Myrtle Allen, Who Elevated Irish Cooking, Dies at 94
Posted June 18, 2018 6:07 p.m. EDT
Myrtle Allen, who defined the modern era of Irish cooking by using a bounty of locally sourced ingredients at Ballymaloe House, the renowned restaurant she created in her Georgian country home in the 1960s, died Wednesday in Wilton, a suburb of Cork City. She was 94.
Darina Allen, a daughter-in-law who runs the offshoot Ballymaloe Cookery School, said the cause was pneumonia.
Allen opened her restaurant in Ballymaloe House in 1964, having bought the property and its 300-acre farm with her husband in 1948. Originally the site of a 15th-century Anglo-Norman castle, the house, an imposing, ivy-covered stone landmark near Shanagarry, County Cork, was largely rebuilt around 1820.
The restaurant soon came to symbolize the farm-to-table movement promoted by American chef Alice Waters. And it helped make Irish cooking competitive with French and Italian cuisine, receiving a one-star rating (out of a possible three) from the Michelin Guide in 1975.
“She is the Holy Grail, the mother ship,” food writer Allen Jenkins wrote this year in the British publication Observer Food Monthly. “She is where Irish food began.”
Eschewing recipes from the French culinary canon, Allen created dishes based on the food around her. From her 2-acre walled garden came vegetables and herbs. Her free-range hens supplied the eggs. Fish came from the small fishing boats of the seaside village of Ballycotton 4 miles to the southeast, and shellfish arrived from Kenmare Bay in west Ireland. Meat was raised on neighboring farms. Cheese came from a local artisan.
“It is the ingredients — the provisions that come into the kitchen — that rule what the menu is going to be,” she said in “Myrtle Allen: A Life in Food,” a 2013 documentary. “What’s in good condition to cook at that moment, nice and fresh.”
For many years Allen wrote the daily menus in her elegant hand, advertising dishes like Carrageen moss pudding, watercress soup, hot Galway rock oysters, brown yeast bread, Irish stew, roast East Cork spring lamb and Ivan Allen’s dressed crab, named for her husband.
New York Times political reporter R.W. Apple Jr., who also wrote about gastronomy, praised what he called Ballymaloe’s “meticulous, timeless food” in 2000.
“It is not easy to capture the spell that Ballymaloe casts,” he wrote. “But it has a lot to do with the illusion — and it is an illusion, of course — that you are a guest in a house with an unusually accomplished cook. In a world of artifice, everything here is genuine.”
Gladys Myrtle Hill was born in Tivoli, a suburb of Cork City, on March 12, 1924. Her father, Henry, was an architect. Her mother, Elsie (Stoker) Hill, was a homemaker.
Myrtle graduated from a boarding school in Waterford and attended Cork College of Commerce. She met Ivan Allen, a farmer, at a fundraising event at Ballymaloe, and they married when she was 19.
She had never cooked until then and received her first lesson, from her new husband, when they returned from their honeymoon. He taught her one of his bachelor favorites: scrambled eggs and mushrooms.
Their purchase of Ballymaloe in 1948 fulfilled Ivan Allen’s dream to own a farm. Myrtle Allen went on to cook for her husband, six children and farmhands, using what the farm produced: milk, butter, eggs, fruit, vegetables, and home-raised pork and veal.
But years later, with most of her children grown, Allen had a decision to make.
“On a winter’s day, I sat by the fire alone and wondered what I would do in this big house when they were all grown up,” she was quoted as saying on the Ballymaloe website. “Then I thought about a restaurant.”
They opened the restaurant in the family’s dining room and advertised it in a local paper, writing: “Dine in a Historic Country House. Open Tuesday to Saturday. Booking essential. Phone Cloyne 16.” She did not ignore the French culinary tradition; she had spent time at L'École des Trois Gourmandes, the Paris cooking school established by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, but mostly to learn how to make chicken terrine, Darina Allen said.
Success came quickly at Ballymaloe, which expanded into two more rooms in the house.
“We could have 60 people for dinner,” Fern Allen, one of Allen’s daughters, said in a telephone interview. “People were sitting on the stairs, waiting for their tables. They wouldn’t tolerate that now.”
The restaurant now seats up to 120 diners in seven interconnected dining rooms.
Allen recalled having anxiety about the restaurant in the early years.
“I used to have a nightmare that the cars were coming on and on and on, one after the other, and I wasn’t prepared for them all,” she told The Irish Examiner in 2014. “And they never stopped coming, the people never stopped pouring in, and I didn’t know what to give them to eat.”
Around 1968, the Allens began to convert bedrooms in the house to hotel rooms, and an extension eventually brought the number of rooms to 30.
“When we took in the first few guests,” Allen said in the documentary, “my husband said, ‘If they ask us to stand on our heads, we’ll stand on our heads to please them.'”
The Allens continued to live at Ballymaloe, even as it grew into an increasingly bigger business.
In 1981, Myrtle Allen took her regional Irish cuisine to France. She had been asked to take control of La Ferme Irlandaise, a restaurant in Paris opened as a showcase for Irish produce. But it had started to fail. On her first visit, she declared that the menu was too French. So she overhauled it, adding dishes like Irish stew and Irish smoked salmon.
During the dozen or so years she ran the Parisian restaurant, it was acclaimed as one of the best non-French restaurants in the city.
In addition to her daughter Fern, Allen is survived by her sons, Tim and Rory; three other daughters, Wendy Whelan, Natasha Harty and Yasmin Hyde; 22 grandchildren; and 36 great-grandchildren. Many members of her family work or have worked at Ballymaloe. Her husband died in 1998. Asked in the documentary if she was chauvinistic about sticking resolutely to local ingredients for her restaurant, Allen said she was.
“It’s what I’ve worked with all my life,” she said. “I’ve worked abroad doing Irish food promotions and I always use Irish materials, which are far superior to other materials I’ve worked with.”
She added, “I just know how to use my own materials the way an artist knows his paints.”