Champion of Irish Cooking Tells Its Story Beyond Spuds

Darina Allen's new cookbook celebrates authentic, local recipes

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DARINA ALLEN is a household name in her native Ireland. She is the founder of the internationally acclaimed Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, County Cork, Ireland, the author of a series of cookbooks called ''Simply Delicious,'' and host of its companion series on British TV. Last year, on St. Patrick's Day, Ms. Allen cooked an authentic Irish breakfast for President and Mrs. Clinton and 150 guests.

She recently visited the offices of Monitor Radio to talk about her new book, ''The Complete Book of Irish Country Cooking'' (Penguin Studio, 288 pp., $27.95). Following are excerpts from an interview with reporter Sharon Basco:

You probably take a fair bit of ribbing about Irish cooking. When people think about the great cuisines of the world...

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Yes, Ireland does not necessarily come to mind! Nor are we one of the great cuisines of the world. That has to be said, for various reasons, partly to do with our history.

But in fact, when I decided to do this book about five or six years ago, and I had been collecting traditional recipes up to then, I felt quite a considerable urgency. At this point in time there are still people in their 80s and 90s who remember food before this instant whip and blanc mange and so on, when food was natural, wholesome, and what you produced on your own farm or in your area - that's what you ate.

A lot of these old recipes had never been written down, and many of them of course had never been measured - people didn't have scales. So I felt I must get these recipes from people while they're still alive and record many of the things that had not been recorded up to now.

I was astonished at the amount of material that I came across. People invited me into their houses, I cooked with them, and listened to their stories. Many older people passed on things to me with great delight - they said that their children weren't interested, and they were delighted to find someone who was prepared to listen and to record it. That gave me great joy.

How has Irish cooking evolved beyond the stereotypical cabbage, potatoes...

... and corned beef? Well this is another one of the reasons I wrote this book, actually, to change the image of Irish food abroad. In recent years particularly, there's been a complete renaissance of Irish food. Nowadays you can get really good food in Ireland. We indeed deserved the appalling reputation we had for our food for many years.

Until when?

The whole renaissance started about 20 to 25 years ago, but has gathered momentum in the last 15 years.

Now we are beginning to realize what we have in Ireland right under our own noses - because we're a small country, most of our food is produced on quite a small scale, so a lot of our ingredients, our basic produce, has fantastic flavor still.

And also our chefs are beginning to have more confidence to serve our Irish food proudly, and much of it in the traditional way.

Now when you come to Ireland, you don't have to come just for the wonderful scenery and the friendly people, but you can also get really good food, too.

Why is it that you had to encourage people to eat locally produced foods? What was happening?

It's partly to do with a nation growing up. We've always imagined that what they had in Britain or America or somewhere else had to be better than what we had at home.

It's not until you travel, that you realize what you have at home is really great. So I had traveled a great deal, and came home realizing how wonderful what we had in our own gardens and villages and so on was, so I encourage people to use the produce of our area, and of course, always in season.

If you use your local food, you know where it comes from, very often you know how it's produced, and in fact, the people who make the food or grow it for you.

For me, that's terribly important - to know the source of my food as far as possible.

What's the best of Irish cuisine? If someone's going to Ireland, what should they look for?

It depends on the season. When the salmon is in season, it's absolutely wonderful. We also have wonderful lobster and other fish, oysters, and scallops. We have very good meat, good Easter lamb. Our breads, [especially] our soda breads, are great, as are our potato dishes. And nowadays, young chefs are putting things together in all sorts of combinations.

Traditional Irish cooking, you write, also includes classic French cooking, and Indian dishes. Has that gone out of the diet now?

No. In Ireland we've always loved curries, and that has had to do partly with the fact that so many young Irishmen joined the British army, served in India, and brought back little packets of mixed spices and curry powders to the cook in their homes and explained how to make them.

Nowadays, you can find restaurants that serve Thai food, Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, and so on, just like in any other country.

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