A Saturday Spent at Ballymaloe Litfest
This past Saturday, I ventured out into County Cork to check out the inaugural Ballymaloe Literary Festival (Litfest!), which brought together world famous chefs, successful Irish restaurateurs, food journalists, bloggers, gardening enthusiasts and families looking for a fun day out. And it really was fun.
Ballymaloe is a famous country house, hotel, cookery school and restaurant. It is owned by the most famous family in Irish cooking – the Allen’s (think Myrtle, Rachel and Darina – all fabulous ladies and chefs!). Hordes of Irish chefs give Ballymaloe credit for teaching them their culinary skills and many hopeful chefs continue to go there for a top notch culinary education. The restaurant at the house is well-regarded; the chefs put emphasis on the bounty of quality food Ireland has to offer and keep their ingredients local. The Allen’s have been championing local produce and Irish ingredients in their dining room for 50 years.
Needless to say, I was excited to just be going to Ballymaloe House. With the festival occurring at the same time, I was able to turn the trip into something a bit more educational by attending workshops, and more fun by exploring the grounds and The Big Shed – buying local food products, getting some plants for my garden and, of course, eating my face off.
I was sad that I couldn’t stay for the whole weekend, as the festival went from Friday, May 3rd to Monday the 6th. From keeping an eye on Twitter, it looks like a lot happened during the days I couldn’t attend. That said, I’m so happy I got the chance to go on Saturday. There was such a festive feeling to the place – live music, a well stocked bar serving local brews, kids, babies and dogs absolutely everywhere and it was a gorgeous, warm, sunny day to top it all off.
The first workshop I attended that morning was called What’s the Big Deal? Going the Self-Publishing Route. It was hosted by the owner of The Cake Cafe in Dublin, Michelle Darmody. She walked us through her experience publishing The Cake Cafe’s cookbook, honestly telling us what worked, what didn’t, what was a huge help throughout the process and some of the difficulties she still faces after the book has been published. She answered our questions openly and let us in on her curated list of the positives and negatives of self-publishing.
Next, I attended Chef Neven Maguire’s Modern Irish Cuisine. As executive chef and owner of MacNean House and Restaurant in County Cavan he’s busy enough, but throw in a popular RTÉ television show (Neven Maguire: Home Chef), the charities he’s involved with around Ireland and his work with Bord Bia (Ireland’s national food board) and you wonder how he has time to have a life. He assured us he does take the odd day off and is thrilled with the recent birth of his twins. What struck me was his genuine friendliness and his clear love of not just cooking, but teaching others how to cook and offering his support to young cooks just starting out their careers. Neven whipped up two desserts for us and did a demo on caramel garnish. Again, what a nice, genuine guy! I really enjoyed his workshop.
I finally attended Digesting Unsavory Truths with food journalists Suzanne Campbell, Joanna Blythman and Ella McSweeney. They discussed everything from the lack of coverage on food issues in Ireland, to the horse meat scandal throughout Europe, to obesity in children. The workshop focused around the three journalists giving their unique spin on these issues, all three having been working in food and farming journalism throughout their careers. I have to say I learned a lot from this workshop, coming from Canada. I knew these issues existed, but lacked any real depth of understanding. Hearing three different perspectives on regional food/farming politics has given me a better understanding of where my own opinions lay.
I had very little time between workshops, but really enjoyed shopping from the local vendors in The Big Shed when I had a few moments. I bought coffee beans from the Golden Bean Coffee Roastery (they roast their beans at Ballymaloe House!), some king oyster and golden oyster mushrooms from Ballyhoura Mushrooms, Apple & Cinnamon Granola from Paddy’s O’Granola, I brought home dessert from The Greedy Pig Food Company (Molten Chocolate Cakes – in lovely, reusable ramekins!), was given some famous Ballymaloe Relish and some rocket to plant from Barry’s Nurseries.
Other great stalls included the GIY (Grow It Yourself) table, Rocket Man Salads (had some for lunch – just pick your salad, your ideal yogurt dressing and your fave pickle garnish – delish!) and The Wild Side Restaurant located at the back of the shed. I had some chorizo later on in the day, but they had a lovely looking menu with lots of other tapas-like options.
They have yet to say whether this will be an annual or biannual event, but it was such a success – so well supported by the Irish food community – that I can’t see this not happening again. Next time, I’ll be bringing the whole family (and hopefully I’ll be able to enjoy some beer with my chorizo!).