Life

Darina Allen: I'm shocked at how we've handed control of our food to supermarkets

Jenny Lee talks to Irish chef Darina Allen about saucepans, her family, the importance of learning to cook and how our food and cookery choices can keep us well

Darina Allen has spent 30 years sharing her love of food through cookbooks, television series and at her Ballymaloe cookery school

SHE may talk excitedly about the distinct flavours of ants, scorpion and snake, but Darina Allen's culinary heart lies in wholesome Irish home cooking. Now, 29 years after her television series and paperback Simply Delicious, was launched, Darina has compiled 100 recipes from her classic collection to inspire the next generation.

“It’s amazing how well the recipes have stood the test of time actually. It’s all about comforting, wholesome and delicious food," 70-year-old Darina, founder of the renown Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, says.

Her RTÉ 1 series ran for nine series, with a corresponding cookbook released for each one. In recent years, Darina has been inundated with people looking to get their hands on the coveted little books.

Now a household name, she admits she almost said no to RTÉ. But then, as she puts it herself: “I decided it would be easier to live with the series not being a huge success than with the eternal question of ‘What if…?’

The books "were really used and loved. I’ve signed many a gravy stained book," laughs Darina, whose Simply Delicious: The Classic Collection features recipes selected from the original books.

Some have been tweaked with contemporary garnishes or spices added, while all her recipes, both in her book and cookery school, have had their sugar content reduced by 15-20 per cent.

While you would expect the likes of Irish stew and pork chops to be included in her collection, recipes for the likes of onion bhajis show that she was perhaps ahead of her time.

Darina is deeply passionate about encouraging everyone, young and old, to learn to cook for themselves.

“This is much more than a book. As a food writer I have a responsibility," she says. “The recipes were very carefully tested as I was absolutely determined that when people actually got the ingredients together and made one it turned out exactly as they were hoping and it tasted delicious. Then they have the confidence to try another.

“The skill of being able to cook is such a practical basic life skill and that is why I’m forever trying to influence the government to re-embed cooking, and [fruit and veg] growing, back into the school curriculum.

"We are failing in our duty of care to our young people if we don't give them these basic cookery skills and enable them to be independent. I'm shocked how quickly we have handed over complete control of food choices to the supermarkets and multi-national food companies. It's their responsibility to make money, not to keep us healthy.

“It's not difficult to cook and the more effort you put into preparing fresh food, the less money you give the doctor or chemist in the long run."

Darina also stresses that cooking from scratch doesn't have to be expensive.

“If you can buy a few potatoes, a cabbage, a little bit of streaky bacon and little spices you can make something delicious very easily. But you cannot do that if you can't cook. If you learn to make a basic sauce, suddenly you can make 20 dishes and when you are confident you can start thinking about new twists, such as adding smoked mackerel or chorizo to macaroni cheese.”

Over the past 30 years there have been huge changes to food culture in Ireland, with the availability of convenience foods, the emergence of multicultural influences and the influx of coffee shops and celebrity chefs. But Darina believes the biggest change is in our own homes.

“People are more adventurous with their food choices and more aware of the quality produce we have here in Ireland, but sadly the biggest change is that families are no longer eating together,” she says.

“Having a shared family meal is vital for relationships and even for learning to share. Cooking can be torture for parents nowadays, with fussy kids demanding this or that.

“I'm the eldest of nine and there was nothing like that in our day. I believe in cooking one dish that you put it in the middle of the table for everyone to tuck into.”

Eating together is a principle Darina applies to her own family life.

“Our children and grandchildren live near us and we try every Saturday night to have a family meal. We sit down over roast chicken, roast lamb or a big pot of stew and chat. Apple tart and ice cream is the perfect ending. That's what memories are made of.”

The invite is of course extended to daughter-in-law Rachel Allen who has carved her own career as a television chef and writer. She trained as a 17-year-old at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, where she met Darina’s son Issac.

This Christmas Darina will once again be on our television screens doing a festive cook show with her brother Rory O’Connell. And while there are no immediate plans for her team up with Rachel professionally, Darina adds that if they were offered a television special “we would do it”.

