The Ballymaloe Litfest got off to a rocky start in our house. To begin with, we had no idea how early the big names would be booked out. Husband was sorely disappointed to miss out on Yotam Ottolenghi, in particular. Nevertheless, this was the BIG DAY OUT marked on our calendar and I was hugely excited about it. Then, the ‘spirited conversation’ was sparked by my Husband’s news that his boss was sending him to China on the very day we had booked for Litfest. WaaaaarGH, was I mad.
And so it came to be that I arrived, alone, at the gates of Ballymaloe at 8.15 yesterday. It’s hard to complain about a scene like this but I did ache to share it with someone.
This is Rory O’Connell, a charmer if ever there was one, waxing lyrical on scallop shells. He was the first person I met, just hopping off his bike, and we shared a cheery greeting on the good weather which, somehow, allayed my loneliness and set me up for the day.
Litfest is all about food, talking food, thinking food, writing food, growing food, flaming, baking, shaking, and feeding food.
‘Going forward by going back’.
This was the mantra I heard over and over. Take food back to the basics. Know what you are eating. Do the simple things well.
The whole event was best encapsulated for me by Eamonn O’Sullivan, a young craftsman from Mayo. At an event headlined by the biggest names in food, he stood up and said,
‘Hi, my name is Eamonn and I make spoons.’
It is the most basic of kitchen equipment, but where would you be without a wooden spoon?
I learned that you should grab the oppurtunity and buy the flipping spoon when it’s there in front of you so that you don’t wind up looking wistfully at the photo of a spoon (sigh).
I paid 16 euros to hear one hour’s worth of fabulous dinner table conversation at 9.30 in the morning. Worth every penny!
I’ve noticed that teachers are often great conversationalists. They are trained to compose their thoughts and structure their story mid-flow but, more importantly I think, they are used to the sound of their own voice. I’m completely distracted by my own voice when I attempt to speak and then swallow my story half-told. I do envy people like Prue Leith who can hold a room in thrall and deliver a punchline with panache.
I’ve bought Prue’s novel ( we are on first name terms, now that we’ve been chatting, don’t you know) and she signed it for me. I’ll let you know if she is as entertaining in print as she was in person.
One thing I learned; it’s important to cross your T’s when writing for newspapers, lest you prescribe the addition of two lbs of treacle to your marmalade recipe when you meant to say 2 Tbs. That mistake cost The Daily Mail ‘seventeen and tuppence’ in claims for the cost of ruined ingredients and it cost some other poor sod their false teeth.
Sally McKenna, Hilary Quinn, Seamus Sheridan.
The fringe (read free) events included a discussion of what the new food trends will be albeit with a withering tone towards food trends in general. It’s not easy to have your hand-made sourdough doughnuts and eat them.
On the subject of psychobiotics, Seamus Sheridan (of Sheridans’s cheesemongers) was adamant that the only depression-fighting fermented food you will ever need is a cheese toastie. I’m with the man on that. He also claims to have introduced Prosecco to Ireland. Hmmmn, Husband might have something to say.
I learned that the next big things might be finger limes, a weird fruit from Australia.
Koji (Aspergillus oryzae) has already made it big in the world of mould and can be found on Killeens cheese which, by the way, goes extremely well with sake. To be filed under ‘fairly useless information’.
La, la, la Impromptu Choir.
From this guy, I learned that I can still sing. In a tent, in a walled garden, with a group of complete strangers, I learned to sing Babylon in three parts, in half an hour. Pretty cool. Click the link to hear Don McLean teach an audience the same thing. It will raise the hairs on you.
Elizabeth Luard in conversation with John McKenna.
I learned that pigs, in contrast to cattle, goats and sheep, can not be herded. The pig is a marker of a settled community. Nomadic people don’t eat pork. This is just one example of religious and cultural tradition following on from practical fact.
I learned that mageiros is the ancient Greek word for a cook but also the word for a butcher and also the word for a priest. All the same.
I learned that every festival, every barbecued feast, every everyday dinner or teapot poured, is a sacrament. That’s just the way it is. That’s how we are wired. I love this. I loved her.
The man who cooks with fire. Not having Netflix, I had no idea of Mallman’s celebrity status. He is certainly compelling. He looks and speaks more like a poet than a chef.
I learned that good cooking is a craft, not an art.
‘the silent language of measuring and deciding as we transform ingredients into the meal of our imagination is rooted in the learning of all our senses over a thousand nights of cooking.’
That makes me feel considerably better about cooking our end-of-week ETF (empty the fridge) dinners.
The Crossroads, Where Next?
I learned that 40% of the world’s farmers are women.
I learned that, while there are lots of scary statistics, there are also lots of solutions and new, or very old, ideas.
I learned that there is no question that this Earth can produce enough food for all the people on it. We might just need to get better at sharing.
Mya Henry and Eric Werner.
They are gorgeous, aren’t they? You can read about Hartwood in this New York Times article. I learned that, if you are going to set up a restaurant with no walls, no running water and no electricity, you need to have a man in your life who looks at you like this:
Between all these events, I wandered around the myriad stalls in The Big shed.
I kept an eagle eye out for Yotam Ottolenghi. I thought it would cheer Husband up if I could get a signature, or at least a photo, but to no avail. I could catch neither sight nor sound of him.
I learned that Kombucha fermented nettle syrup can, at best, be described as ‘refreshing’.
I learned that caciocavallo cheese with artichokes and spinach make the best cheese toastie I’ve ever eaten (from Toonsbridge).
I learned that men can multi-task……that DJ is making butter.
I learned that rhubarb relish is a thing of wonder which I need to figure out how to make. Likewise, rosehip jelly.
I learned that I like to drink cacoa husk tea and blackcurrant cordial.
I learned that I like gin (ok, I knew that already but no harm in making sure).
I learned that being alone is a great way to meet people. I met a woman who had flown in from New York but was unlikely ever to fly out again given the weight of cookery books under her arms. I chatted with a man who dreams of writing a book about the restaurant he runs in Cornwall. I met a woman, a perfectly normal woman, who admitted to owning 1300 cookery books. I learned from her about a site called Eat Your Books which will help you to use all those cookery books more efficiently.
My four children were left to their own devices for the afternoon and I was concerned about what gory scene of sacramental activity might greet me when I returned home.
Thankfully, they were all in one piece, or four wholes (you know what I mean) and the only mystery was the disappearance of two dozen apples. Whether the kids were shooting apples off each others head (quite likely) or holding Cool Hand Luke style apple-eating competitions, remains a story untold. Frankly, I don’t want to know.
Husband phoned from Heathrow to tell me that Yotam Ottolenghi, and entourage, were in the row in front of him on the Cork-London flight. Being only a half-trained blogger-husband, he failed to take a photograph for me 😉
I learned that, sometimes, it’s all about being in the right place at the right time.
I had a ball at Ballymaloe. Bravissimi.