Gourmet's 50 Women Game Changers in Food: # 38, Darina Allen

Darina Allen was brought up in the 50's, but she wanted a career that most women didn't even attempt back then. Just as she was about to graduate from a Hotel Management School, she turned to working in a restaurant kitchen instead of following the "normal" career path. She wanted to cook soufflés and terrines and learn how to work with herbs. She was ridiculed: not only was this too fussy, but chefs were all men and women were relegated to Tea Rooms. The only other option was to open your own restaurant. Luckily, an instructor had heard about a woman running her own country house restaurant who needed a chef. A few days later, the instructor handed Darina a piece of paper with the senior Mrs. Allen’s address; Darina contacted her. The restaurant owner really wanted a man in her kitchen, but none were applying. She settled for Darina and the rest is Irish culinary history.

The woman who hired her? Myrtle Allen, and she was one of the rarities who DID open her own restaurant. She started a country house restaurant on the family’s farm in Shanagarry, County Cork. (She was to become Darina's mother in law.) The menu there still remains simple. People looked down their noses at what Myrtle Allen was doing. “It was considered downright amateurish,” says Darina. “She cooked like a ‘housewife’.” As it turned out, that’s exactly what people wanted. It’s still going strong over forty years later. This country house restaurant later expanded to become Ballymaloe House, the renowned Irish country house hotel.

Darina came to this love of food naturally. it was what she was raised on. When she was growing up, one of nine children, in the village of Cullahill, County Laois, the family ate what they raised. They had a kitchen garden, raised a cow for milk and kept their own chickens. They supplemented this bounty with locally grown and produced foods. That’s how most country people ate in those pre-supermarket days and how some people in Ireland still do.

Darina became a fixture in the Ballymaloe kitchen learning from her future mother-in-law. The food the older woman cooked “tasted wonderful,” she says; simple dishes that relied on the quality of the ingredients.

In 1983, Darina and her now husband Tim Allen started the Ballymaloe Cookery School on a 100 acre farm a few miles from the hotel. To start with, it was purely an economical decision: “We had to look at what resources we had and what talents we had between us and try and earn a living in a different way. We were in the middle of a farm growing a lot of produce, so one of the obvious things was to start a cooking school."

In its twenty-eight years, the school has grown in stature and repute, and now functions with both indoor and outdoor classrooms. The indoor classroom is the kitchen,and the outdoor classroom is the surrounding farm and gardens. Most of what is used in the school’s four teaching kitchens is raised on the farm; produce from the garden, eggs from the chickens, dairy from the resident cows.

In Ireland, farmers’ markets are springing up around the country. When supermarkets became prevalent, the idea of buying locally lost out to the convenience of one-stop shopping and lower prices. Allen is responsible for the resurgence of farmer’s markets in Ireland. She, saw one in San Francisco in the mid-nineties and “ a light bulb went on. “We could do that here,” was her thought and so she got the ball rolling.

The message that she wants people to hear is that “our food should be our medicine.” She feels it’s a matter of priorities. “We make time and money for what’s important. Food seems to be way down on the list.” She’s passionate about this and it’s contagious.

So there are two lessons that Allen hopes to impart to her students and neither pertains to the act of cooking itself: “One is that all good food starts with really good quality produce. Even more so than that, basically it’s all about the soil, the fertility of the soil, the quality of the soil.

The second lesson Allen teaches is that food is our medicine: “We forget that the whole reason for eating is to nourish our bodies, keep us healthy, give us energy, vitality, the ability to concentrate, and yet, a lot of the time, we shovel anything into ourselves and then we’re wondering why we have a lump or bump or tumor. Nowadays, so many people have bottles of tables and vitamins and minerals. If they were really eating good quality food, they wouldn’t need any of that.”

Family is front and center in this busy woman’s life. Four generations of Allens live within about 15 minutes of each other. Daughter-in-law, Rachel Allen (wife of son Isaac), a cookbook author and Irish TV culinary personality, teaches at the school.

Darina is a culinary celebrity in Ireland, starring in multiple cooking shows and series. She's revising and expanding her 1995 book, Irish Traditional Cooking. Her 2009 book, Forgotten Skills of Cooking, won both the André Simon Cookbook of the Year Award and the Listowel Cookbook of the Year Award in 2010. The award-winning book takes you back to the forgotten kitchen skills no longer necessary if we eat from the supermarket. It’s a Bible for using fresh, local and sustainable food effectively. She won the Gilbeys of Ireland Gold Medal of Excellence in 1991 with Myrtle Allen for her contribution to the Irish catering and hospitality industry. She has appeared on several American television programs, including Good Morning America, and has presented Irish feasts to heads of state such as President Bill Clinton in 1995.

