Thursday, January 05, 2017

The Big Shed at Litfest 2016. Photo Joleen Cronin

The programme for Ballymaloe LitFest 2017 was announced this week, with tickets on sale from January 9. ELLIE O’BYRNE finds out what’s in store

“EVERY single one of us needs food, to exist.”

Rebecca Cronin, Festival Manager with Ballymaloe Litfest, is talking about the festival’s move away from being a food and literature festival towards being a “Food Literacy” festival.

“If we don’t address certain things, we’re in trouble here, and not just as Ireland but as a global community, because we’re all on the same planet with the same basic need for food.”

Litfest 2016 was hailed as an enormous success, with the festival, in its third year, attracting over 8,000 visitors in three days. As part of last year’s festival, Rebecca programmed a series of food sustainability talks from experts. Bite-size, twenty minute packages akin to TED talks, they proved very popular and drove the festival in a new direction for 2017.

The Ballymaloe dynasty is keen to cash in on the growing appeal of the festival, which all takes place in Shangarry on the Ballymaloe House estate, to expand an educational message on food sustainability and farm-to-fork thinking.

“We feel it’s our obligation to address issues of food sustainability and the future of food,” Rebecca says. “We began a symposium last year where people who are not necessarily chefs but who are connected to food — doctors, politicians, policy-makers — come to speak.”

But as well as the grass roots of food as sustenance, and strategy discussions on how to ease the burden of providing for a booming global population on dwindling resources, the festival, which keeps its abbreviated title of Litfest, will trot out the usual dazzling array of culinary superstars, from Claudia Roden, the queen of middle-eastern cuisine, to Northern Irish francophile chef and food writer Trish Deseine and London’s Bocca di Lupo restaurateur Jacob Kenedy.

Accessibility is an important part of education about food, and the 2017 festival will hold over 60 fringe events on-site for free; there’s a €5 cover charge for an entry wristband to the Ballymaloe Estate, and kids under 12 go free, and are well catered for, with foraging trips and Waterford’s GIY (Grow It Yourself) movement running workshops on how to grow and sow seeds, with a demo garden showing different stages of planting.

Rebecca says that prices for events are kept reasonable, with tickets for 40-minute panel discussions priced at €5 and a three-hour cookery demonstration from a top chef, including tastings and a recipe booklet to take away costing €95.

Other highlights will include a talk by Brian McGinn, the director of Netflix’ Chef’s Table series, The Guardian’s Alys Fowler, whose passions are eating and soil, “which is useful, because you can’t have one without the other,” as she says, and founding members of the Natural Wine Movement.

Litfest 2016. Photo Joleen Cronin

Rebecca has been working hard in recent months to finalise the enormous programme of events, launched this week. The former manager of The Grainstore at Ballymaloe, where she combined her twin loves of food and event management, it was a chance conversation that led to her arranging the first Litfest in 2013.

A family friend of the Allens was in admiring the newly renovated Grainstore and mentioned that, what with the illustrious connections between the worlds of literature and food in the Allen family (Myrtle Allen began writing a column for The Farmer’s Journal in the 1950s, while Darina and Rachel have of course published extensively), it would be the ideal venue for a literary food festival.

“I happened to overhear him and I popped out of my office and said, ‘this is a brilliant idea’,” Rebecca says. “The next thing I knew, I was in Darina’s living room having a cup of tea, and she was on the phone to Madhur Jaffrey.”

Making use of Darina and the rest of the Allen clan’s enormous range of contacts in the world of food is a huge boon to Rebecca in attracting top names to the festival, as well as in seeking out up and coming talent.

“Darina has been running the cookery school and writing for 30 years,” Rebecca says. “During that time she’s travelled the world meeting other chefs and food writers and she’s got a huge book of contacts and friends. In the first year, she was just able to pick the phone up and ring these legendary figures in the food world.”

Darina, who co-directs the festival with her brother Rory O’Connell, is equally excited about the line-up for next May’s festival and in particular, about welcoming back food writer Claudia Roden, who contributed to the festival in its inaugural year and whom she describes as something of a personal food hero.

“We don’t normally ask people twice, because we want to have something new and amazing and exciting for our attendees each year,” Darina says, “but Claudia’s a real elder statesman in the world 

of food and lots of people who didn’t have the opportunity to see her the first time wanted to see her again.”

Darina Allen

With the festival going from strength to strength, one of the only downsides of the weekend is that it’s now so large that it’s a victim of it’s own success, according to Darina. “It’s great business for the area: for the hotels, bed and breakfasts, shops, and local AirBnB providers,” she says, “but this is a slight problem because there’s now hardly a bed available from Shanagarry to Cork while the festival is on.”

The number of foreign visitors who stay for the whole weekend is a mark of Ballymaloe Litfest’s importance on the international culinary scene; it featured on Condé Nast Traveller’s “top international festivals” list for 2016, and has featured top international chefs like René Redzepi and Yotam Ottolenghi in past years.

Putting East Cork on the map has always been a part of the game plan. “We have food writers and press from all over the world flying in for it over the last couple of years,” Darina says. “My agenda has always been to bring people into Ireland and give them a real taste of the fantastic produce we have here and to change the image of Irish food, not just here but abroad as well. So many of these people are writers. They’re here with a pen in their hand and they go home incredulous, saying, ‘oh my god, you’ve got to get to Ireland.’”

The opportunity to introduce a serious note to discuss global food sustainability issues is something that Darina, herself always something of a food activist and with a strong personal ideology when it comes to issues like organic farming and genetically modified crops, is keen to cash in on.

“There are so many pressing crises in food production that we feel it would be irresponsible not to look at these issues when we have such an important group of people gathered in one place,” she says. “We will provide a forum for discussion on all sorts of issues: environmental issues, food waste, food production, and the whole impact of the western diet on people’s waistlines and health.”

But more than anything, Darina says, the festival is “a blast,” a chance to relax in an informal atmosphere surrounded by some of the biggest names in the world of cooking. “We have no VIP tent or anything like that, so you’re wandering around and you see Jacob Kenedy or Joanna Blytheman or Alys Fowler wandering around and you can have a casual chat with them. They love the informality of that too and they love being able to get together with so many other of their own heroes from around the world…all in East Cork.”

Ballymaloe Litfest 2017 programme is out now. Tickets go on sale January 9. See for more


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