Another change in cooking over recent years is the plethora of kitchen gadgets on the market. But, apart from a blender and food processor, Darina says she wouldn't "let electric equipment inside her door".

"Basically all you need are decent saucepans, chopping boards and sharp knives. Some people say to me "I burn everything", but when they show me their saucepans I’m not surprised. I've had most of my saucepans since I got married. You need to invest in a good stainless steel pan with five layers on the base.”

Her cookery school offers a wide range of courses from bee-keeping and charcuterie to tapas and sushi courses, as well as the prestigious Ballymaloe 12 Week Certificate course.

So what is her advice to budding chefs?

“Be curious and taste, taste, taste to develop your palate. They also need to realise there that you can’t produce good food without good ingredients and realise the importance of linking up with local farmers and fishermen.”

When it comes to her own tastebuds, Darina is never afraid to try new things. “I had lovely snake stew in Hong Kong and I’ve eaten delicious, crunchy scorpions. Insects are a great source of protein and I’ve eaten ants several times in Copenhegan. They have a really strong distinct lemon flavour and I enjoyed them, though I wouldn’t be keen to put them on my porridge every morning," she laughs.

:: Simply Delicious: The Classic Collection by Darina Allen is published by Kyle Books and is out now.

SWEDE AND BACON SOUP WITH PARSLEY OIL

(Serves 6–8)

1 tablespoon sunflower oil

150g rindless streaky bacon, cut into 1cm dice

110g onions, chopped

110g potatoes, peeled and diced

350g swede, peeled and cut into 7mm dice

900ml homemade chicken stock

cream or creamy milk, to taste salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the parsley oil:

50g freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley

50ml extra virgin olive oil

For the garnish

freshly ground black pepper

fried diced bacon

croutons

Whizz the parsley with the olive oil until smooth and green. Heat the oil in a saucepan, add the bacon and cook over a gentle heat until crisp and golden. Remove to a plate with a slotted spoon.

Toss the onions, potatoes and swede in the oil. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Cover with a paper lid to keep in the steam and sweat over a gentle heat for about 10 minutes until soft but not coloured. Add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer for 10–15 minutes until the vegetables are fully cooked. Liquidise, taste and add a little cream or creamy milk and some extra seasoning if necessary.

Serve with a drizzle of parsley oil, a grind of black pepper and a mixture of crispy bacon and croutons sprinkled on top.

FARMHOUSE CHICKEN

(Serves 8)

1.575kg organic, free-range chicken

560g fat streaky bacon in one piece

2 tablespoons sunflower oil

seasoned plain flour

400g onions, finely sliced or chopped

340g carrots, cut into 1cm slices

approx. 2.3kg large ‘old’ potatoes, such as Golden Wonders or Kerr's Pinks

1.1 litres homemade chicken stock, boiling

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley, to garnish

Preheat the oven to 230C/gas mark 8. Joint the chicken into eight pieces; separate the wing joints so they will cook evenly. Cut the rind off the bacon and cut 225g into lardons and the remainder into 5mm-thick slices.

Heat the oil in a wide frying pan and cook the lardons until the fat begins to run and they are pale golden; transfer to a plate. Toss the chicken joints in the seasoned flour, sauté in the bacon fat and oil until golden on both sides, remove from the pan and put with the bacon. Finally toss the onions and carrots in the bacon fat for one to two minutes.

Peel the potatoes and slice a little less than half into 5mm rounds. Arrange a layer of potato slices on the bottom of a deep 38cm square roasting tin. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Top with a layer of seasoned chicken joints.

Cut the remaining potatoes into 4cm-thick slices lengthways and arrange cut-side up on top of the chicken (the whole top of the dish should be covered with potato slices). Pour the boiling chicken stock into the roasting tin.

Bake for about one hour. After 30 minutes of cooking, top with the slices of bacon so they get deliciously crisp with the potatoes. Test after one hour – it may take a little longer.

Cover loosely with parchment paper near the end of cooking if the top is getting too brown. The vegetables will have absorbed much of the stock, but the dish should still be moist and juicy underneath the crisp potatoes and bacon slices on top. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.

:: Recipes from From Simply Delicious: The Classic Collection by Darina Allen

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