The Legacy of Myrtle Allen – A Life Lived Through Food
Myrtle Allen – a celebrated, Michelin star winning chef died peacefully and surrounded by her family on the 13th of June, at the age of 94. Myrtle will be fondly remembered as one of Ireland’s most pioneering and influential chefs and “a renowned matriarch of Irish cuisine”.
A native of Cork City, Myrtle Allen (née Hill) was born on March 13th in 1924 in Tivoli. In 1943, she married progressive farmer Ivan Allen and together in 1948, the couple purchased and moved to Ballymaloe House and the surrounding 300 acre farm in Shanagarry, Co. Cork.
Having almost no cooking experience when she married, Myrtle taught herself to cook using the ample fresh produce grown by her husband in their gardens and farm, and discovered a passion for cooking as well as an undeniable talent for developing home-grown Irish ingredients into elegant dishes. As their 6 children grew up, Myrtle considered what she should do with her life at Ballymaloe House…
“On a winter’s day I sat by the fire alone and wondered what I would do in this big house when they were all grown up – Then I thought about a restaurant”
Ballymaloe House was opened as a public restaurant in 1964 and later as a guesthouse and country house hotel. The Yeats Room at Ballymaloe House, of which Myrtle was the head chef, won her a Michelin star in 1975. She was in fact, the first woman in Ireland to win a Michelin star and retained it for five years.
In the early days of Ballymaloe, Myrtle did all the cooking on the family Aga, while the front of house operations were managed by her husband Ivan and daughter Wendy. The restaurant quickly gained a reputation for quality, imaginative cooking. Menus were written daily by Myrtle herself and were based around what was seasonal and flourishing in their kitchen gardens and what fish and meat was available from the local markets on the day. At a time when local Irish produce was generally considered inferior to ingredients sourced from abroad, Myrtle Allen was a true pioneer of the (now almost ubiquitous) farm-to-plate philosophy of modern Irish cookery. A natural leader, whom, according to her family “never compromised on quality” Myrtle grew the business with a keen focus on team work and excellence, serving home-cooking in an elegant environment.
In 1974, Ballymaloe House became one of the founding members of Ireland’s Blue Book – a collection of Irish Country House Hotels, Manor Houses, Castles and Restaurants. A gap was identified in the market between Bed and Breakfast accommodation and the larger hotel industry and as such the Irish Country Hotels and Restaurants Association (Ireland’s Blue Book) was established and has since grown to over 50 members.
Outside of the restaurant and country house hotel at Ballymaloe, Myrtle Allen has enjoyed a rich and varied career. In 1981 she was given the opportunity to run La Ferme Irlandaise in Paris. The restaurant, under her management, began serving up modern Irish cuisine to a mostly French clientele. She has also published two books: The Ballymaloe Cookbook, in 1977, which contains many original recipes from the Ballymaloe restaurant and has been dubbed the “book that began a food revolution”; and Myrtle Allen’s Cooking at Ballymaloe House, published in 1990.
After the passing of her husband in 1998, Myrtle continued living at Ballymaloe surrounded by an impressive family. She is survived by 6 children, 22 grandchildren and 33 grandchildren. The Allen family have continued to grow the Ballymaloe family business. In 1983 Myrtle’s daughter-in-law, Darina Allen, opening the Ballymaloe Cookery School, which has gained international recognition as the starting point for the careers of many world-renowned chefs. Myrtle Allen has inspired generations of her family in their culinary careers and ignited a passion for cooking and food at Ballymaloe that has spanned over three generations.
Myrtle’s contribution to Irish food and the Irish culinary revolution has earned her two Lifetime Achievement Awards - at the Women in Agriculture Awards in 2011 and the Food Writer’s Guild Awards in 2014. Her love of fine food, fresh and seasonal produce and unwavering belief in quality, locally sourced ingredients shone through in her modern Irish country house cookery throughout her career at home and abroad. Myrtle Allen planted a seed at Ballymaloe that has continued to grow and flourish, and her legacy will live on through the business she’s grown, the generations of Irish chefs and home-cooks she has inspired and her contribution to modern Irish cuisine.
Mrs Allen will be sadly missed by all at the Blue Book family. Ross Lewis, chef and proprietor of Chapter One, had this to say about her passing.
'There are very few people you meet along the way in your career that you can say profoundly shaped how you think.... Myrtle Allen was that one. It was her hard-working ethos and the honest exchange. Always concerned about the small producer or farmer. There was a genuine tenacity in the search for quality. She was the caretaker of Irish hospitality and a true pioneer.'