Leaving Ballymaloe last December there was talk of a reunion in May at the Litfest, the Literary Festival of Food & Wine, which is in its 3rd year this year. So a gang of us arrived back in Shanagarry last Friday. Luckily we got a house in the Shanagarry Holiday Village so we were once again calling on Micheal the taxi driver for our lifts to and from Ballymaloe House, where most of the action was.
On Friday night we went to the Big Shed for the Opening Party and sampled some of the food and drink stalls, before making an obligatory visit to the Blackbird in Ballycotton.
Craft Beers and Biodynamic, Natural Wines at the Opening Party on Friday night
John McKenna in conversation with Alice Waters from Chez Panisse on Saturday morning. I was looking forward to hearing her speak as I'd visited Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Darina had referred to her often during the course. It was a lovely way to start our Saturday morning, she was very unassuming , humble and easy to listen to. She spoke about her time spent in Europe in the late '60's during the time of the free speech and anti-war movement.
She was inspired by the cooking of Elizabeth David, shopping at Harrods, Hampstead Heath, the Montessori approach to teaching that was becoming popular. She returned to the US and opened Chez Panisse in 1971. Empowered by the counter-culture movement, she wanted to create a communitarian place where friends come and eat and talk politics. "I wasn't the slightest bit interested in making money, I just wanted to make good food". It was a reaction to food that was mass-produced and corporate. "I hired my friends, I didn't listen to people who told me it was a bad idea. When you work with someone 10 hours a day you want to like them, you see that same family spirit here at Ballymaloe."
She spoke about the influence of travel, particularly to Europe, on her cooking. While most of her books are inspired by French cuisine, Chez Panisse Pasta, Pizza and Calzone was written after her time in Turino in Italy in the 1970's. She also spoke about the disconnect between elite attitudes to food and the grassroots. The Camerons and Obamas are public about eating organic food, but it is too expensive for many people. Her idea of a perfect dessert is a bowl of fresh fruit.
Demo by Sophie Morris in the Kerrygold corner.
After lunch, we went to the very intimate setting of the Drawing Room at Ballymaloe House to listen to Sally Mc Kenna with Leylie Hayes and Hugo Arnold on The Story of Avoca.
Leylie is the Executive Chef at Avoca Cafes and trained at Ballymaloe 28 years ago. After her training she worked at the House under Myrtle Allen, and later under Antony Worrall Thompson in London.
They spoke of the similar core values and philosophy of Avoca and Ballymaloe - start with good ingredients and build relationships of trust with your suppliers. The successful cookbooks were born out of customer requests for their favourite recipes. They described the process of creating the books, shortlisting recipes, and telling the story of Avoca. Their method of testing a potential chef is to ask them to make a simple salad and a soup - "you can't hide behind a soup".
For Avoca, food is about telling stories. The quality must show through in the detail. Food businesses must constantly be re-invested in, given a regular "nip and tuck", and shown some love. You can't take your customers for granted. Similarly to Alice Waters, Leylie also talked about the importance of travel for a chef, for inspiration and ideas.
Future speaking panel! With Christina and Emily, holding court in the Drawing Room at Ballymaloe House
Outside Ballymaloe House
Free scones with butter for everyone!
Jancis Robinson at the Drinks Theatre on Saturday afternoon on 'Wines New Wave - Fresher and Lighter'
Wood fired pizza on Saturday night
Big Shed on Saturday Night
Multi-talented Ted Berner from Wildside Catering DJing.
Sunday morning, fresh as daisies
Our schedules had slightly rejigged to allow for a little lie-in and Sunday morning breakfast sandwiches before our first event. This one had been unplanned but was so entertaining we could have listened to the panel speak all day, it was like listening to a chat between friends.
Allegra spoke of her early career working at Robert de Niro's Tribeca Grill in New York. She left as she didn't want to do posh food for posh people anymore, and went on to create Leon restaurants in the UK, she wanted to make the best food for the most people - "Mc Donalds in heaven". She spoke about the fast food misconception. Afte English rugby player Jonny Wilkinson claimed he would never eat fast food, she wrote to him to tell him fast food doesn't have to be bad food. Formidable lady.
They each spoke of how they started their businesses, either self-funded or with investors, the hard slog of getting open and established, turning an idea into a business, and the need to JFDI, (just fucking do it). It was clear from listening to the speakers that there is no overnight success in the food world, there are long hours and many sacrifices, including having a family, and emphasized the passion you needed to work in the industry.
Had to be done. Bourke nerds
Sunday afternoon at 'Wine - 'The Beauty of Blending', a talk and tasting with Irish Times Wine Writer John Wilson and Wine Columnist
Glass of Bolly
We had french onion soup and raclette from Le Lolo Kitchen's stall.
Most colourful stall was Diva's Boutique Bakery from Ballinaspittle in Cork.
After the Closing Party on Sunday night, and managing to squeeze in most of the food stalls over the three days, we headed home on Monday. We had a Finca Buenvina reunion, bumping into Sam and Jeannie Chesterton, and Fingal, Ivan and Ted from the Matanza in Spain. The chorizo we made in January was apparently enjoyed by both Alice Waters and Rory O'Connell!
It's a unique event in that its small size and no VIP areas mean that you can be ordering pints, or on the dancefloor beside your food heroes. There was a happy atmosphere, everyone we heard speak had a great story to tell and was inspiring in their humility.