Lining the cobblestone streets and alleys of Ireland are bakeries producing first-class pastries and breads that rival any baked good in the world, all readily on display through shop windows. Not as easily viewed are the home kitchens, the oven-warmed places where the Irish turn out daily delights to share with family. We’re offering an exclusive look into the kitchen of the grand dame of Irish baking, Darina Allen, an award-winning cookbook author, iconic star of the television show Simply Delicious, and cofounder of the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, Ireland.
Take us inside your lovely home kitchen in Ballymaloe.
Darina Allen: It’s the center of the house, of course. It’s wide and open, with a long dining room table that family can sit at and be with us as we cook. I have an old AGA stove at the helm, a giant cream vintage cast-iron stove with a basket for the dog next to it so our border terrier can be with us as we cook. We’re lucky enough to live on a 100-acre farm, so we have access to an herb garden and so much lovely produce that we harvest and haul in. My family cooks a lot, so the kitchen is stocked with fine knives and beautiful local pottery baking dishes and the like. The best part is we’re within five minutes of all 11 of our grandchildren, so they’re always running in and out of the kitchen to help, chopping up rhubarb to make rhubarb pie and some rhubarb jam. Soon, the elderflowers will be blooming, and we’ll be adding that to the mix. I love having the family over every Saturday night when we sit down for family supper at my dining room table.
What are your favorite quirks of your kitchen?
DA: I’ve got what I call a “social sink” where I can wash up and chat with the family. Beside it, I’ve got a food scrap bin, which’ll eventually make its way to feed the hens out back. It’s one of my favorite spots to have conversation with the family while still being busy in the kitchen. Then I’m particularly fond of my AGA stove, which is older than I am, and I’m 71. Basically, these cookers were invented in Sweden by a man whose wife was blind but wanted a safe oven to cook with, with the little covers over the stove burners you can open or close depending on whether you’re using them. They originally ran on coal, but this has been converted to gas, and it has four different compartments you can bake in with the top running hottest and the bottom running coolest. And if you’re reared with an AGA, you learn a whole different way to cook. You use your hand to gauge temperature. People who have an AGA refer to them almost as a member of the family because it was this spot where the children and family would gather around to get warm during the cold months. It used to be a fixture at Ballymaloe, but now, I have it proudly in my home.
What, to you, makes Irish cuisine—and the baking in particular—so unique?
DA: All of our food is a reflection of our produce. Take our soda bread. We developed our soda bread to account for the low-gluten soft wheat we grow, which isn’t suitable for traditional yeast-leavened breads. When bicarbonate of soda was introduced to us in the late 1800s, we finally had a leavener that could work with our soft wheat. Back in the day, most people had access to a cow, but without refrigeration, people relied on buttermilk, which was able to be left out for a few days without spoiling.
To you, what makes up the perfect soda bread?
DA: In keeping with tradition, it should only take a matter of minutes to pull together the perfect soda bread. It’ll have the cross marking on top, our form of an Irish blessing, and it should be pricked to release the fairies, or else they’ll jinx your bread. I like to think it’s the perfect bread for when you’re in a time of crisis, because it’s made so fast and it is so satisfying.
When did you first start baking? And what were some of your earliest bread and baked good recipes you worked on?
DA: I feel as though I learned by osmosis, because there was baking all around me as I grew up. A lot of children come to cooking through baking. They’re first drawn in by making little cakes, whether it’s whipping up a sweet Victoria sponge or learning to drizzle icing, because everybody loves baking and everyone is so much happier when there’s a cake on the table. Mummy would bake bread every day, and she would give me a little piece of dough that I would cut into a round, making it a cístín beag, which in Irish means “little cake.” She’d tell me it was delicious, but of course, it was hard as a rock. Mummy would make a brilliant apple pie, with a break-all-the-rules pastry where you cream the butter and then add eggs and flour to create a wonderful, slightly cakey pastry. That was a much more successful bake for me.
Where do you hope Irish baking is headed?
DA: We’ve had a deservedly poor culinary reputation some 25 to 35 years ago. But Ireland has always been so fortunate with our produce. Now, our chefs are traveling so much, and the people have become more adventurous, bringing in Thai, Malaysian, and European flavors to our country. In particular, there’s all of these yummy, edgy bakeries that make the most of their farmers’ market hauls, transforming local dairy and produce into artisan baked goods. There’s a much deeper understanding among our people of what our land can give us. We’re finally taking notice of our luck.
When people visit Ireland, what do you hope they take away from the Irish baking culture?
DA: I hope they understand that it’s such an exciting time for Ireland and our food. The chefs understand our quality ingredients like never before. We’ve grown so much in confidence in the last decade or two. People no longer come just for the lovely landscape or the friendly people. They can now have wonderful food from the time they step onto the island until they leave.
You can find Darina’s Soda Bread Pizza recipe in our Authentic Ireland July/August 2020 issue. You can also visit From Ballymaloe with Love for more amazing, authentic Irish recipes, and follow Darina on Instagram!