Rachel Allen: 'I love cooking with ghee and spices, but then another day, butter and cream'
In the world of reality TV master chefs and the most highly competitive home cooks, not to forget the new breed of ever-ready-to-eat home gourmands and food critics, Rachel Allen brings in a fair gust of fresh air - oftentimes, straight up from her home by the sea on the Southern coast of Ireland.
One of the best-known culinary figures to step out from Ireland, Rachel is easily among the most popular chefs around, with shows such as All Things Sweet (2014), Cake Diaries (2012) and Rachel’s Coastal Cooking (2015), apart from a number of best-selling cookery books.
Now, for a new series as a part of the show Rachel’s Coastal Cooking, the celebrity chef will be stepping out of her home kitchen - and the breathtaking setting of the Irish coastline - to present a stunning special series that's part-travelogue, part-cookery.
She travels from Dungarvan to the Fanad Peninsula, taking the long road in search of local produce and seafood, foraging for ingredients and, at times, battling wind, rain and the natural elements.
Rachel cooks as she goes, wherever the trail leads to fantastic food – anywhere from windswept headlands to country kitchens and even secret beaches.
We got to chat with Rachel about her new adventures, but first, we had to hark back to her childhood memories and earliest days of baking with her sister. Excerpts from the interaction:
Could we begin right at the beginning, please? Take us back to your earliest days of baking biscuits with your sister. How much of an influence was Delia Smith for you two? Tell us about those childlike fantasies from your youngest days of baking.
I now really appreciate everything she did. She always managed to keep everything going in the house. And, she managed to have time to bake with us. She also worked, and she just did all of that really well.
Now, I really appreciate that. We always had good, lovely food at home, and then getting to bake was such a treat. We always got to enjoy really good food. My sister is four years older than me, and I used to love baking with her.
She’s a really good baker, so that was always really fun. We experimented a lot with different recipes, often making up our own recipes. Actually, we used to pretend that we were on a TV show and I, being the little sister, was always my sister’s assistant.
We used to put our dolls and teddy bears in front of us, and pretend that they were our audience and that we were on television! (Laughs.)
You’re still very active at Ballymaloe Cookery School, where you studied, and where you now teach. How much of the pleasure of baking, for you, is about feeding entire batches and generations of hungry youngsters?
I came to the cookery school when I was 18. I learned how to cook there. Up until then, I was just doing lots and lots of baking. I didn’t do much other cooking. I really enjoyed things at Ballymaloe, and I just love teaching here now.
I love passing on the knowledge and skills. I really enjoy seeing people learning to cook, that is really satisfying, and I hope I’ve inspired younger and older people to cook for themselves, families and their friends!
Tell us a little about the lovely Garden Café Truck that you have going at the school. We got to see a few pictures on social media and we can't help but imagine how awesome those light breakfasts, delicious lunches and decadent sweet treats might be! Could you give our readers a sense and idea of the treats on the menu?
The Garden Café truck is an old caravan from, I think, the 1950s. My mother-in-law bought it, and we put a kitchen into it. We run it as a café in the summers and it’s actually closed now, for the winter.
We serve delicious food — a fresh bakery tart of the day, with delicious salads, delicious dishes with vegetables from the farm, delicious cakes, biscuits, and fermented drinks too, like kombucha and kefir, and delicious teas and coffee. Also, it was just named the Best Food Truck in Ireland.
You also, so often, take time off to support causes such as the one with GOAL Global, and the #GOALMileADay Challenge, to support some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. Tell us how all of that, and initiatives such as this one, ties in with your cooking, and the message of spreading cheer to people.
I try to do quite a bit of work with charity. I’m also doing a couple of events for Breast Cancer research. I just try to always, always do some work with charity. I was very lucky in that with GOAL, as I got to travel to India and we went to Kolkata, to Mumbai, and to New Delhi and I got to travel around and see how people were living.
You know, to visit some of the communities, some of them living other areas, to see how GOAL was helping them with their nutrition and helping them to put in basic sanitation facilities.
That was really interesting, and I feel I’m lucky and fortunate to have food to put on the table, and some people don’t have that. It’s always something that I try and stay involved in.
And it was a fantastic experience getting to travel to India with GOAL.
Tell us a little about your book, Rachel Allen Home Baking, especially about the different countries and cultures that you've been interacting with, to promote this edition. In which part of the world have you found the best bakers so far? And in which places would you like to spend more time?
