Behind the Scenes at Ballymaloe Litfest 2016

As preparations ramp up for the hotly anticipated Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest 2016, we take an exclusive sneak peek behind the scenes with Ballymaloe head pastry chef JR Ryall, to find out what it’s like to be part of the Litfest team… 

As soon as I started working at Ballymaloe in 2004, I immediately clicked with Mrs [Myrtle] Allen and I knew I wanted to be mentored by her. She gradually introduced me to her recipes and taught me not only how to cook but how to taste. Darina has always been an inspiration to me too; I loved watching her Simply Delicious programmes when I was a child. Now I am very proud to say that I feel very much at home in the Ballymaloe kitchen and I have Mrs Allen, Rory [O’Connell] and Darina to thank.

The idea for Litfest came about when Jeffrey Dobs – a cousin of Ballymaloe’s manager Hazel Allen – was staying at the house and remarked how the layout of Ballymaloe, with its beautiful old buildings, would be the perfect place to hold a festival. Darina overheard and immediately took out her little black book, called a few international food and wine writer friends to extend an invite, and they all said yes. Before we knew it, Ballymaloe was having a festival and there was a lot of work to do!

Behind the Scenes at Ballymaloe Litfest 2016

JR Ryall at Ballymaloe House. Photo: Joleen Cronin

Everyone who works at Ballymaloe learns how to be versatile. When Litfest was founded, I started an official festival blog, which I’ve kept up ever since. During the lead-in to each Litfest, around March, I invite speakers to write guest posts, to share why they are excited to be coming to the festival. It’s a great way to get to know a little bit more about the people coming and keep up with the most exciting behind-the-scenes news!

East Cork is a wonderful place to visit – every Litfest visitor should make sure to check out the café at Stephen Pearse pottery in Shanagarry, the Ballycotton cliff walk, and the Jameson Distillery in Midleton while they’re in the area. Anyone who needs a place to stay should look at the accommodation page of the Litfest website for suggestions. Book soon, as beds are selling like hot cakes!

Behind the Scenes at Ballymaloe Litfest 2016

A map of the Litfest layout. Photo: Joleen Cronin

I love that young Irish cooks are taking so much pride in Irish produce. My favourite part of every day is when I go to the walled garden and pick beautiful fruit, herbs and flowers to use in all of the sweets and desserts that I make. I’m really fortunate to have the best-quality fresh produce in Ireland to work with at my fingertips. More and more restaurants are forging links with farms to ensure the ingredients they get are the very best. 

Besides Ballymaloe, my top eateries in Ireland are The Crawford Café in Cork, The Fumbally and Etto in Dublin, and Ard Bia, Galway. It’s very exciting to see people going back to basics, making things from scratch and taking interest in classic techniques. This trend has started but we’ll be seeing a lot more of it over the coming years. The future looks very bright indeed.


Ballymaloe Litfest is on Condé Nast Traveller’s top international festivals list for 2016. To get the lowdown on the must-see events at this year’s festival, pick up a copy of our lustworthy March-April issue from a newsagent near you. 

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