Arriving late from Cork Airport via a chatty Lithuanian taxi driver, Ballymaloe cottages were empty. I saw a room glowing at the end of the corridor with an inviting bed. Shall I, like Goldilocks, steal into the bed? Would they be shocked to find a strange woman asleep in the morning?
Minutes later the Outstanding in the Field crew turned up, filled up from dinner at Ballymaloe house. They travel like a rock band all summer, all over the States. They are always tired. This autumn they start their first tour of Europe, two years in the planning. Although many of them are chefs, they don’t cook. They use local cooks who will best understand the produce.
Normally they are a team of 6/7 people, this time ten have been flown over “otherwise there would be a mutiny” smiled Jim Denevan, the artist/creator of Outstanding in the Field.
As expected with a man who does outdoor art, and hosts outdoor dinners, Jim is a self-confessed weather geek. He uses ‘Radar’:
“I’m always looking for the weather gap.”
Looking up at the gun metal grey Irish skies, perpetually rain-threatened, he predicts “Today we won’t have any rain for the farm tour.”
Jim likes to make shapes in the landscape. Much effort is concentrated on getting the precise location for his dinner party land art and the exact formation of tables.
“I don’t use the word catering where everything is generic, rented” explains Jim. “We decided not to have flowers on the table and guests bring their own plates, this immediately connotates that it’s not a catering event. I have to be kind of aggressive about that”
What about those who don’t bring them?
“We always have a few extras” he says reasonably “but participation in that is pretty good. Normally it’s about 60- 65% but a recent event in Missouri, 94% of the guests brought their own plates. Some people even make their own plates”
“We are unfamiliar with family style dining in the States. We have to explain what to expect. People are confused. Sometimes people serve each other.There are ‘dysfunctional family members’, who are not used to it, who serve themselves much too much food. And a lot of the chefs are unfamiliar with the idea of large sharing platters, they are too used to serving composed portions. You generally have to serve 15% more than usual, to create a feasting atmosphere.”
I mention that two of my ex-partners come from large families and that they always eat very quickly.
Jim reminisces “I was one of 9. We had a long table. I’m the second youngest. My dad died when I was 5 years old, my mum raised us by herself. I used to hide my vegetables.
My dad was very handy. He made the table from scraps of wood, the top was made with floor linoleum. He also made the benches. “
I’ve often thought about my own motivation for creating a supper club which is partly based on creating a temporary large family. My favourite dinners are long leisurely affairs, lunches that stretch into evening, several courses and lots of wine, drunk slowly, with food.
Jim: “We still get together… the whole giant gang, nieces and nephews. A huge communal table. My brother is a pioneering organic farmer named Bill Denevan. I’ve set up several Outstanding in the Field dinners on his farm. I worked on his farm as a teen”
Denevan wanted to put the farmer on menus as co-creators of the food that people were eating. The chef was no longer the only ‘auteur’ of the food, the grower deserved credit too. Outstanding in the Field, kick-starting the ‘farm to table’ movement, seeks to connect the diner with the grower by taking place at various farms all over the states and now Europe.
For the first five years Jim funded Outstanding in the Field from his own pocket as it lost money. He went to Italy in the 1980s to work as a model and became fascinated by the style of eating, how food and family is the centre of the culture. When he returned to the states, he worked as a cook “great job for a surfer. I enjoy eating as most surfers do.”
“I’m curious about geography, culture, people, places. In the States people really have no connection to agriculture. They want food to be fuel, are too focused on finishing the meal…going on to the next thing. Food is connotated to time and place, the seasons. When they come to Outstanding in the Field events, people soak up that stuff, the farm, whether they are aware of it or not. “
I woke up in this softly lit bedroom at Ballymaloe
At breakfast I met Darina Allen who wrote the superb Forgotten skills of cooking. Breakfast was epicurean; strawberry muesli, the softest porridge ever. Everything was home made, butter, even cheese.
Yeah two types of cream. Now we are talking.
I obeyed Darina’s orders.
Fresh Ballymaloe bread.
We had a tour of the cookery school.
Then it started with a reception: a British methode champagnoise wittily called ‘Britagne’.
Simple amuse bouches of radishes in oil and salt, chanterelles (foraged by Melissa Odendah of Ballycotton) on sourdough.
Jim gave a talk, saying that the recent hurricane (Irene) meant he’d had to cancel a dinner in New York for the first time in 11 years.
Darina explained that when farming became difficult in the 70s, they started to branch out. She could “cook a bit” (cue laughter). They started the cookery school and in the process found four wives for their sons. They now employ 45 to 50 people. On the cookery course the first lesson is to make compost and to plant something. Over the three month course, the plant grows. “Once you’ve grown something you never again complain about the price”
A calf was born on the farm last night and Darina named him Ballymaloe Jim as a nod to Denevan’s Irish roots.
One of the OITF crew, all long tanned legs and cowboy boots.The service was great, that easy Californian mix of attentiveness and casual.
For the farm tour, some of us wore sensible footwear.
Some of us didn’t.
We looked at the gardens and the ‘folly’ encrusted with shells.
Bay and Nasturtiums
The dinner was held in the magnificently ordered greenhouse.
Even the serving dishes were locally made pottery.
Frank Hederman , who runs a local smokehouse, provided smoked mackerel and eel to accompany a platter of Ballycotton lobster, shrimps and crab. I couldn’t stop eating the pickled cucumbers made at the cookery school.
The menus were drawn by another talented member of the Allen family.
One of the Allen grandchildren. Pretty much everybody in the extended Allen family is involved in food or gardening. I met Rachel Allen who is a celebrated cookbook author, teacher and TV chef.
The wine matching was fantastic, including:
“You can hear the table get louder” says Jim Denevan, as each dinner warms up
Perhaps I warmed up a little too much, I found myself standing on the table to get the best view. “You are only the second person after me to do that” laughed Jim. One cheeky bugger said the best moment was looking up my skirt.
A service kitchen was set up in the greenhouse.
A band played Irish music in the background, again a member of the Allen family.
Rory O’Connell, Darina’s brother was head chef. Here he is describing the Irish cheeses to the OITF staff so they can pass on the information to the diners.
LOVED the dessert, the first time I’ve eaten carrageen moss pudding (with blackberry, apple and sweet geranium compote with Timmy’s jersey cream). It’s basically seaweed. I want to have a play with this stuff too.
Rory served chocolate peppermint leaves. How bloody easy is that? So brilliant. Will deffo nick. You just cover mint leaves in chocolate. Who needs After Eight?
A spider’s view of the proceedings. A truly wonderful day. I recommend it. In fact I’m not sure what to rave about the most: Jim Denevan/Outstanding in the Field or Darina Allen/Ballymaloe cookery school. As a combo they rocked.
Next year Jim is taking his team to Asia, Australia and the rest of the world. Wish I could run away and join the circus with them.