Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course

There is a classic episode of Floyd on Food that perfectly symbolises the Jekyll and Hyde struggles of a kitchen mentality like mine.

Floyd is in Ireland, and he’s cooking with the great Darina Allen. It’s a classic interplay between order and chaos, and shows the great good humour of both these wonderful cooking champions. Of course, neither of them are as aligned to precision & care or flamboyance & disregard as you’re being led to think – it’s just good TV.

Like Delia, who I knew about before Darina Allen, there is a certain kind of cookery writing, of cookbook, that will never step out of trend, and never become redundant. When I want to enjoy throwing peppers around, drinking wine and setting stuff on fire, there’s always the mercurial Floyd. When I want to stroke my chin and pontificate sumptous pics of broken crockery and more-complicated-than-I-think pasta dishes – well, there are plenty of options.

When I can’t remember how to boil an egg, there is Delia, or Darina Allen.

Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery Course is one of my most treasured cookbooks, and I return to it time and time again. It is nothing less than than the Ballymaloe Cookery Course distilled. When I say everything is in here – certainly everything I might need to know – I mean everything:

Want to know how to cook eggs? Check. Cakes & Biscuits? Covered. Fish & Shellfish? Yep. Essential cooking equipment? Food hygiene, wine, freezer essentials, how to make stocks, roasting a chicken, cooking oysters, segmenting fruit, how to butterfly a lamb leg, wrestle a pig for its ink, quarter a chicken … ?

Yes, it’s all in there, and much, much more*.

I have to keep returning to mine because I have a mind like a sieve (“1 tin or stainless steel, 1 plastic”) and keep forgetting even the most basic things – particularly to do with eggs for some reason. And roast beef. And prawns. If you have an endless capacity for losing even the simplest scrap of basic information from your head, have a copy of Darina Allen on the shelf and you can’t go wrong. There’s even a newer version to mine – which is now an incredible 15 years old – that came out in 2007. I keep meaning to get it, but can’t really see past my old silver one.

It’s important though to stress that the book isn’t a dreary old Home Economics manual. Very, very far from it. There are some wonderful recipes in here – beautiful breads and scones, superb fish, and some terrific home ones, like Colcannon Soup & Irish Stew. Over the years I haven’t just used it like a Haynes Manual for boiling tatties. No, years and years of meals have been cooked out of it. I don’t think I have a better all round introduction to cooking on the shelf.

Some cookery books succeed or fail by a kind of trial and error, but this one has a measure of coaching and encouragement that means you learn all the time. I mention this elsewhere on the site, but I think some books are there to gawp in wonder at, and they’re beautiful, but as time goes by, they might stay cherished, but sit unused. Others, are enabling books – they combine such qualities of inspiration and encouragement that they make everything seem fun. So you cook. Really amateur cooks like me get in the kitchen, start slicing onions and give it another go. And cook.

Can you ever love cookbooks, the way you love novels maybe? Can I love a cookbook as much as, say, my old copy of The Captain & The Enemy by Graham Greene. Obviously, it’s not the same thing, it’s breadknives and shellfish. But, I’ve had to get rid of lots of books over the years, novels, poetry, the lot, and I’ve never let go of Graham, or my Darina Allen. Ballymaloe Cookery Course is the kind of book you don’t give up without a square-go with a bendy tin spatula (“Not essential but brilliant”).

This deeply generous and heartfelt welcome to cookery changed everything about kitchenwork for me, and I love it.

*Okay, there isn’t anything in there about wrestling a pig. At least I don’t think so.