This weekend Ballymaloe hosted Litfest, a food and drinks literacy festival (nothing to do with literature – just food education). The theme was sustainability. Restaurateurs, journalists and chefs from across the world came to talk and share their experiences. Shanagarry was flooded with, as Darina calls them, food heroes. I went to a few talks and I’m gonna tell you about them!
The first was given by Garret Fitzgerald and James Boland, founders of Dublin’s greatest café, Brother Hubbard. I went to hear about their business, menu and tips for success, and while those elements of the talk were fascinating the thing that I really enjoyed was their personal story. They both used to have well-paying, stable careers and were happy but knew they weren’t living the lives they really wanted. So they packed it all in, went travelling, did the course at Ballymaloe, bravely launched their business in the middle of a deep, dark recession and are now thriving both personally and professionally. Line of the talk : “Life is not a dress rehearsal.”
I also went to a talk by Rebecca Sullivan. I had never heard of her before but was intrigued by the title of the talk “Granny Skills.” What she had to say really struck a chord with me. Basically Granny skills are forgotten skills (Darina) that we can relearn to take control of our lives. Things like making your own cleaning products so you’re not spending a fortune on things with a long list of ingredients you can’t pronounce, made by heartless corporations. Rebecca had us all misty eyed when she talked about how much you can gain in life from listening to your elders. As she said “My nan is always the answer.”
Line of the talk : “It’s frustrating to not be in charge of what goes into your body.”
Then an interview with restaurateur Karen Leibowitz, co-founder of The Perennial in San Francisco. A mini- farming lesson : there are two kinds of plants – annuals and perennials. Annuals need to be re-planted every year and are more damaging to the soil. Surprise, surprise, most crops in conventional farming – corn, wheat – are annuals. Karen’s restaurant works with progressive farmers and uses earth-friendly ingredients, including a perennial, wheat-like grain called Kernza for bread and beer.
Line of the talk : ‘We don’t demand what we want to eat, we eat what the soil needs to grow.’
Andy Ferreira and Ally Kelsey
Finally, Cocktails from Locality to Mindfulness with two ‘farm to glass’ cocktail makers, Andy Ferreira from Cask in Cork and Ally Kelsey from The White Lyan in London, the world’s first bar to use no perishables at all. They talked about how cocktail bars can operate in a way that respects the environment. They use vinegar instead of citrus for sharpness, instead of ice they pre-batch and chill their drinks and don’t even think about asking them for a straw.
Line of the talk : I did not take notes because it was night time and I was drinking so I can’t remember any specific lines, but I’m sure there were many. Sorry.
The highlight of my weekend was on Sunday morning when I helped at the cookery demo for Pakistani chef and writer Sumayya Usmani. I was expecting to be given little jobs like arranging cutlery and maybe some light chopping. I did do those things but I also had real, meaty jobs! I cooked carrots for the gajrela, a Pakistani carrot rice pudding, shaped lamb patties, diced vegetables for a salad and helped plate up the desserts. I was buzzing with excitement by the end of the morning. The cooking we do during class can feel like a dress rehearsal but this was the real thing. I learned more in those few hours than I have on all the course so far.
The last talk I went to was The Great Grocers – Sourcing The Best Ingredients. Five successful merchants told us how they operate. The man who most fascinated me was Peter Ward of Country Choice in Tipperary. He views food shops as the heart of a community. He advised us to surround ourselves with likeminded people who value ethical ingredients.
Line of the talk : “Make friends at Ballymaloe. When you have the choice between going to Spain to lie in the sun for two weeks or touring vineyards to learn about wine choose the latter.”
This really resonated with me. I am learning loads on the course, from Darina, Rory and all the teachers but the main value comes from my classmates. Like my housemate Chrissy who joints chickens and fillets fish with me and my friend Hillary who walks through the herb gardens with me to study them. Food is a community!