Litfest17: A Festival of Food and Food Literacy
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When Myrtle Allen opened her home, Ballymaloe House, in 1964 to create Ireland’s first country house hotel, she could hardly have imagined that half a century later she would see thousands of merry revellers thronging to a festival of food and food writing in her farm shed. And yet, that is exactly what happened last year at Litfest16.
Ballymaloe House, which has been included on Condé Nast Traveller Magazine’s Gold List, has long reigned as Ireland’s premier foodie destination.
Myrtle’s daughter-in-law, Darina Allen, together with Darina’s brother, Rory O’Connell, founded the now famous Ballymaloe Cookery School nestled in its own 100 acre organic farm. Driven by a genuine belief in the fundamental importance of good food, Darina Allen has been the vanguard in a hard-fought campaign to protect and improve the quality of the food we eat. She has been instrumental in setting up the Farmers’ Market Movement in Ireland and is the councillor for Ireland in the Slow Food Movement.
Darina Allen’s model is to empower the individual. She began, in a 1980s TV series called Simply Delicious, teaching the people of Ireland how to make ice cream, and even more exciting, how to serve it in a magnificent ice bowl, complete with frozen, edible flowers. Inspired with a new-found faith in our culinary ability, we cleared our freezers of fish fingers and set to with our whisks and our nesting Tupperware bowls. Darina Allen, despite her rather stern manner and impressive spectacles, made cooking fun.
Here at Litfest HQ, we define food literacy as understanding where the food you eat comes from, who produces it and whether or not that food is good for you, nutritious, delicious and wholesome.
Litfest at Ballymaloe began five years ago as a celebration of excellent food and food-writing. This year, once again, an unparalleled A-list of chefs and food writers will provide demonstrations, host intimate dining events and wax lyrical about good food.
Myrtle Allen’s Big Shed will, once again, rock with a party atmosphere and host an extraordinary array of stalls purveying the very best food and drink Ireland has to offer. At the core of this festival will be a symposium discussing the future of food production in Ireland and globally, as well as a talk about food production in space.
I spoke with Darina Allen about her hopes and dreams for Litfest17 and beyond. Read the interview below.
Litfest has changed its emphasis this year from food literature to food literacy. Can you explain the concept of food literacy?
People – not just children but older people as well – have become more and more disconnected from any knowledge of how their food is produced and where it comes from. Food has become something you pick up, wrapped in plastic, from a supermarket. Here at Litfest HQ, we define food literacy as understanding where the food you eat comes from, who produces it and whether or not that food is good for you, nutritious, delicious and wholesome. The more you know about where food comes from, the better the choices you can make. Essentially, food literacy is about understanding the impact of your food choices on your health, the environment and the economy.
Your brother, Rory O’Connell is Litfest’s festival director and co-founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School. You are both natural teachers and possessed with a real drive to teach and to educate. Where does that stem from?
Golly. Well, we started the cooking school in 1982. Neither of us had any training as teachers but we are both passionate about food. I know that may be an overused term but, in a way, we both realise how fundamental food is to good living, to health, to everything really.
To be able to teach, obviously you need the knowledge, but if you really want the person to be able to do it, then you’ll be a good teacher. If you really want them to learn, then you’ll impart the enthusiasm and the passion as well as the knowledge. It can be an irresistible combination.
The theme of Litfest 17 is Responsibility. What message are you hoping visitors will take away from the festival?
Take back responsibility.
Think how much depends on the food we eat and yet, what are we like? In the last five or ten years we have handed over the power over our food choices to huge multi-national food companies who can scarcely be expected to have our best interests at heart.
They may make all sorts of health claims for their products but we can no longer say that we don’t know that many of these highly processed foods are doing us damage. So we need to take back responsibility for our own health, not just expect the government or anybody else to do it for us. Also, realise that our food choices really impact on other people – on farmers and food producers.
The current cheap food policy is an absolute disaster in health terms and in socioeconomic terms. We are simply not paying our food producers, our fishermen and farmers, enough to produce nutritious, wholesome food. You simply can’t do it for half nothing.
We know we can’t go on with business as usual. It is no longer an option. The whole global food system is fractured and broken. We need to find a new paradigm.
