Ahead of the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest of Food & Wine, Darina Allen chats to Ciara McDonnell in part one of a conversation about what to expect this year, and why we need to ask ourselves some hard questions about food production
Darina Allen positively fizzes with passion when she is talking about the artisan producers she champions. “There are just so many amazing producers to choose from here in Ireland. I think what Fingal Ferguson is doing over at Gubbeen is very special. Not only is he creating exceptionally good cured meats, but he has what he calls his ‘piggy co-op’ which not only ensures that he has the best quality meat for his smokehouse, but that local farmers benefit from his success and vice versa.” What Allen is referring to is the co-op model that Ferguson has put into place at Gubbeen. By putting out a call to local farmers to supply Gubeen directly via a well-regarded local abbatoir, O’Donoghues, in Durrus. The animals supplied to Gubbeen must be antibiotic free and bread to the highest welfare possible. It works in so many ways – farmers are encouraged to operate best practice when rearing their pigs and the process is extremely simple with registry via a website www.ourpiggyco-op.com and decent pricing per animal.
“The cheese we are making here is just incredible,” she says. “Toby Simmons at Toonsbridge and Johnny Lynch along with Sean Ferry at Macroom really lead the way in terms of buffalo mozzarella. A lot of these people started out as small artisan producers but now they are supplying very good quality produce to supermarkets while still keeping to the main artisan principles. Toby of course must get a lot of credit for starting out in the beginning and of course now Toonsbridge is making some very interesting cheeses like Cacio Cavello.
Allen and the entire Ballymaloe cohort are intense supporters of local food, reared well. So much so, that the theme for this year’s Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest of Food & Wine is Our Food – What’s The Story? “Litfest started off as being a literary festival of food and wine and in its essence that’s what it still is”, Allen tells me from her office at Ballymaloe. “Virtually everybody who speaks at it has written a book – and it needs to be a proper cookbook. The book must be scholarly; properly researched, beautifully written and contain lovely recipes. From the beginning we decided that we would target and invite the top people in their fields from all over the world. As the years have passed we all feel very strongly about ‘food issues’ here – how our food is being produced; what’s happening in the whole health sector.”
The hope is that by opening the conversation at such a critical juncture will allow some of the greatest minds of the culinary world to create a kind of think tank over the weekend. To hatch plans, and offer solutions. “Apart from having visionaries like Francis Malmann, Kamal Mousawak and the lovely people from Mexico, Eric Werner and Mya Henry – I mean these are iconic chefs and cooks. People make pilgrimages to get to see them. Apart from masses of chefs like that, we have experts coming from the World Health Organsiation – Dr Alessandro Demaio is coming there and he will speak about what’s happening with the local change for international effect – the importance of local food and supporting local producers. There is no doubt about it, there is a big difference in the food created in a small production compared to that of a large production – it’s a different kind of product. There is room for everyone, but that distinction must be made in order to move forward.”
The story of food and where it comes from will be a theme all weekend at Litfest. “We’ll be talking a lot about our food production; where we should be going with it,” explains Darina. “There are a lot of people who think the system is very fractured that we are producing too much cheap food, that the maximum amount of food is being produced for the minimum cost and that everything is being pushed to its limit resulting in these crises that we are seeing every few years. It’s all back to the same thing – everything is being pushed too much. As a result the food doesn’t taste as good, it’s not as nutritious or delicious while at the same time farmers aren’t being paid enough to produce wholesome food. There are lots and lots of things to talk about. We are sleep walking into a crisis, really, and we need to start conversations about this.”
And talk, we will. And eat, and listen to some of the greatest minds of the culinary world come together in the casually fabulous surrounds of Ballymaloe to share their expertise with people who are passionate about the provenance of the food that they cook. From an audience with Francis Mallmann, a chef who strips food back to it’s most simple form in his native Patagonia to showcase its stark deliciousness, to Danielle Nierenberg, founder of Food Tank and world renowned expert on food sustainability, this year’s Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest of Food & Wine is offering a chance to open a conversation about change, in the best way possible.
Half an hour after finishing my conversation, a voicemail crops up on my phone. “Ciara, it’s Darina Allen here. I was just thinking and I forgot to tell you about this amazing woman called Katrina Crawford who is doing unbelievable cold-pressed sesame and peanut oils from Burma. The story is so wonderful, I think you’d love it. Her website is www.bayin.ie. Thanks Ciara.” Simple, to the point, and as always, passion personified.