BOSTON — MYRTLE ALLEN'S restaurant at Ballymaloe House, in Shanagarry County Cork, has won international acclaim for its traditional Irish dishes, made with pure, fresh ingredients from the countryside and the nearby sea. ``Ireland has the very best ingredients in the world,'' Mrs. Allen said on a recent visit to Boston to promote her latest cookbook.
``Our food is not overprocessed or full of preservatives,'' she continues. ``Our farmers don't try to overproduce, and we don't worry about a lot of `food engineering.' We start off with a rather unique purity of fresh ingredients.
``The challenge is to get them on the table quickly without destroying them.''
Her Irish stew is always made fresh; Irish Soda Bread and Brown Bread are baked every day. Carrageen (Irish moss) pudding and homemade apple cake are some of the sweets, along with fresh gooseberry, currant, and blackberry dishes.
And while most Americans will celebrate St. Patrick's Day with parades, shamrocks, and by eating corned beef and cabbage, Myrtle Allen says she thinks the supposedly Irish dish is Irish-American in origin. A more likely national dish, according to a survey conducted by the Irish Folklore Commission, is colcannon, made of boiled potatoes and cabbage mixed with milk and butter.
An energetic woman in her early 60s, Allen was born in County Cork. In 1948, she and her husband Ivan bought Ballymaloe House, a Georgian manor that had been a castle in the 13th century. There, Allen began her varied roles as farmer's wife, mother, writer, hotelier, hostess, teacher, and, of course, chef.
A rambling country manor house with a Norman-era fort, it was a busy family home with six children (all adults now, all living nearby, most engaged in the family enterprise with their parents). By stages, Ballymaloe grew from a market garden to restaurant to cooking school. Then it became a 30-room hotel (about $140 for a double room, including breakfast) with farm shop, gift shop, craft shop, caf'e, and small golf course, making it the quintessential country-house hotel.
Darina Allen runs the cooking school with husband Timothy, teaching the style of cooking she learned from her mother-in-law. (Mrs. Allen used her children as guinea pigs when she wrote a food column for the Irish Farmer's Journal: ``If they would eat my cooking, I was sure anybody would.'') The school has generated four television series and four cookbooks, plus students from around the world.
In the early days, the family gathered eggs from their own hens, milk and cream from their own cows, much of the meat from their livestock, and vegetables and fruit from the nearly 400 acres of farmland. But it was too time-consuming. Today, only fruits and vegetables are grown on the farm, but all the rest is purchased locally.
Some of the many fish served there include mackerel, skate, monkfish, and plaice, as well as oysters, crab, mussels, lobsters, cockles, and sea urchin roe.
Lamb and mutton are also favorites: ``The grazing land is lush and produces excellent lamb and our legendary dairy products,'' Allen claims. ``I like the spring lamb to be ready at the same time as my mint bed,'' she says, ``so I make sure to have one secret, green mint patch in a sheltered place unknown to friends, relations, and even the kitchen staff.''
There is never anything trendy at Ballymaloe, and none of the new fads impress Allen. ``If cooks must have a fashion,'' she says, ``mine is to recapture some of the forgotten flavors and preserve those that may soon die.'' Allen tells a little story:
``I said to a neighbor one day, `The butter your sister is sending us is very good,''' she says.
```Yes,' he answered, `that field always made good butter.'
``That kind of appreciation of flavor and where it comes from is something not found much today,'' Allen says.
The menu at Ballymaloe House includes many traditional Irish dishes, as well as some that display Allen's skill in finding new ways with Irish ingredients. The dinner menu might include zucchini blossoms stuffed with fish mousse, Ballymaloe's own pat'e, fish bisque scented with saffron, potato soup laced with fresh herbs, spiced mutton pie, and smoked Clommel ham, along with vegetables, beautifully cooked and presented (dinners run about $50 per person).
She has researched various dishes. ``I spent one time in my life asking everyone I met if they put carrots in their Irish stew. The answer was invariably `yes,''' Allen says, noting that ``my mother always put carrots in her stew; everyone in Shanagarry did, too. I found carrots going into Irish stew as far north as Tipperary.
``The classic version has no carrots, but it is common practice to include them - in the south, anyway. As this is a traditional folk dish I feel that common usage carries its own authority.''
A measure of the excellence of Allen's cooking came by way of an invitation to cook in France. In 1981, she took over La Ferme Irlandaise, the only authentic Irish restaurant in Paris. It became one of the city's best-known brunch restaurants with Parisians standing in line for the porridge, sausage, Irish smoked salmon, Irish bacon, tomatoes, and black and white pudding.
``It was extraordinary to see them enjoy the simple things we would consider everyday fare. To see very chic Parisians demanding tea with their Irish stew was quite an experience,'' Allen says.
The restaurant closed after a few years because of the hectic commute (for both food and chef) between County Cork and Paris. ``It was just too much, bringing over all the food, and trying to run both the Paris restaurant and Ballymaloe at the same time,'' she says.
Ballymaloe House, in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland, is open all year round except three days at Christmas.