Darina Allen wears many hats, but it all boils down to a commitment to eating fresh, local and sustainable food from the land. Thanks to people like her, it’s still an option.


I chose to make Darina's Brown Bread. It's a basic soda bread. Unfortunately, I've never been overly fond of soda breads....and the one time I made one, I wasn't pleased with the results. So I decided to give this one a try in hopes of a better result. Well, it turned out fine, but I discovered soda breads are just not going to be on my favorite list. Sorry about that. I also made Darina's Champ...but decided to save it for a St. Patrick's Day post. It was simple and divine.
Bench notes: Darina says American flour requires more buttermilk than the Irish flour she's used to working with. Depending on the flour you use, this recipe may require more buttermilk (it did), enough to make the bread dough just come together. In the recipe it says the dough should be sticky...so much so that you could pour it into the pan. Mine didn't get that wet and it turned out fine.
In addition, soak your seeds in water for a bit, drain and dry before topping the bread with them. This will help prevent burned seeds on top.

Darina Allen’s Brown Bread


3 1/3 cups stone-ground wholemeal flour
5/8 cup plain white flour
1 teaspoon of salt
1 level teaspoon baking soda
1 organic egg
1 tablespoon of sunflower or olive oil
1 teaspoon of honey
1 3/4 cups of butter milk
2 generous tablespoons of seed mix – I combined sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and sesame seeds (remember...soak them in water for a while and they won't burn)


Pre-heat your oven to 395 F
Put all your dry ingredients – wholemeal flour, plain flour, bicarbonate of soda and salt – into a large mixing bowl. Mix together.

Mix your buttermilk, egg, honey and oil in another bowl until well blended.

Get a bread loaf pan and pour a teapoon of oil into it. With your hands, make sure all of the inside of the tin is coated with the oil, to prevent the bread from sticking.
Make a well in your dry ingredients. Pour about a third of your milk mixture into the well. Mix the mixture with your hand until it begins to get sticky. Don’t mix it too much
though, it will go a bit tough in the end if you do. Add another third of the milk mixture and mix again. Finally add the last third and mix.

Darina says: "The dough is supposed to be wet and sticky, so much so that you can pour it into the loaf tin.  (Mine was not that wet. See bench note above) As I said above, I’ve had varying degrees of wetness in the dough without changing anything
obvious. And all of the loaves have worked out really nicely, they’ve just all tasted a bit different. So, there’s no need to panic at this stage. Just go with what you have and it’s very, very likely to turn out really well."

Once your mixture is in the oiled loaf tin, pop it in the oven on the middle shelf for between 45 minutes and one hour. Sprinkle seeds on top.

Once your bread is nice and brown, and sounds hollow when tapped, leave it to cool completely on a wire rack before cutting.

Join Mary from One Perfect Bite and all the other participants in this fun series.

Val - More Than Burnt Toast
Joanne - Eats Well With Others
Taryn - Have Kitchen Will Feed
Susan - The Spice Garden
Claudia - A Seasonal Cook in Turkey
Heather - girlichef
Miranda - Mangoes and Chutney
Jeanette - Healthy Living
April - Abby Sweets 
Katie - Making Michael Pollan Proud
Mary - One Perfect Bite
Viola - The Life is Good Kitchen
Sue - The View from Great Island
Kathleen Van Bruinisse - Bake Away with Me 
Kathleen - Gonna Want Seconds
Martha - Lines from Linderhof
Amy - Beloved Green

 Ciao Chow Linda


  1. This bread looks healthy, very nourishing and really tasty!



  2. Ah yes, the tea room and ladies that lunch. I remember it well. I've eaten many a club sandwich in a tea room in the South. Well good for her for not setting on second best.

    Your bread looks delicious Barbara. An excellent choice.

  3. Wonderful post, she's an amazing woman. I've heard of her but didn't know too much so I enjoyed your post, Barbara. The bread looks so good! Looking forward to seeing your Champ.

  4. Again...I totally love these game changer posts. I am learning so much!

  5. This is one of the best write ups on a Game Changer I've read so far, great job Barbara! I hear you about soda bread, I never liked it, but after making the brown version for today's post, I have a better appreciation for it...as I said, it helps a lot to pair it with good homemade butter!

