I have just returned from the Ballymaloe Litfest, and I have news. First, dried Iranian limes will be the next must-have ingredient. And second: the recession is over.
I’ll come back to the limes later. On the recession thing, it was hard to escape the impression that things were back on track. How else to explain a sea of cars stretching far off into the distance at Ballymaloe, and hordes of people willing to pay over €100 a head for a cookery demo?
It cost €5 simply to enter the Ballymaloe compound. Then it was anything between €15 and €120 to attend one of the events/readings/pop-ups. And there were no shortage of takers.
A dinner by Yotam Ottolenghi and partner Sam Rami (€110) sold out within minutes of becommong available to book online. Ditto a foraging trip with Alys Fowler (€30).
Once inside, it was a wonderful occasion. Artisan producers everywhere, lovely produce and food and something else, intangible yet present: a real enthusiasm about food.
“There was a time when the only conversation Irish people would have about food was about whether the new potatoes were good this year,” said Seamus Sheridan. Now, it’s pulled pork and own-roast coffee.
The Allen family – or rather, the people they have had the good fortune to marry – are an unseen but guiding presence. What they have created at Ballymaloe is something very special. They are the Kennedys of East Cork.
It’s a compound, with the big house on a rise above a field of barley, a theatre, cookery school and various outbuildings. There is a walled garden. There are hens, glass houses, orchards and fruit cages.
When we drove over from Castlemartyr on Saturday, the entrance we used the night before had become exit-only. We were directed to another entrance, and forced to drive around the estate. It took a good five minutes and brought us in the main gate.
We passed a paddock, a wood and, hold on, what’s that? A golf green, no two, no three, on a mown field rising up to the house. Wow, this place has everything.
In the “Big Shed”, we got chatting to the bearded hipsters who run the Golden Bean coffee roaster. It turns out the Allens have let them use a building on the property to set up their roasting ovens.
That’s one of the nice things about Darina and her clan: they encourage others in a quiet, un-bragging way.
In fact, the only danger is that the Litfest, with its thousand of middle-class foodies and fleets of 4x4s, might have become a bit too flash for them.
Top five things I tasted at Litfest
Jane Russell’s sausages
Pulled pork cassoulet at Simon’s pop-up restaurant
Golden Bean’s cappuccino
La Cucina’s churros-cum-doughnuts
Ballymaloe “Decider” cider
PS – about those limes. Ottolenghi has us all scouring the shops for Sumac and Zatar last year. This year, it’s dried limes. They’re going to feature heavily in his new book, Plenty More.