Darina Allen set up the first farmer’s market in Ireland and founded the world-famous Ballymaloe Cookery School. Her next mission? Transforming the food we cook, eat – and grow – at home
Your new book, Cook, Grow, Nourish, champions home-grown food. What inspired you to write it?
This is my 15th book and it may be the most important I’ve ever written. I’m desperately trying to get people to take control of the food they feed their family, and one way to do that is to grow your own produce. It doesn’t matter if you live in a high rise or a house with a garden, all you need is a seed, light, water and soil and you can experience the magic of watching something grow. Plant radish seeds in a tray and you’ll have a crop in 14 days.
What’s wrong with the way much of our food is produced?
We need to remember what food is for. It’s for nourishment; to give us energy, vitality and health. A lot of the processed food we eat now is nutritionally deficient because it’s produced fast and cheaply. Food has become a commodity. At Ballymaloe Cookery School
we taught a course on sustainable food production for the first time this year. We planted an urban garden to show that you can grow food to feed two parents and four children all year round.
How can we eat well and cheaply if we don’t grow our own?
Everyone deserves nourishing food and it doesn’t have to be expensive. It’s not about buying the latest superfood. Dried beans and pulses are cheap and packed with nutrients. A bag of potatoes and a cabbage are full of goodness. Try to buy fresh food that’s in season, when it tastes best and costs less. And go to markets; there’s a perception that the food is more expensive but it’s where you’ll find great bargains and wonderful produce. You can often get more than one meal from a vegetable, too. You can eat the stalks and leaves of beetroot, not just the purple roots. And I love radish tops.
What inspired you to set up the first farmer’s market in Ireland?
I’d been to San Francisco and seen the amazing markets they were running in parking lots. Back in Ireland, local people couldn’t buy local food as supermarkets had moved to a centralised distribution system, and that seemed crazy. The Farmers’ Market Movement in Ireland is the one thing I’ve done that’s made the biggest difference to people. Farmers have told me they wouldn’t still be on the land if it wasn’t for the opportunity to sell in markets.
Where did your love of food and cookery come from?
I was brought up by a mother who cooked every day for nine of us. She felt that wholesome food would keep us healthy; that it was our medicine. Cooking and sharing meals is so important; that’s what memories are made of. It’s a tragedy that for two generations, people haven’t been shown how to cook – we’re failing them by not giving them this life skill. It’s worth striving to eat together, even if it’s just a couple of times a week. It can just be scrambled egg or an omelette. And if you’re an old fuddy-duddy like me, you might have a few flowers on the table.
Do you have a favourite meal?
I’m 69 and my children have their own families but they all live within five minutes of us. On a Saturday night, a lot of us will gather and have roast chicken or lamb with roast potatoes. I always ask the children to pod the peas. If it’s just myself at home, I love to make simple Potato Gnocchi with Parsley & Chilli Butter.
Try Darina’s recipePotato Gnocchi with Parsley & Chilli butter