Are you hopeful that people can be convinced?
It’s like water dripping on a stone. We all need to contribute our tuppence ha’penny worth to increase awareness. To that end, I’ve been working on a book for three years now. The working title is For God’s Sake, Grow Some of Your Own Food! (Darina’s new book is due out in Autumn 2017 and will more likely be titled Harvest).
The book is to encourage people, whether they live in an apartment with just a window or a balcony or a fire escape or an allotment or a little back garden, for God’s sake, just grow something of your own.
You’ll find you’ll be unlikely to spray your own food with pesticides and then you know that it will be wholesome and nourishing. You will also have a whole other perspective on how food is produced.
If you grow something yourself, something extraordinary happens – there's a fundamental mind shift. People suddenly realise, first and foremost, how long it takes to produce something. If you sow a seed, take carrots for example, it could be three months before they are ready to harvest, in many cases longer than that. It makes people realise how ludicrously cheap food is – how it can’t be done. How can it cost a few cents for a cabbage that was looked after in the ground for three months or longer?
If you want cheap food, you get a ton of chemicals and a ton of pesticides and that is what’s happening at the moment.
I was brought up with the belief that, if you didn’t put the money and the effort into the food on the table, you’d certainly give it to the doctor or chemist. Agriculture should be our primary health service. Our food should be our medicine.
So we need to take back responsibility for our own health, not just expect the government or anybody else to do it for us.
Which speakers are you most looking forward to hearing at Litfest this year?
We have an extraordinary line up of speakers again this year. As well as all those listed on the website, Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, has agreed to join us at Litfest. He will speak about food and food literacy. Brian McGinn, the producer of Netflix’ Chef’s Table, will be speaking. He has mentioned that he is searching for young chefs who are pushing boundaries. Will he find someone like that in Ireland? Yes, it’s great to get him to Ireland. Perennial Plate filmmakers came to Litfest a couple of years ago and returned to Ireland afterwards to make some fantastic films about Irish food producers. We are hoping we can get Brian McGinn to do something in Ireland. We have lots of people pushing boundaries but the main thing is for them to avoid becoming too preoccupied with garnishing - the twiddles and bows and smarties on top, but be more concerned with the quality, the flavour, the freshness and the purity.
Could Ireland become a model for a sustainable food culture?
We could if we can really deliver on the image we have. We certainly are much favoured by nature. We have acres of rich, fertile soil, a long growing season and lots of coastline. Many countries simply can’t grow this quality of food but the good Lord, or Mother Nature, has actually given us all the ingredients to promote superb raw materials. We are very fortunate here in Ireland. We can grow like nowhere else in the world so there’s no excuse for us.
Massimo Bottura refers to Modena, Italy, as the home of slow food and fast cars. Is Ballymaloe giving Modena a run for her money?
That would be my dream. My dream is for Ireland to be an organic food island. We have the opportunity in Ireland. We are an island nation and we’re quite small. At a time when people the world over are getting more and more concerned about what’s in their food, can you imagine how people would beat a path to our door here in Ireland if they could absolutely fully trust what’s in the food.
That is my dream – that Ireland would commit to being an organic food island. And why not? Why flipping not?!
Myrtle Allen may never have dreamed of seeing 8000 people enjoying great food in her farm shed. But then again, maybe she did. The people at Ballymaloe dream big and, what’s more, they are happy to teach you how to dream big too.
If you want to indulge in some top-notch, delicious Irish food, beat a path prontissimo to Litfest 17 at Ballymaloe from May 19th to 22nd, 2017. Contributors to Litfest17 include Monika Linkton of Brindisa, Gardener's World forager, Alys Fowler, Sally Clarke, Margot Henderson, filmakers David Puttnam and Brian McGinn, Imen McDonnell, Trish Deseine and the wonderful Claudia Roden. The full programme of events and speakers is available at Litfest.ie
For those not fortunate enough to come to Cork, last year’s symposium can be viewed at Litfest.ie.
A mouth-watering selection of books from Darina Allen, her brother Rory O’Connell, her daughter-in-law Rachel Allen and, of course, Myrtle Allen is provided below along with wonderful books from other Litfest contributors.