Litfest 2017 impressions
Arriving into Ballymaloe on Friday evening for Litfest weekend I felt wild excitement, like this was something big.
Multiple events run concurrently in different rooms at Ballymaloe Cookery School and Ballymaloe House, where the fringe festival and the big shed of artisanal producers provide a setting for impromptu meetings.
I was shocked and motivated by the first panel discussion – Paddy Frankel, a local organic farmer, Alice Holden, a community gardener from London, and Severine von Tscharner Fleming, a farm coordinator and evangelist from New York state: shocked to hear that only 2% of Ireland’s farm land is organic and motivated by the work being done by these people. Can Ireland become an organic food island? (One of Darina Allen’s (legendary chef, cookbook author and dynamo of Ballymaloe cookery school) wishes). How to get this ball rolling? We know what a difference it is to go from 1% organic to 9% (between 2005 and 2017) in French vineyards. At 1 or 2% you are a niche not worth worrying about, there is limited snowball effect. At 9% you are taken seriously by the department of agriculture and other support services and there is some snowballing especially in the higher percent communes like ours of Saussignac.
Next stop ‘The Big Shed’ market – lunch delight from Fused – Japanese food with an Irish twist sitting at a long trestle table packed with people I had an impromptu chat with Oonagh Monaghan author of a guide to starting your own Small Food Business in Ireland. I could have lingered but I had booked to hear Isabelle Legeron MW, the Crazy French Woman – a hot ticket in the Drinks Theatre. Isabelle is the founder of the RAW wine fairs that started with one edition in London and has grown to four editions London, Berlin, New York and Los Angeles.
The main messages from Isabelle were we need wine ingredients labelling and ‘taste with your gut not with your head’. Don’t expect the aromas and flavours you were taught to expect for A or B; taste the wine for itself not what you think it should be. My favourite wines from Isabelle’s superb tasting were Alexandre Bain Loire Valley sauvignon blanc and Jumping Juice from Patrick Sullivan in Australia.
‘In conversation’ between David Prior, travel writer for Conde Nast and Vogue, and Brian McGinn, co-producer of NetFlix Chef’s Table series left me a clear message – Chef’s Table success was due to it being ‘life lessons or universal truths told through a person’s life story’ (David) – in this case chefs, the story behind the food. For Brian food television must be created like a film, 3 narrative arcs that tell a human story. Great advice for all of us talking and writing about food, drink and the environment, not only for TV.
Then I was in the hot seat for Saturday night with Feely wines were paired with the pop-up dinner by Edinburgh Food Studio. Ben Reade and partner Sashana Souza Zanella and the Ballymaloe cookery school team created a dinner that generated comments that included ‘a delight for the tastebuds’, ‘the best pop-up dinner ever’ and ‘fabulous wines’. The Feely wine pairings held 3 faves for me – the pork and whey margarine with Feely Luminosité dry white wine, the Turbot & Lobster, Halophytes and Orange wine with Feely Sincerité pure sauvignon blanc and the Hogget (lamb) leg with Feely no sulphites added Grace red wine. A creative 7 course feast beautifully executed. Deep thanks to Ben (left) and Sashana (middle left) and to Rory O’Connell (right) and the Cookery school team for the wonderful evening. The night was made the more magic by Louise Ryan and Aisling Murphy of Oh Naturelle sorbets and partners lively conversation – an inside view of the food start-up culture in Ireland. I tasted their award winning raspberry and rose sorbet in the big shed the next day. Oh. So. good.
John McKenna of McKenna guides and Joanna Blythman industrial food investigator and author of ‘Swallow This’ and many other books, made a knockout ‘in conversation’ team bouncing off each other like talk show hosts. Joanna’s message was ‘we need clean labels’, that tell the full story. The ‘Big Lie’ that processed food is as good as real food needs to be debunked. She has done that in her thoroughly researched books. We all laughed at her example of the beautiful label promising wonderful food from ‘Sunnydale Farm’ where there is no sun (if it is intensive chicken ‘factory farming’ for example), no dale and no farm.
I was impressed that Litfest hosted a speaker with a strong message like Joanna’s at an event where visitors included supermarket executives and buyers and large scale food producers. Litfest gets everyone talking from all sides of the food and drink business. Another part of the magic of Litfest was I felt like I knew John like an old friend despite having only met him 24 hours before.
Sunday hotseat with Drinks Theatre Caro Feely in conversation with the charming and amusing Tomas Clancy, wine correspondent of the Sunday Business Post. Tomas rolled out great humour and some fantastic confidence boosters like asking us to imagine where Chateau Feely would be in 300 years, the history of the estate Chateau Lynch Bages whose 2004 (restaurant price estimated at around 800 euro) Tomas showed as a comparative tasting to Feely Grace (stood up rather well according to Tomas and members of the audience TG).
Litfest was not merely food and drink – gift shopping Sunday afternoon in the Big Shed I found organic lip balm that my ‘tough to impress’ daughters said was the best they have ever had. I also caught Christian Puglisi – proprietor of the first Michelin star restaurant to be certified organic Relae – presented his thinking on food provenance and responsibility. We are what we eat and how we eat it. See Caro Feely’s post on Christian Puglisi’s inspiring story.
The last panel session included Christian, Darina Allen, Joanna Blythman, Rory O’Connell, Ellie Kiysombe and Severine Von Tsharner Fleming and offered a perfect closing for a Litfest themed responsibility:
- Ellie Kiysombe said ‘Food is Medicine’. When we eat good food it heals us. Her story and poem of gratitude to Darina Allen and the Ballymaloe Cookery School for the opportunity to escape a refugee centre and to heal herself through a place on the Cookery School 12 week course were moving and strong
- Rory OConnell closed by asking – could we use a reduce 3 parts of our food cycle by a third? decrease what we buy by a third (eg grow more, use everything), what we eat by a third (eg better quality, less quantity) and what we waste by a third (use everything)? Many threads in there.
I raced to catch the closing Drinks Theatre piece, laugh out loud banter between Colm McCan, the brains behind the Litfest drinks theatre and Ballymaloe Cookery School wine teacher and Leslie Williams wine writer for the Irish Examiner matched with fine wines mostly made in vineyards where they work with horses, the theme of the session. A perfect ending.
Litfest wass a melting pot of people that helps us grow (food and self) and generates ideas and projects way bigger than itself. Other speakers that I didn’t get to see and would have loved to see included Garrett Fitzgerald of Brother Hubbard café and cookbook, Kristin Jensen cookbook editor and author of a new book on artisanal Cider and Beer, Judy O’Kane wine writer, Caroline Hennessy of blog bibliocook, Grow it Yourself guru Michael Kelly and wine writer Mary Dowey.
So was it something big? Yes. Every moment of this multi-layered experience lived up to that initial feeling of excitement – speakers, food and drink, fringe events, gardening ideas, offline exchanges (like the opportunity to chat with Colm McCann (middle left), Isabelle Legeron (middle right) and Samuel Chantoiseau (Ballymaloe Sommelier right) over dinner) and dancing into the night in the Big Shed.
Thank you to all the diverse parts of Ballymaloe, Litfest and their sponsors for creating this magic. Here’s to a future Litfest!
If you are interested in organic farming and/ or wine you can learn more at Chateau Feely’s Wine school – our next WSET level 2 course . See our series on why organic starting with these basics in more detail , read our series starting with part 1 of the why organic series. Come and discover organic farming with a visit to Chateau Feely in South West France ; stay with us or do a multi day course or multi day tour or read Caro’s books Grape Expectations , Saving our Skins and latest book Glass Half Full . Join our mailing list at the bottom right of the homepage to stay up to date with our news.