THE RACHEL PAPERS
Her latest cookbook began as a walk down memory lane with her Icelandic mother, but it evolved into a general reflection on the fleeting nature of childhood and a mother’s love. Rachel Allen tells Sarah Caden that her own ‘lion cub’ sons are suddenly tall
‘Do I always sound harassed when you speak to me?” asks Rachel Allen. You can tell by the way she asks that she wants the answer to be no. Rachel doesn’t want to be that person. And she works hard at making sure it’s not the case, if that’s not a contradiction in terms.
Still, when I speak to her, it starts off on a slightly frazzled footing. She’s multi-tasking, to say the least. Well, there’s the job of talking to me, there’s prep for her working visit to the Ploughing Championships the next day, and there’s a meeting in an hour and a child to be collected and brought to gymnastics. Oh, and then, after a few minutes of chat, she remembers that there are biscuits in the oven earmarked for the Ploughing, and if they burn the whole afternoon is up in smoke, so to speak.
Harassed, no, because Rachel is always full of good cheer and nice company and endlessly positive and grateful for the good luck of always being in demand. But busy, yes. And quite the juggler, definitely.
This is often Rachel Allen’s busiest time of year. It’s the time that she most often has a new book out, usually with a TV show to film to accompany it, and all of the attendant publicity to do. In the summer, though, she says, things slow down. Relatively.
A year after the publication of which was inspired by the wildness of the Irish seas and seashore and the ingredients they yield, Rachel has a new book,
If looked out and away beyond the edges of this island,
is a cosy, familyfocused, home-centric cookbook.
In part, it’s about Rachel’s own mother, Hallfriour, who moved to Ireland from her native Iceland, when she was only 19, having met and fallen in love with Rachel’s father, Brian O’Neill. The book is abundant with recipes from Hallfriour’s native country, like thick yogurty rye bread and Icelandic caramel potatoes. It also contains stories from her childhood and family photographs of Icelandic kids in their elaborate home-knit jumpers,
from my Mother. Coast Recipes from my Mother Coast, Recipes skyr,
skiing and sledding and living a life far from Rachel’s upbringing in Dublin and adult life in east Cork.
“The book started out as just recipes with my mum,” Rachel says, “because I feel very aware of my Icelandic heritage and I wanted to explore Iceland food-wise. But let’s be realistic, the Scandi-food thing is gorgeous and amazing but it’s a bit a couple of years ago and I didn’t want people to think I was just jumping on that bandwagon. So then the book evolved into something else.”
In a way, what this book evolved into is a reflection on the comfort we take as adults from the food of our childhood. The recipes aren’t only those eaten in Iceland by Rachel’s mother as a girl, or recreated by her in Ireland. In there too are recipes from friends who told Rachel about the food they cook to evoke mammies and grannies and loved ones. Also, it features the Allens, Rachel’s in-laws who are huge figures in her adult life, both personally and professionally.
“It became about more than me and my mother,” Rachel says. “I realised that it was about all the lovely stories I kept hearing from people once I told them what I was doing. It sparked off their memories. So, for example, there’s a recipe for shortbread that was from Patricia, my running friend, whose grandmother passed it down the family. I loved how everyone I told about it had a recipe and a memory.”
So, the end result is about Rachel and Hallfriour, but also about nostalgia and a sense of belonging, about attempting to create continuity, as we pass to our children the tastes and memories of our own childhoods.
“I loved how writing the book led to all the proper chats with Mum about her home and the people in the photos and what they did and how they lived,” Rachel says. “Mum’s not overly private,” Rachel says, “but she’s not in the spotlight, either, and I didn’t know, at first, if she’d agree to using the photos, but they bring so much to it. Because she talked about her grandparents and her parents and how, as children, they lived near the docks and they would go and get the fish from the fishermen and the bread from the baker nearby. It brought Iceland alive to me.
“I suppose I’ve been to Iceland eight times in all,” she says, “but it has always felt familiar to me and I’ve always felt very sure of my Icelandic roots. But my mother spoke very little Icelandic to me as a child. Maybe it was because it was more unusual to be foreign in Ireland then. But now, I really regret that. I wish I spoke it fluently and I wish I could speak it to my children.”
It’s interesting as you read about Hallfriour and her life in this new book to see the parallels with Rachel’s own path. Hallfriour came to Ireland as a teenager, fell in love, married and settled here. And the degree to which she embraced her new life is all over this book. The recipes attributed to her aren’t just Scandinavian; there’s also her St Patrick’s Day bacon and cabbage, her roast chicken, and her rice pudding.
Rachel also could be said to have adopted a new world when she trained at Ballymaloe as a teenager and, to a great extent, never left again. She has joked in interviews in the past that her husband Isaac says she stayed for him, though she doesn’t agree. The fact is, though, that as a young woman, Rachel found her passion for cooking. As result, she found Ballymaloe and Isaac and, ultimately, the life they have made together there with their three children Josh (17), Lucca (15) and Scarlett (8).
You have to wonder if the reflective mood and mindset of this book is indicative of a moment that a lot of people, mothers in particular, have as their children teeter on the brink of adulthood. Josh, she says, has started working in Ballymaloe. Lucca is in his Junior Cert year in school, but his real passion lies, outside of the teenage norm for most boys, in youth motor racing.
“He has been looking seriously at Formula 4 and he was just over in England,” Rachel says, “meeting the team people. It’s extraordinary, really, you know. He’d be driving cars that look very like Formula One cars, and it’s hard to watch the racing for a mother, but it is amazing to see your child develop a passion for something and to know what they want to do with their life.”
Scarlett is still her baby, but Rachel has that sense of time suddenly speeding up with the boys. Her career as what you might call a celebrity chef began 12 years ago, when the boys were quite little and the time is bound to have passed at lightning speed.
“When the boys were really tiny they were like little lion cubs,” Rachel smiles as she remembers. “There’s only two years between them and they were a real little unit; but so physical and hectic and always pouncing on each other, like little boys do. I remember my mum saying it all goes so fast and me thinking that time would never pass.
“And now they’re taller than me,” she laughs.
“My mum reminds me that when she was my age, my sister and I had already left home,” Rachel adds. “We had gone and she found that really sudden and shocking and I can see that now.”
Rachel knows her children aren’t going anywhere yet, but there is that sense of reflection in her and in her new book that probably speaks to a lot of fans who feel like they’ve spent their youth and adulthood with her.
Perhaps, Rachel worries about being perceived as busy because, for mothers in particular, busy is often a pejorative. It’s a way of saying you’re distracted from your family and that’s something Rachel never is. In fact, the proof of it is on the pages of her new book.
“I don’t panic when it gets quiet, as it often does over the summer,” she says. “I go back to teaching at the [Ballymaloe Cookery] school and they are very understanding if I come and go and I have wonderful relaxed time with the children when they’re off school.”
“It’s all about the family, really,” Rachel says. “And I’m so emotional about my family and connected and proud, you know? And I think about how much I need my mum’s advice and help still now, and you don’t really let go completely. I’ ll always need her and I hope my own children feel that way too.”
‘Recipes from my Mother’ by Rachel Allen is published by HarperCollins on October 20. See exclusive recipes overleaf