With a stellar cast of international chefs and food writers, Ciara O’Kelly talks to Rory O’Connell ahead of the Kerrygold Forget Ballymaloe Literary Festival.
Forget iPads and Kindles. When it comes to cookery books nothing beats the real thing. The recipes that have been borrowed and photocopied from generation to generation, the books that are covered in splatters of tomato sauce, with grains of salt edged in its bind. These are the books that are truly loved in kitchens across the country, these are the books of real families.
Ballymaloe has been at the heart of these Irish cookbooks for generations, so it wasn’t any surprise that last year the home of Myrtle Allen launched a literary festival to celebrate all things food and wine.
Food writer and chef Rory O’Connell, who has been teaching and cooking in Ballymaloe for over 20 years, says like most ideas that originate at the East Cork estate, the brainwave for the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival came about over dinner. And, of course, there was some good food and wine to inspire the creative juices.
“Jeffrey Dobbs, a friend from Sri Lanka, was visiting and entertaining us with stories about a literary festival that he ran. He suggested that Ballymaloe would be the perfect place to host an Irish festival. The more he told us, the more we agreed, determined that the literary focus would be on food and wine,” says Rory.
Of course, there is no better family in the country to call upon chefs and foodies across the world.
“Darina has quite an extraordinary address book,” laughs Rory. “We made a few calls to gauge interest and after chatting with just a few foodie friends we knew we were onto a winner.” The first literary festival in 2013 pulled some pretty impressive international faces.
“Of course there were nerves and last minute panic, but when John McKenna took to the stage and started interviewing Claus
Meyer from Copenhagen and Ben Reade, I took a sigh of both delight and relief. These guys led the Nordic food revolution and created such an atmosphere. They were interesting, stimulating and relevant and I just knew then that the whole weekend was going to go well,” he says.
Some of Rory’s highlights from last year include the aromas of spices conjured up by Indian chef Madhur Jaffrey, as well as the great Thai cook David Thompson. However, it was the launch of his book Master It that made the first Kerrygold Ballymaloe Festival very memorable for Rory.
“I was talking about writing the book for years. I think people were getting sick of listening to me and must have been thinking: ‘Would you ever just get down to doing it?’ However, I was really happy with the finished product. I wrote it from the point of view of a chef and a teacher and although it was influenced by all the busy kitchens I worked in throughout the world, I rooted it in the information that I knew people wanted when cooking at home,” Rory explains.
AHEAD OF HER TIME
To celebratehe second literary festival a new edition of the Ballymaloe Cookbook, an encyclopaedia of local food and cuisine, will be launched.
“This book has become such a staple in many homes. Myrtle Allen and her appreciation of food is rooted in the soil of Ballymaloe. Even though some of the recipes are 35 or 40-years-old, Mrs Allen was ahead of her time. It wasn’t just about bacon and cabbage, she was cooking aubergines before people even knew what aubergines were,” says Rory.
This ties in perfectly with some of the talks during this year’s Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival.
“Blogging is now one of the most modern ways of writing about food and we’ll have some top bloggers, such as Nessa
Robbins, Donal Skehan and Lily Higgins, talking about the good, the bad and the ugly. I mean, it’s a fantastic way to write, it’s very liberating, with no constraints, but at the same time it is challenging without an editor,” explains Rory.
These high-profile Irish chefs are just the tip of the iceberg with regard to the stellar cast appearing at the festival, including Rene Redzepi of London-based deli restaurant Noma, cookbook supremos Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, as well as Australian cook and artisan food champion Maggie Beer.
For Rory though, the highlight of his weekend will be cooking with Ariana Bundy whose latest book Pomegranates and Roses
focuses on the Persian recipes of her childhood.
“It’ll be a fusion of her Persian influence and my Irish input, using some local ingredients and Ariana's delicacies, so it’ll be diverse as well as entertaining,’’says Rory.
The festival takes place on 16 to 18 May and has something for everyone, from a cooking novice to the ultimate foodie. For more information and to buy tickets log on to www.litfest.ie
The article was originally published in the Irish Farmers Journal: