Darina Allen: Ireland's Alice Waters

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Earlier this week, Darina Allen hosted a lunch in NYC, strategically timed in the run-up to St. Patrick's Day. Who's Darina Allen? Well, you might say she wrote the book on traditional Irish cooking. After all, she's the author of the comprehensive tome Irish Traditional Cooking. She also happens to be the founder of The Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, one of the only cooking schools in the world located on an entirely organic farm. One of the reasons Irish cooking is starting to become a serious topic is in large part to Allen, whose advocacy of traditions and slow food has made her Ireland's answer to Alice Waters.

In fact, in a country with such a troubled food history, Allen's attitude alone is reason for hope. "I come from a farm, and I have a love of the land and a real understanding of the value of farmers," she says.

Ireland's food history is infamous. The potato famine in the mid 19th century killed about a million people, and caused another million to flee Ireland. More recently, about 25 years ago, the country decided that all Irish supermarkets would switch to a central distribution system. As Allen explains it, "Farmers were growing potatoes and carrots and sending them to a local shop. Suddenly the farmers went into [a local shop called] Broderick's and were told, 'I can't buy your produce because it has to go through central distribution.' It was a devastating blow to the farmers and the local buyers, who had to wait for the produce to return from the central distribution in larger cities like Dublin."

The idea of the Irish farmers market came from Allen, who was inspired when she visited a friend in San Francisco. Her first visit to a Bay Area supermarket in a parking lot was like "a eureka moment" for Allen. "I see this farmer's market and I think, 'this is the solution to put the people who have the produce in touch with the people who want it and they can buy direct.'" Flash forward a few decades and there are now about 160 farmers markets in Ireland.

With so many local purveyors selling their products, it's really changing the landscape of Irish cooking. Though the phrase "Irish food" still elicits a skeptical expression from food snobs, it's undeniable that the farmer's markets have made a positive impact on Ireland's culture and economy.

"Of all the things I've done," she says, "the thing I'm most proud of is that I started the new-age farmers markets in Ireland."

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