Myrtle Allen obituary

Restaurateur and writer who created a new Irish cuisine rooted in the farm-to-table concept

Myrtle Allen, who has died aged 94, is widely credited with having established a new, modern era in Irish food and raised its international profile.

In 1964 she placed a notice on her gate, inviting people to dine in her rural home, Ballymaloe House, near Shanagarry in County Cork. Customers arrived each night in her blue dining room, called the Yeats Room after her husband’s collection of Jack Yeats paintings.

Decades before the country house restaurant concept became popular, Allen served a menu that quickly gained a following. Using the best ingredients from her husband’s farm and other local sources, she set the menu for the day after the dayboat fishermen had returned from Ballycotton harbour and delivered their catch, and the best produce had been selected.

Allen fostered strong relationships with suppliers, ensuring that they were paid properly for producing excellent ingredients. A selection of Irish farmhouse cheeses was served each night, at a time when artisanal cheeses were made by only a handful of independent producers across the land. Local children foraged for wild mushrooms, blackberries, elderflowers, damsons, sloes and other wild foods, which Allen incorporated into the menu.

At a time when Irish food suffered from a poor reputation, Allen recognised that the ingredients on her doorstep were as good as those from anywhere in the world. Her style of cooking was simple and elegant, rooted in the farm-to-table relationship. Behind it all lay a deep respect for the land and a strong belief in nourishment through excellent food.

As her unconventional business grew, the dining area was expanded and bedrooms were converted into overnight accommodation to obtain a wine licence, transforming the family home into a busy hotel and restaurant. From 1962 Allen was the cookery correspondent of the Irish Farmers Journal, combining cooking and writing. In 1975 she became the first Irish woman to receive a Michelin star, which she held for five years. The Ballymaloe Cookbook was published in 1977 and Myrtle Allen’s Cooking at Ballymaloe House in 1990.

“The nice thing about Ballymaloe,” said the restaurateur and food writer Tom Jaine, “apart from the excellent cookery, proper service and handsome surroundings, was its lack of stuffy pretension. The symbiosis of farm and kitchen brought it down to earth, injecting a pleasing reality.”

Ballymaloe House, County Cork, where Myrtle Allen established her country house restaurant in 1964.
Ballymaloe House, Cork, where Myrtle Allen established her country house restaurant in 1964. Photograph: Good Hotel Archive

Daughter of Elsie (nee Stoker) and Henry Hill, Myrtle was born in Cork. Her father was an architect. At a Ballycotton lifeboat fundraising dinner in Shanagarry she met Ivan Allen, a farmer, and they married in 1943. Myrtle taught herself how to cook in order to feed her husband and then her growing family. In 1948, they bought Ballymaloe, a rambling country house built on the site of a 15th-century Anglo-Norman castle, where they brought up their six children. Ivan, a progressive farmer, created both a mixed farm and a horticultural enterprise in Shanagarry.

In 1968 Darina O’Connell joined Ballymaloe and worked with Allen for several years cooking and teaching cookery classes. She married Allen’s son Tim and they went to live on a nearby farm, Kinoith, which they established as the Ballymaloe Cookery School. Darina Allen has described her mother-in-law as generous with her knowledge: “She inspired a generation of chefs.”

Allen made large quantities of chutney using the tomatoes grown in her husband’s glasshouses, and this turned into a successful business in its own right: Ballymaloe Country Relish, run by her daughter Yasmin Hyde and granddaughter Maxine Hyde. Indeed, the Ballymaloe name is now a global brand and the Allen family are involved in many successful food businesses in Ireland. Allen’s daughter-in-law Hazel has managed Ballymaloe House since the 1970s. The TV cook, restaurateur and food writer Rachel Allen is a granddaughter-in-law.

The menu at Ballymaloe House has changed little over the years, resisting trends. “It’s a memory that remains, as indeed does the tradition in this remarkable house,” said the chef Jeremy Lee. “The presence of Myrtle Allen ensured all was as it should be and in plentiful amounts, which included welcome, comfort and cheer.” Claudia Roden described Allen as “a great inspiration. She represented everything that was wonderful and lovable about Ireland. She created a beautiful world.”

Ivan Allen died in 1998 and Mrs Allen (as she was called, even by close family) continued to live at Ballymaloe House for the rest of her life. She was regularly seen attending dinners and casting her eye over service in the kitchen. Her handwritten instructions for making the perfect porridge using stoneground Macroom oatmeal are still fixed to the kitchen wall.

In 1999 she gained an honorary master’s degree from Trinity College Dublin and in 2000 an honorary doctorate from University College Cork. She received the Women and Agriculture lifetime achievement award in 2011, the Irish Food Writers’ Guild lifetime award in 2014 and, in April this year, the Hall of Fame award from touRRoir/Good Food Ireland.

Allen is survived by her four daughters, Wendy, Natasha, Yasmin and Fern, two sons, Tim and Rory, 22 grandchildren and 36 great-grandchildren.

• Myrtle Allen, restaurateur and food writer, born 13 March 1924; died 13 June 2018


Charlotte Pike

The GuardianTramp

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