On her first birthday in 1925, Myrtle Allen’s parents gave her a present of a myrtle tree, which was planted in Tivoli, where she was born.

Then it moved to their new house in Monkstown, overlooking Cork harbour, and later when she married her husband Ivan, that same tree moved to the grounds of Ballymaloe.

Today that myrtle tree sits proudly in front of Ballymaloe House, greeting each visitor that arrives, overseeing the workings of the busy country house.

This tree is symbolic of Myrtle’s lifelong connection with nature, which could be seen in every element of her cooking, and which suitably impressed the late Larry Sheedy when he visited Ballymaloe House in 1962.

Larry was the first full-time journalist to be appointed in the Irish Farmers Journal and it was on this visit, he asked her to take on a few cookery articles.

Published in 28 July 1962, Larry wrote:

“Breakfast in Myrtle Allen’s home on a recent Friday was for 13 people (including myself). Chief item was a simple dish of Swiss origin.

"It was oatmeal steeped in cold water and served with a mash of whatever fruit was in season – in this case strawberries (the family favourite is grated apple).

“Lunch was for 12 people and the menu was fresh mackerel bought on the pier in Ballycotton.

guiding maxims

“At all times, Ms Allen cooks for big numbers (she has six children) and her guiding maxims are that the meal should be simple but varied, tasty and popular but well within the budget of a farmer’s wife.

“While talking in this vein, I asked her to tackle a series of cookery articles for our ‘Farm Home’ section. Happily, she agreed and this week we have the first article written by a farmer’s wife for farmers’ wives.”

Ms Allen’s then column ran on a weekly basis until the early 1970s. Her daughter-in-law Darina Allen, herself a renowned chef, reflects: “Myrtle was well aware of the importance of her role in writing for the Irish Farmers Journal.

She realised that it was the best way to reach the majority of people – particularly because the Journal was going into virtually every house in every parish in Ireland. Her columns gave readers a glimpse into her life and encouraged them to be a bit more adventurous, but with a focus on local produce, nutrition and economy.

“Her writing also urged readers to think about the value of traditional dishes and the importance of local farm produce,” she continues.

“Countless people have told me that her column was the first thing they turned to every week when they got the Irish Farmers Journal, or that they might discuss the latest recipes when they met for mass.

"In a way, they felt she was talking to each and every one of them. At the time, cookbooks were not as widely available or circulating to the same extent as they are today, so many people kept cuttings of her weekly columns in scrapbooks, thereby creating their own booklets or cookbooks of Myrtle’s recipes. I think we cannot underestimate the impact she made through the Irish Farmers Journal and the legacy value of her weekly writings.” CL

‘Myrtle was a trailblazer of her time’

At its simplest level, Myrtle Allen’s column offered recipes with tips and advice on cookery, food shopping and ingredient selection. However, at a deeper level, her contributions to the Irish Farmers Journal – at this very formative period for Ireland, particularly rural Ireland – can be seen as a very rich insight into the significant transformations taking place in food production and in food and consumption behaviours.

Her columns are a snapshot of a traditional agricultural society embracing the perceived sophistication of modern life played out through recipes and food narratives.

In this respect, Myrtle Allen’s food columns bear witness to a rapidly changing Ireland and, in this 75th anniversary year for the Irish Farmers Journal, we can look back on her writing as an invaluable commentary on a society in flux.

Fresh approach

From her very first column ‘Who are we cooking for?’ in the 28 July 1962 print of the Irish Farmers Journal, Myrtle takes a fresh approach to food and cookery.

Her guiding principles in recipe selection were economy (many of her recipes were costed), nutritional value and their suitability and appeal to diverse tastes from the ‘hungry hoards in from the fields to the finicky, and to the old person with no chewing power.’

While this approach was common across other food writers, she set herself apart by emphasising the importance of quality, local and in-season ingredients thatwere inextricably linked to fine flavour.

With this baseline set, the final element in her approach was to encourage an aesthetic flair in presenting cooked dishes and prepared food.

Underpinning her approach to food and cookery was her close connections to food production and her rural location, and her column was positioned as one ‘written by a farmer’s wife for farmers’ wives.’

As a farmer’s wife, she had greater access to and credibility among communities of rural women, making it more likely that her directions and opinions would encourage farmers’ wives to rethink the value of farm produce and the foods produced close to home.

Through her articles, she chose to profile ingredients and dishes that were viewed with little or low regard: hours-old mackerel, elderberries, mussels, clams, eels, brown soda bread and oatmeal porridge.

Recipes for dishes she embraced – like rhubarb pies in the rhubarb season, local specialties like Kerry mutton pies, ducks from the neighbour’s fowl yard or traditional ingredients like carrageen moss and garden seakale – were elevated in her columns to exceptional flavourful creations.

She made the every-day, the traditional and the ordinary seem extraordinary.

This approach gently encouraged readers to appreciate the integrity of Irish ingredients and to respect the labour and skill of the farmer, the home-baker, or the butcher by using careful and gentle cooking techniques that turned ingredients into visually beautiful plates of food.

Myrtle therefore brought something of the philosophy of La Bella Figura (the Italian idea of dressing well to make an impression) to Irish food - she presented it to us in lovely ways and wowed us into appreciating what we ourselves could produce.

Ground-up approach

Her from-the-ground-up approach to food production and cooking was a distinctive feature of her writing. Rather than limit herself to gastronomic concerns, Myrtle considered food from a holistic perspective.

This humble and unpretentious character of her food writing won for her a following across the Irish Farmers Journal’s readership.

She used her work here to build respect, assign value, and create pride in home-produce, but she also used it as a space to develop, refine, redevelop and hone her pioneering philosophy of Irish food and Irish food culture.

In the 1960s, Myrtle’s approach was wildly out of step with current trends and her food columns were clearly at odds with cultural norms.

At that time, as Ireland was undergoing rapid social, economic, and cultural changes, Irish food and cooking was often shunned and undervalued as the country took a more progressive approach to production and it took its gastronomic cues from outside trends and fashions.

Her opinions and her approach to food and cookery were clearly out of step with prevailing fashions that were eager to embrace a more modern food system; one that valued a global sense of diversity, novelty, convenience and ethnic cuisines.

She was a contrarian disturber and a stand-out trailblazer. While her ways with food were against the mainstream, she stood as a model of alternative thinking that promoted reflection in a time of change.

What made her different is that she looked inward and strove to elevate what was good home-produced food to a status where it was appreciated as the best the world could produce.

Nowadays, her philosophy, which was grounded in local, seasonal, and sustainable food production, fill contemporary discussions on how we might eat better and live more meaningful lives.

That the Irish Farmers Journal was home to this emerging counter-food culture during the 1960s and early 1970s is highly significant and Myrtle’s writings in this period are rich social and historical artefacts that document an important period in the development of a modern food identity for Ireland.

Read more

In memory of Myrtle

Myrtle Allen - A life well lived