Interview: Darina Allen - Reclaiming forgotten skills

Darina Allen’s latest book focuses on kitchen skills and traditions – such as making yoghurt, keeping hens and baking bread – that have been lost in recent times. She talks to Caroline Hennessy about how the increasing interest in self-sufficiency can help us weather the recession

Interview: Darina Allen - Reclaiming forgotten skills“What’s happened in the last couple of generations is we’ve left all our young people out of the house with no life skills,” Darina Allen says forcefully. “We’ve done them a big disservice because what happens now if they lose their jobs is that they can’t even make themselves a cup of coffee, not to speak of a little bubbly stew or a macaroni cheese.”

Full of passion
Allen, who first became known for her Simply Delicious television series in the late 1980s, has lost none of her passion for educating people about good food. Brought up at a time when butter-making, keeping hens and making the most of inexpensive cuts of meat was a normal part of everyday life, Allen was steeped in a waste-not-want-not ethos from childhood. She has been passing on that philosophy to her students at the Ballymaloe Cookery School for more than 25 years and through her indispensable cookbooks, the latest of which is the just-published Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Lost Art of Creating Delicious Home Produce.

The trigger for the book came when Allen caught a student about to land a bowl of over-whipped cream into the hen’s bucket, not realising that the mess could be edible. “I strained it and washed it and put salt on it and got my little butter bats and showed them how to make butter – and realised at least half the class didn’t connect cream with butter and certainly wouldn’t have known what to do if they over whipped cream.”

Forgotten skills
Horrified at the waste and lack of knowledge, it led to a decision for Allen. “I thought, that’s it! I’m going to do a book with all these forgotten skills in it.”

She had noticed that there was an increasing demand for classes in what she considered basic skills. “People would ring in and say do you teach people to pluck a pheasant or fillet a fish or to make a bit of yoghurt or to build a smoker or to keep chickens?” The school responded by running a series of popular courses on topics such as growing organic vegetables, curing a pig in a day and keeping bees.

“We started all this in the middle of the Celtic Tiger when everything was very prosperous,” Allen remembers. “Since it’s become more difficult, people are more anxious to learn how to do something themselves and are really beginning to see the value of a degree of self-sufficiency.”

Allen believes that education is the key. “It is absolutely vital, not only that we ourselves see the value in passing on these skills but that the Government realises that they are doing a big disservice by not focusing on teaching and equipping children with the skills that they need for everyday life, come what may, whether it’s good times or bad times.”

Although six times a grandmother, Allen shows no signs of slowing down. Still very much a hands-on teacher in Ballymaloe, she has her fingers stuck into many pies, whether it’s attending this year’s Electric Picnic, selling Ballymaloe produce at the Midleton Farmer’s Market, travelling and promoting the Slow Food movement or writing her weekly column in the Irish Examiner. However, she never loses sight of what’s really important.

“A homemaker, the skill of a real homemaker, is something to be cherished and encouraged and appreciated,” she says intently. “And,” she smiles, relaxing a little, “whatever happens, we must always remember to hug the cook!”

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Further Information

Forgotten Skills of Cooking: The Lost Art of Creating Delicious Home Produce by Darina Allen is published by Kyle Cathie
Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School:

Emer Fitzgerald’s Braised Lamb Neck Moussaka (Serves 8)
In Forgotten Skills, Darina Allen writes: “This joint of meat is unquestionably the sweetest and most succulent of all the lamb cuts and has the added bonus of being the least expensive. The potato makes it go further and the raisins add a tantalising sweetness. We love this version of moussaka.”
2 x lamb necks (approximately 1.6kgs / 3 ½ lbs in total)
450g (1 lb) onions
4 cloves of garlic, chopped
2 x 400g / 14oz cans of chopped tomatoes
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 tablespoon fresh marjoram leaves chopped
800ml lamb stock
salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar
2 aubergines (500g /18oz) in total
500g (18oz) potatoes, scrubbed well
50g (2oz) raisins

Cheese Sauce
45g (1½ oz) butter
45g (1½ oz) flour
600ml (1 pint) milk
1 bay leaf
2 egg yolks
1 tablespoon of cream
4oz grated Gruyere cheese

1 earthenware dish 25.5 x 21.5cm (10 x 8½ inch)
1 large casserole

Preheat oven to 150º/ 300°F/ Mark 2. Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large casserole dish.
Season the lamb necks with salt and freshly ground pepper. Brown the meat on all sides in the oil. Remove and place on a plate. Add the onions and garlic to the casserole, cook over medium heat for 3 – 4 minutes until soft and beginning to brown. Add the chopped tomatoes, ground cinnamon, and nutmeg and chopped marjoram. Season with salt and pepper and sugar. Cook for 5 minutes. Add the lamb stock and bring to the boil. Add back in the lamb necks. Cover the casserole and place in a preheated oven for 2 – 2 ½ hours or until tender. The meat should be falling off the bone.
Meanwhile, cook the potatoes in boiling salted until two thirds cooked. Peel and slice into 5mm (1/4 inch) slices.
Slice the aubergine into ½ inch slices. Sprinkle with salt and allow to de-gorge in a colander for half an hour. Preheat a grill pan. Pat the aubergines dry, toss in olive oil. Cook in a preheated grill pan until golden on both sides. When the lamb is cooked, remove from the braising liquid. Coarsely shred the lamb, removing any bones or sinew. Strain the vegetables from the liquid and add to the lamb. Moisten this mixture with some of the braising liquid (3 – 4 tablespoons) Season to taste and add the raisins.
Lay the aubergine slices on the base of the earthenware dish, top with the lamb mixture, then cover with slightly overlapping slices of potato.
For the sauce, melt the butter in a saucepan. Stir in the flour, cook stirring for 1 minute, then draw off the heat add the milk slowly, whisking out the lumps as you go. Add the bay leaf, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Return to the heat and simmer for two minutes.
Mix the egg yolks and cream in a large bowl. Pour the sauce into this mixture whisking all the time. Add half the cheese and pour over the dish. Sprinkle the rest of the cheese on top and bake for 35 – 40 minutes until completely reheated and golden brown on the top.

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