  6. That is one earthy soda bread. I love Allen and have a few of her books. I regret I haven't been to her place when I was in Ireland... I can imagine it would be heaven with the quality of materials she has to work with. HOnestly, Britain and Ireland are perfect for raising things... especially grass-fed animals, and the milk and cheese is truly green in the spring.

    Thanks for the great back story that if I knew it, had forgotten it... she has a great look, doesn't she?

    PS I've only had a few soda breads that I have liked.. many are dry as dust or basically a cake. I am curious to try this with my new CSA's buttermilk to see how it works... wonder if it makes a difference.

  7. I'm kind of liking it that so many of us chose bread. What's so cool about these Irish quick breads is that they're great for soup or sandwiches--unlike American quick breads, which are often sweet.
    Perfect pics!

  8. Delicious bread Barbara! I have never tried making something like this!

  9. great bread and wow that cooking school looks amazing look at those gardens

  10. I'm not fond of soda bread either, but I love her bio and the gardens are impressive!

    Interestingly, a silly little "cozy" mystery I'm reading just used a very similar line... The nearly starving artist main character said something about not having medical insurance so her food had to be her medicine and her insurance against health issues.

  11. Another beautiful brown bread! I so enjoyed reading your post on Darina Allen!

  12. I would love to go to her cooking school! What fun would it be to learn to use all those wonderful vegetables. Another local food supporter!!

  13. Your bread looks delish. You picked a great recipe for our game changers series. Thanks for sharing with us.

  14. Barbara, this was a marvelous post.The background information you provided is really stellar and the recipe is a gem. Thank you!!!Have a wonderful weekend. Blessings...Mary

  15. I love your story of Darina life and accomplishments, so beautiful and clear. Great tip on soaking the seeds before baking to prevent burns! Lovely post, Barbara!

  16. What an amazing woman...and Darina's not too shabby either ;P . Seriously, this is a gorgeous loaf of bread - I love the seedy top. I hope you'll link up and share it w/ BYOB-Bake Your Own Bread this month (http://www.girlichef.com/2012/03/byob-bake-your-own-bread-march-2012.html)!

  17. I loved your background story on Darina and how she came to be at Ballymaloe and met her husband. Such an interesting woman and passionate about what she does.

  18. Soda breads aren't really my thing either but maybe you could turn it into bread pudding? Then it would everyone's thing!

  19. What a wonderful post celebrating one of my favourite chefs. Ballymaloe has long been on my bucket list, the hotel though, not the cookery school.
    I know my limitations in the kitchen!

  20. Your bread looks fantastic...I would love to bake this one. Great post...nicely done!
    I've been to Ireland twice and didn't know about Ballymaloe until I returned from my second trip...I hope I get a chance for another visit!

  21. This really sounds like a delicious healthy bread. I love you sunflower seed and oatmeal toppings. I am in complete agreement with Allen that we have to think of food as medicine.

  22. Love the beautiful seed topping you chose.

  23. I love Darina Allen! She is one outstanding cook! I also love her son Isaac who is married to Rachel Allen! :)

    This bread looks fantastic & so tasty too! ;)

    A great & lovely post!

  24. hearty bread, this is! i love the seed topping (and your helpful tip about soaking the mixture!). nice!

  25. Hi Barbara---thanks for this---I didn't know anything about Darina Allen! fascinating--and yes, a real game changer.

    Soda bread, I find, is tricky--I've had many uninspired loaves, but good ones too. I used a full-fat buttermilk when I made mine, and folded currants into the dough, before forming it into a round--it stayed moister that way, and more flavorful.

  26. What a lady and what a story!

    I remember when I visited Ireland in my teens, that kind of bread was always served, and I thought it was heaven. You may have inspired me to bake for St. Patty's Day!

  27. Hello...just found your blogs. Brilliant. I live new Darina Allens cookery school in Ireland. It is absolutely amazing place and the area here surrounding it is fantastic. Well maybe I am biased but I adore every stone and blade of grass and seaview and fishing boat etc etc. That soda bread is gorgeous with homemade butter as someone said or cheese or with soup. Change around the seed toppings to your liking. No...it would not make a bread and butter pudding....no way..its not that type of bread. Gorgeous with jam but I think let it cool before eating..do not eat while still hot. Why don't you bloggers start a savings campaign and get together and plan a trip to Ireland and spend a day or two at the school here and make sure you meet Darina while your here. Cork city also is amazing .... fantastic places to visit. Go on....start planning...Claire in Ireland...



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