Oh my goodness! Wow. I suppose my own home cooking would be that one night when I could have a simple good dish with a buttery hollandaise sauce, but then the next night, I might make a curry.
So we tend to try various kinds of food. My husband also loves cooking, because he was brought up in Ballymaloe, so he loves to cook and eat great food too.
We always have something delicious to cook and eat at night. And, I’m always inspired by places around the world that I have visited. As for baking around the world? That’s just so difficult to say!
I think, when I go to India, I like the bread there – it's amazing. The different naans, the different parathas, the pooris, the chapatis.
I love the baking in Scandinavia too - the cakes, the buns, and the biscuits; it’s a Nordic country, Scandinavia. But I can’t say about my favourites.
I’m always inspired by something from somewhere else, and I love trying lots of different things. I love cooking with ghee and with spices, but then another day, butter and cream.
We happen to own a few of your older books, which always make for ready reference. And one of our go-to books has to be Recipes from My Mother. Do you enjoy writing as much as baking and cooking?
Yes, I do. I think, I do. I think, teaching and cooking are my favourite things. Then, writing is my next favourite.
You do get to travel a fair bit - from Dungarvan to the Fanad Peninsula. In all honesty, we used to love your earliest shows on TV really because of the kitchen and the setting, at first glance. Tell us about your favourite getaways and holiday destinations.
A lot of my shows have been filmed in my kitchen. I live by the sea on the Southern coast of Ireland, where I started my journey.
I love being close to the sea, but then I love travelling to other countries and big cities too. I always love discovering someplace new.
My favourite destination? I can’t say! I’d love to go to more parts of India. I’d love to spend time in Kerala, and in Goa.
Tell us a little about some of the more exotic ingredients that you like to cook with, and forage for. Are there any ingredients so exotic that you just can't seem to get your hands on them as yet? What are your all-time favourite fruits, flavours and ingredients to cook with, and how difficult is it to source some of these items?
When I’m in Ireland, I love to cook with butter, because Irish butter is really good. I just love, I love vegetables that are fresh, fresh, fresh and that have just come from the ground.
My favourite ingredient? That’s so hard. Maybe I’ll say, I love really good dairy. Irish butter and fresh seafood, but then I love baking. I love it on my own or with my daughter.
Just baking some lovely cakes for someone in the kitchen. I’m quite indecisive as a person - so one day, it’s like, 'Oh, let’s do a lot of baking', and the next day, 'I don’t know, I want to make noodles' or you know, 'I don’t know, not bread.'
So it goes from one thing to another to another. But I love that in my food.
Speaking from India, have you been familiar with the cooking styles and ancient baking techniques from this part of the world - such as of the tandoor, wood-fired home ovens and so on? What would you consider doing, to help so many home cooks in India upgrade their kitchens, and actually get down to some proper baking – apart from basic staples of bread, that is?
Well, as I’ve said, I’ve only been to Mumbai, New Delhi, and Kolkata - so I haven’t been to many parts of India, but I’d love to go to more. I just think that it’s the loveliest gift to encourage people to get into the kitchen and get baking.
It’s the loveliest gift for someone to give them something that you’ve made yourself. So, that’s what I would recommend. I would just say, give it as a gift to someone, as a present - you’ll make someone smile, you’ll make someone very happy by baking something delicious. Then again, I’d be very happy if someone made me an Indian curry.
On a specific note, we'd love for you to give us a few pointers, or help us bust a few fundamental myths, to do with using eggs in baking, and the preference of organic ingredients over anything else? What would be your second-best option, if you're stranded at a faraway location with limited resources? And what alternatives can one explore via online shopping, or at boutique stores and supermarkets?
Well, you used to need eggs in all types of baking, and then sometimes though, if I’m making cakes for someone who is vegan, you can mix together baking soda with some vinegar.
Then you get this bubbly concoction, which can really help when you’re making a vegan cake.
In one of my books - it’s a book called Cake - I have a few vegan cake recipes for people who can’t get eggs or who don’t eat eggs.
But then, there are just so many delicious recipes that don’t contain eggs as well, and that’s still cake!
Rachel’s Coastal Cooking airs on October 16, 11 am to 3 pm on Sony BBC Earth.
— Jaideep Sen