The night before my interview with Darina Allen, the prominent Irish food writer and head of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, I sat down to immerse myself in her classic tome, Forgotten Skills of Cooking. I was drawn in by her wonderful writing about getting back to the basics of food and cooking, and her anecdotes depicting her idyllic Irish country upbringing.
After reading about Darina’s childhood fascination with preserves, I was left with an insatiable craving for one of my own favourites, lemon curd. I put it my mental shopping list for the next day – until her simple recipe for lemon curd caught my eye. Inspired by Darina’s call to arms for a return to real cooking, I added lemons to my shopping list instead, determined to make it myself.
Having learned a bit about Darina, I imagined she would be removed from the urban, time-strapped reality of many people’s lives, including my own. Not so. I listened as she described growing up in the Irish countryside, complete with a house cow, chickens and a vegetable garden, until she admitted that, “it was a long time before the penny dropped that that wasn’t everybody’s life.”
It became clear that Darina is very aware that the idyll of living off the fat of the land isn’t possible for everyone – but she’s convinced that good home-cooking is. For her, knowledge is key. “If you can’t cook, you can’t take a few, inexpensive ingredients and turn them into something delicious. If you can cook, you can take a few beans, lentils and vegetables and a bit of scrag end of lamb and make something tasty and nourishing.”
It’s not just the loss of traditional cooking skills that concerns Darina, but also the loss of basic social skills that are learned at the kitchen table: how to share, to take turns, to discuss and to debate – as well as basic table manners. “Nowadays,” she says, “so much of the food people eat, like pizzas and burgers, don’t need a knife and fork – we’re letting young people go out into the world without knowing basic skills.” She recalls the wise words of her mother: “You can be beautifully dressed, beautifully spoken, but the minute you sit at the table, you give everything away.”
Darina’s garden-to-plate upbringing informs her ethos of food education, of pinning everything down to the basics. For Darina, food plays a central role in connecting people. “Sitting down at the table is not just about eating,” she says. “It’s the joy that comes from cooking and sharing a meal with others.” We couldn’t agree more.
Forgotten Skills of Cooking(£30) and Darina’s latest book, 30 Years at Ballymaloe (£30), are published by Kyle Books.