Cork’s Female Cookery Culture

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  • Eat Good Things Every Day

When it comes to cooking, Cork is the women’s county. Elsewhere in Ireland, professional cookery is a man’s world, but in Cork, ever since Myrtle Allen opened Ballymaloe House a full 45 years ago and began to cook for dinner guests, Cork has been a stronghold of women’s food.
From east to west and in the city, women are not just participants in kitchens: they are the major players, and their work has defined what modern cookery is throughout the county.
Does this gender distinction matter? I think it does, and for a simple reason. Women in working kitchens tend to cook with a different outlook than male chefs. Male chefs want to demonstrate competence and mastery of the art, but women, by and large, just want to feed you.
And women draw on different influences when it comes to cooking. Their influences are likely to be as much domestic as professional. I was struck, for example, listening to Myrtle Allen launching the first cookbook by the chef Carmel Somers, of the celebrated Good Things Café in West Cork, to hear Mrs Allen talk of how, in the pre-penicillin days of diptheria and whooping cough and polio, “my mother always said that good food would keep us healthy, and that was why it was so important to have access to good food”.
That is, fundamentally, a nurturing concept, and what Myrtle Allen has done, in inspiring the generation and a half of Cork female chefs who have come after her, is to legitimize this nurturing as a fundamental part of any food experience. Good food is not just about getting access to someone’s wealth: it is actually about getting access to their health.
When Carmel Somers herself spoke at the book launch, she emphasized this element even more starkly.
“Flippy bread (her name for white sliced loaves) should only ever be a treat. Pizza should only be a treat at Xmas. We have got to feed our children with good food”.
Her book, “Eat Good things Every Day” is a particularly potent and practical manifesto of how to do just that. It is an unusual book, in that it is both practical and polemical: “Microwaves – should be banned, as they ruin food!”. “Butter tastes pure. Margarine tastes horrible and the flavour is never masked in cooking”. “Use-by dates – don’t always trust them”.
If the book is refreshingly unusual in being so iconoclastic, it is refreshing also to see a book that has lots of recipes for cabbage, and rhubarb, and braised peas, and brussels sprouts, and cheap cuts of meat. This is true family food, and I know from the last time I wrote about feeding kids just how big an area of concern this is for so many working families. Ms Somers presents her recipes as weekly plans, following on from a small amount of weekend prep in the kitchen, and a list of necessary ingredients to get you through the week’s cooking without exhausting you with complicated cooking that you simply don’t have time to achieve. It’s a book that accepts that we are human, and that we need to be nurtured, and it get you there in the most practical, and delicious, way.
Forty years separate Myrtle Allen and Carmel Somers, but that gap of time is irrelevant because both have benefited from, and learnt the fundamental lessons of, the Women’s County of Cooking. Chief amongst those lessons is the fact that food is the pivotal social glue of our society, and that is a lesson we need to remember, particularly, as we face into the rituals of Xmas.
If you are already stressed by the prospect of feeding the extended family, remember that food isn’t about extreme skills, and it isn’t about demonstrating superhuman competence. It is about nurturing people’s health, and bringing them together around the table. Remember what Carmel Somers writes about feeding children: “They love trying new things and being involved in the cooking and preparing of the meal, including setting the table, especially if there is a candle to light!”.
So, even if you don’t have the good fortune to live in the Women’s County, absorb the lessons of these wise women, especially at Xmas. Light the candle, and take it from there.

“Eat Good Things Every Day”, by Carmel Somers, is published by Atrium: