'Fresh as possible cooked as simply as possible'
''Basically we are farmers,'' says Myrtle Allen. This is not mere modesty, coming from a woman who recently took on the French by opening an Irish restaurant in the heart of Paris, La Ferme Irlandaise.
Rather it is a reaffirmation of a devotion to the finest and freshest produce available - an emphasis that's obvious at Ballymaloe, her combination restaurant , country-house-hotel, and farm in Ireland.
The 400-acre working farm, set in the countryside of County Cork, is Mrs. Allen's home base. It's situated south of the market town of Midleton, near the port of Ballycotton.
The Allens moved into the rambling, grand country house in 1948, not with the intention of starting a restaurant, but because they wanted a mixed farm.
Then in 1964, Myrtle took out a small advertisement in the local Cork Examiner: ''Dine in a country house.'' She has not looked back since.
The farm provides the restaurant with the freshest of vegetables: peppers, tomatoes, aubergines, melons, apples, squash, cucumbers, lettuce, potatoes, onions, spring onions, and many others.
There are herbs such as basil, tarragon, marjoram, mint, thyme, bay, and chives. Lamb is also raised on the farm.
Soft fruit such as black currants, raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries, as well as other vegetables, come from down the road at Shanagarry Farm, the original farm that Myrtle and Ivan worked before moving to Ballymaloe.
Fresh fish is chosen daily from the harbor at Ballycotton. Plaice, black sole , turbot, cod, ling, pollack, monkfish, lobsters, crabs, crawfish, and shrimps are plentiful.
Both native and Pacific oysters are farmed nearby, and Irish salmon is available from March through to August.
Meat comes from a nearby butcher, who raises and fattens his beef ''on the damp lush grass in the flat fields on the south side of Cloyne.''
County Cork is famous dairy country, and a number of farm producers are now making small amounts of excellent and unique Irish cheeses; these naturally take pride of place on the Ballymaloe cheese-board. There are cheeses with name such as Milleens, Gubbeen, and St. Killian.
All breads, cakes, and scones are baked daily, and jams, marmalades, and preserves are also all homemade.
''The Ballymaloe philosophy of cooking,'' Myrtle Allen says, is '' 'as fresh as possible, cooked as simply as possible.' ''
Each day's menu is not completed until the afternoon, once Myrtle has taken account of all the fresh produce available.
When we were at Ballymaloe the fishermen had a glut of crab. In addition, therefore, to offering crab as a main course, the cooks were also busy making delicious crab soup.
Marrows were in season, too, and this humble, squashlike vegetable was also turned into a superb soup.
Monkfish is not a common catch, but it, too, had been landed that morning by the fishermen at Ballycotton, and thus found its way onto the evening's menu.
In Paris, too, La Ferme Irlandaise has earned its reputation for the excellence and freshness of Irish produce such as spring lamb, fresh and smoked Irish salmon, home-cured rashers (meaty back bacon), sausage and black pudding, homemade soda bread, scones, blackberry tarts, and jams made from fruit gathered in hedgerows in Irish lanes.
Ballymaloe, grand as it seems today with its 14th-century Norman keep, was a family home for 16 years. Today it is still very much a family enterprise.
Son Rory and his wife, Hazel, run the Ballymaloe farm. Another son, Timothy, is in charge of the Shanagarry Farm, while his wife, Darina, runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School, which offers residential certificate courses based on the Ballymaloe cooking style.
Daughter Wendy has an Irish craft shop next to the house, while another daughter, Fern, works in the kitchen; she has organized a small art gallery in one of the drawing rooms. Wendy's husband, Jim, commutes to Paris to oversee La Ferme Irlandaise.
Everyone has his or her own task, but it is all part of a communal enterprise. The visitor to Ballymaloe catches some of the sense of the excitement of this undertaking, in an atmosphere that remains essentially familial and homely.
Here are some recipes from the delightful ''Ballymaloe Cookbook.'' Chicken Baked With Butter and Leeks 1 small roasting chicken 1 teaspoon oil 1 teaspoon butter 2 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 cups sliced leeks 1 tablespoon flour 1/2 to 1 cup chicken stock 1 egg yolk 1 cup light cream Salt and pepper Season chicken cavity. In a casserole, brown the breast of chicken in 1 teaspoon butter and oil. Remove chicken, wipe out casserole.
Heat remaining butter in casserole. Add leeks. Cook 2 or 3 minutes, then add chicken.
Cover and transfer to 375-degree F. oven 40 minutes to 1 hour. Remove chicken when cooked.
Sprinkle a little flour into casserole to absorb any remaining fat. Stir over heat until flour cooks. Add chicken stock. Beat egg yolk into cream; add to sauce. Add more cream if too thick. Salt and pepper to taste. Carve chicken and serve with leek sauce. Serves 3 to 4. Scones 2 cups flour Pinch salt 1/4 teaspoon bread soda 2 ounces butter 1 tablespoon sugar 1 cup sour milk or buttermilk, approx. 1 egg, beaten (optional)
Sieve flour, salt, and bread soda together into a large bowl. Cut in butter and rub in until it's like crumbs.
Add sugar and enough milk to make a soft dough. Add beaten egg if desired.
Turn onto a floured board, lightly knead a few times, roll out, and cut into round ''cakes'' about 2 inches by 1 inch or diamonds of about the same size.
Bake until risen and nicely browned in a hot oven: 15 minutes approximately at 400 degrees F. Makes 12 scones.