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Aoife Carrigy - Ballymaloe Litfest

Martin & Sile Dwyer

Aoife Carrigy shares some of the highlights and recurring themes of this year’s Ballymaloe Litfest

The third weekend in May has become an unmissable pilgrimage in the Irish food and drinks world, as food lovers and professionals flock to Shanagarry in East Cork for the annual Ballymaloe Litfest.

What began life five years ago as a food and drinks literary festival has become a festival of food and drinks literacy that aims to explore the joint responsibility we have as eaters, cooks, shoppers, merchants, growers and producers of food in a rapidly changing world.

Spread over the grounds of two working farms at Ballymaloe House and Cookery School, and with various farm sheds and garden tents hosting much of the festivities, it’s a lively weekend of food talks, screenings, walks, demos, tastings, snacking and of course full-blown meals.

Litfest17 kicked off on Friday evening with a welcome from film producer and multi-Oscar winner Lord David Puttnam who spoke of his love of his adopted home of Cork. Puttnam is a champion of the digital revolution which he credits with ‘destroying distance’, allowing young entrepreneurs to build businesses that engage with an international market but run them from the inspiring surrounds of County Cork or similarly far-flung beauty spots.

And Lord Puttnam wasn’t the only legend at the festival. Claudia Roden spoke about how her love of collecting recipes came from the formative teenage experience of fleeing her beloved home of Egypt with her Jewish family, friends and relatives.

Not knowing when or if they would see each other again, loved ones would exchange recipes as a parting gift and a way to remember one another. Food was a powerful tool for human bonding – and a pre-digital era way to destroy distance and be transported back to another time and place.

Martin & Sile Dwyer

Dietician and author Jane Clarke is also fascinated with how food can be used to offer precious pleasure in the face of suffering. She spoke about her career as that rare breed – a food-loving dietician – and how it led to her latest cookbook, Nourish, which provides nourishing recipes for all stages in life.

She’s particularly interested in working with patients living with cancer and dementia, and developing accessible recipes for suitable food that can be enjoyed by these patients together with loved ones. She is on a mission to develop and share afternoon tea recipes in particular to reintroduce a moment of shared deliciousness – her recipes free from her nourishbyjaneclarke.com website.

That question of what you feed your loved ones – and what it can teach you if you start to pay attention – was a recurring theme for several speakers. Chef Christian Puglisi from Copenhagen’s Relae spoke of the chain effect of fundamental changes implemented at his restaurants as a direct result of having a child and starting to think about the personal health implications of how our food is reared, produced and sourced. Those questions eventually led Puglisi to setting up his own organic farm to supply his various restaurants with quality produce.

It arose again in several talks with Ellie Kyesombe and Michelle Darmody of Our Table, a wonderful and steadily evolving initiative that aims to draw attention to the shameful institution of Direct Provision in Ireland. Ellie spoke of her own personal experience of not being about to cook for her Malawian children – and also of the joy that re-engaging with food has brought back to her life.

There was also an enlightening ‘Blogging or Flogging?’ discussion about the changing ethical challenges of food writing in a digital age hosted by the Irish Food Writers’ Guild with Micheal Lee of the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland and Ireland’s first food blogger, Caroline Hennessy of Bibliocook.

And of course there was plenty of deliciousness to sample. Isabelle Legeron’s natural wine tasting and Kristin Jensen’s Irish craft beer tasting and panel discussion were highlights in the Drinks Theatre, while personal favourites from the Big Shed included a brunch of fish tacos and iced hibiscus tea from Beunos Vida Tacos, Ethiopian injera bread with vegetarian wat and shiro from Emye and tasting Anthony Creswell’s new Ummera smoked rapeseed oil – not to mention his curious smoked water, which some bright spark suggested would make great ice-cubes for a Bloody Mary.

At the end of this action-packed weekend, festival director Rory O’Connell announced that Litfest will be taking a year out – in part to allow festival manager Rebecca Cronin to have a baby in peace, and in part to “regroup, recharge and research” before returning in 2019. It will be much missed next May, when the third weekend of the month will seem awfully quiet in comparison.

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Pigs on the Green

Chairwoman of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, Aoife Carrigy is a freelance food and wine writer and editor. She is a regular contributor to FOOD&WINE Magazine, The Irish Independent, The Herald and Cara Magazine, amongst others, and was co-author of The Ard Bia Cookbook and general editor of The ICA Cookbook, The ICA Book of Home and Family, The ICA Book of Tea & Company and, most recently, The ICA Book of Christmas. In 2015, she teamed up with Great Irish Beverages to launch the inaugural Dublin Wine Fest and Irish Cider & Food Day.

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