I grew up. I still have my late mother’s copy and return to it time and time again. The food is plain but wholesome, light on the garlic and the red wine, but sound, solid and built on the best of foundations.

In 1963, the Irish television audience, still dazzled by the new technology, were treated to a live cookery show presented by Monica Sheridan. Monica’s Kitchen was a milestone in Irish television but also, according to those who can remember, a milestone in Irish food.

This sharp-featured, middle-aged woman, a Killiney housewife married to a barrister, was an instant hit. Her natural spontaneous wit and occasionally outrageous comments meant that viewers hung on her every word. And just as Nigella licks her fingers, so too did Monica Sheridan. But not in quite the same way.  This caused a good deal of outrage and there were unconfirmed reports that shocked domestic science teachers considered presenting a mass petition to RTE.

Perhaps Monica Sheridan licked her fingers once too often on Telefis Eireann. But she certainly galvanised the viewers and she won a coveted Jacob’s Award for her series in 1963. Whether it was too hot for RTE, I can’t establish at this stage. But Monica’s Kitchen did not go into a second series.

However, she published a book to accompany her TV debut and “Monica’s Kitchen” published by Castle Publications in 1963 is one of my most treasured possessions. It still crops up secondhand very frequently, a testament to how many copies were originally sold.

Opening it at random, I read “When I was a girl learning school-French I thought that oeufs a la coq were special eggs laid by perverted French roosters. It was a great disappointment to discover that they were just ordinary boiled eggs. Oeufs cocotte didn’t sound very respectable either but they are, alas, nothing you couldn’t write home about.”

She is fascinating about garlic. “Thirty years ago [i.e. in the 1930s], garlic was in daily use in kitchens all over Ireland… In our house in the country, they put it into the food – and into the whiskey. Toothache, tonsils, stomach-ache, and all other internal complaints were doctored with the same medicine – two or three cloves of garlic crushed, and wet with half a glass of whiskey. This was poured down the patient’s throat without a by-your-leave. It was a nauseating brew, enough to put anyone off whiskey for life.” But not garlic. She goes on…

“To me, the smell of raw garlic is the nicest of all, but, if you come into your house on a cold evening, and smell a stew that has a few cloves of garlic in it, it will remind you of the little bistros in Paris, and Gauloise cigarettes, and strolling down the Champs Elysees.”

Despite her affluent life in Killiney with maid and au pair (with whom she once cooked some garden snails, the subject of her funniest writing) Monica Sheridan had grown up as one of fourteen children on a farm in rural Ireland. She loved classic cooking but never lost her down-to- earth common sense. It was something she valued.

“There’s nothing to cooking except ordinary common sense,” she says in Monica’s Kitchen.“You need a keen nose to smell burning, strong hands that can stand heat, and an occasional sense of wild extravagance coupled with a passion for economy…Cooking has little to do with recipes, which are dead things and all read like a doctor’s prescription. Unless you are a complete dud, you need never worry about them. But if you’ve a real interest in food, a love of experiment, and the courage to try anything once – you can forget about caution and calories.”

There was a delightful lack of reverence about Monica Sheridan, best exemplified by some of her comments on beef. “Passing through a fair,” she says, “in, say Mullingar, you will see four-year-old Irish bullocks in the very pink of condition. They have the roving eyes and debonair looks of first-year medical students. A little gauche, perhaps, but nonetheless proud sons of bovine fathers. Give them a few more years and they could become a danger to the parish; but now is the time to kill them and eat them. when they are in their youthful prime.”

It’s hard to imagine Nigella Lawson or even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall writing in these terms.

And her honesty is peculiarly endearing. “I once made ravioli,” she wrote. “But the whole operation was so painful and so tedious that I cannot even bring myself to write about it.” I can’t help wishing that she had managed to record the disaster.

Not a single second of Monica Sheridan on Telefis Eireann survives. And I can’t find anyone who remembers her telvision series in any detail (I wish I had a euro for everyone who merely said “Oh yes, the woman who licked her fingers…”) She went on to write a book on Irish food for the American Market (My Irish Cookbook) in 1965 and died in 1998.

She was a true original. True to her agricultural upbringing, to the traditional cooking skills she learned from her great-grandmother (who had lived through the Famine) and true to the essence of good food. Equally at home with a coq au vin or corned beef and cabbage, she might have done a great deal of good if her television career had not been cut short, not least in persuading us of how good Irish food can be.

Finger-lickin’ good.



Monica Sheridan


First published in the Irish Daily Mail, 2008.

Almost by accident!

Senator Feargal Quinn once said, ”Sex didn’t exist in Ireland until Gay Byrne hosted the Late Late show, and taste buds didn’t exist in Ireland until Myrtle Allen opened her restaurant at Ballymaloe!”.

It is therefore no surprise to any of us that Ballymaloe will be hosting the first ever literary festival of food and wine… Even typing the name gets me excited!… But since Myrtle’s early days as a chef and food writer the Irish food scene had quite simply exploded!

Myrtle’s early experiments with the fabulous fresh produce from her farm led her into an accidental cookery career that she had never imagined. In 1977, thirteen years after turning her dining room into a most special restaurant, Myrtle published her first cook book “The Ballymaloe Cookbook”.

Ballymaloe HouseThe Ballymaloe CookbookDining Room at Ballymaloe
Now, nearly 40 years on, a new generation of young talented food writers make the most of modern technology and excite a worldwide audience with their scrumptious words. So get involved and check out the jam packed program of events at the first ever Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine. I just cant wait to get stuck into the exciting workshops. Whether you want to learn about digital food writing, self publishing or simply want to listen the hottest new voices in food, this festival has it all.

Oh, and in case you hadn’t heard… For those of you who want to meet the amazing Myrtle, and trust me, she is amazing, she will be hosting afternoon tea in Ballymaloe House during the festival, but tickets are selling like… ahem, “hot cakes”… so get them quick to avoid disappointment.

Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine

I could hardly believe my eyes… Is this for real?… I had to pinch myself!… Is this possible?… I was traveling in Thailand when the news reached me… I knew it would be impressive but I had never imagined it to be so exceptional!

Reading the programme for the “Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine” sent shivers down my spine, in a good way of course. I have always considered myself a foodie, by which I mean I have been eating for as long as I can remember. I have often strayed far off the beaten track in search of new epicurean experiences, but I had never imagined that the holy grail of food and wine events would blossom on my door step. I had to read the list of speakers several times to let it sink in! The most respected literary figures of food and wine would all be gathering in one place, and all with one aim in mind: To share experiences, knowledge and stories from their craft. My mouth was watering at the thought of such an exciting few days. And luckily for me I live on the very farm where it is all to take place.

I have always considered myself to be very lucky. Allow me to highlight a few examples to stand out in my mind: At the age of four I was lucky enough to meet the amazing Darina Allen. She signed a copy of her then newly published “Simply Delicious” and wrote a message inside the cover saying “To John Robert, who will be a great chef one day”. I was the only one of my friends to have such an inspiring celebrity endorsement at that age. When I was fifteen I luckily got offered a job by Rory O’Connell – the then head chef at Ballymaloe House – to work in the pastry kitchen. A life changing opportunity that opened my palate and mind to the thrilling taste of fresh food. Before I turned twenty I was lucky enough to be taken on a profound food tour of Paris by Myrtle Allen, my food hero. Two years later I was fortunate enough to be offered the head pastry position in her kitchen. And now, three years on, as luck would have it, the ultimate food and wine festival will take place in what I can only describe as the most magical food destination I know, Ballymaloe. So naturally, as you can imagine, I am so totally over the top excited about this phenomenal gathering of minds, and it’s all on my home turf.

The purpose of this blog is to keep you not only informed, but also excited about the festival, that I’m sure you will agree, we have all been waiting for. I will endeavour to share with you my adventure over the next few weeks as the festival draws ever closer, revealing inspiring insights into the events and speakers.
So if you see me at the festival say hi, I would only love to meet others as delighted as myself to soak up every bit of the fun.
Myrtle Allen and JR Ryall

Myrtle Allen and JR Ryall