Talking to Rachel Allen is like eating a warm cookie, straight out of the oven, her treacle-sweet and friendly TV persona being a natural extension of her own. It is no wonder then that her cookery show Rachel Allen: Bake! has been on air since 2008 and syndicated the world over. It beams into Indian homes, along with Rachel, on TLC. She herself was in the Capital recently as part of a whistlestop tour across India, her first visit to the country, as a goodwill ambassador for Irish NGO, GOAL.
Apart from her shows, Rachel is a highly regarded food writer, cookbook author, teacher and crystal-ware designer. Teaching, however, she says, is central to her work, whether it is through classes, books or the TV.
Food is something that happened along the way, while she was growing up. “I had always loved food and cooking, but never considered that to be a career choice. All I knew was that I wanted to do something creative. My parents suggested a cooking school and, once I got there, I realised that this was it. I had found what I wanted to do with life,” she says with a smile. It probably didn’t hurt that her kitchen, er, temple of learning, was the famed Ballymaloe Cookery School, founded by her to-be mother-in-law chef Darina Allen (who also pioneered the Slow Food movement in Ireland) 30 years ago. It is situated in idyllic County Cork and this is where Rachel now teaches.
Darina, for her part, built the school around the Michelin-starred Ballymaloe House Hotel and Restaurant, open and run by her own mother-in-law Myrtle Allen, otherwise known as the “matriarch of modern Irish cuisine”. “It all started with Myrtle, and funnily enough, she only started cooking after she got married. On the suggestion of some friends, she started writing on food for her local magazine, coming up with new recipes every week. Finding that she really enjoyed crafting dishes, she decided to open a restaurant in her home after her six children had grown up,” says Rachel.
Soon, a discreet advertisement was printed, inviting guests to “come and dine in a country home”. Word spread, and over the next five decades, Ballymaloe House helped shape the landscape of modern Irish food. Myrtle’s practice of changing the menu daily based on the freshest local produce available is still being followed. It helps that Ballymaloe House is on a 400-acre organic farm, run by several generations and branches of the Allen family (Rachel’s husband, Isaac, being one of Myrtle’s 26 grandchildren) and each member is involved in the food industry in some or the other capacity.
“It’s really unusual but almost all of my husband’s family went out, studied or worked for a while, and ended up coming back to Ballymaloe and making their lives here. Usually people, including me, have family all over the world, but most of the Allens are in County Cork and it’s an enormous help; we all help each other with advice and act as sounding boards. For instance, I have a line of pies which are retailed, and it was my husband’s cousin, a baker, who helped me plan it. Similarly, my brother-in-law is planning to open a brewery and brewing school at the Ballymaloe school, using organic grain sourced from the farm” said Rachel.
When it comes to Indian food, Rachel has visited both ends of the spectrum. “While I was growing up in Dublin I ate in plenty of small Indian eateries but I doubt they were truly authentic. At Ballymaloe, we had Madhur Jaffrey coming into give classes on Indian cookery and I think that was my real exposure to Indian food. She really brings the cuisines alive, whether she’s talking about them or just cooking. I consider myself so fortunate that I was able to experience that,” she says.
When she isn’t firing up recipes in the oven, Rachel is a full-time mother. A perfect illustration is her India trip, which is only for five days, since she has to return home by Monday. It is her younger children’s soccer match.