Ballymaloe is a special place. It’s like Knock, where any trip becomes a sacred pilgrimage to worship at the altar of food, where we go to think about what we eat, to feel a deeper connection to the land. Or, in my case, where you bring your kids so you can create the illusion that our family is more interested in slow food than fast food, despite what the chips smeared into the floor of the people carrier may attest to.
Despite my policy of only bringing my children to things that don’t cost me any money, I am willing to splash out the five euro entry required for the Ballymaloe Craft Fair, as it gives my children a glimpse of what life could be like if their father had tastebuds. Events at Ballymaloe are special – full of kindly folk who look like they are just back from a painting retreat in west Cork, all speaking in funny accents that sound slightly Amish. Our preparations for any event in Ballymaloe are important – first up was my daughter noticing I was dressed up. Why aren’t you wearing trainers and a hoodie, she asked. Why, dearest child, whatever do you mean – I always wear a wax jacket and my finest Penneys teeds of a Sunday. It’s like cosplay, I explained, only instead of dressing up as Pikachu and Jigglypuff, we are pretending to be affluent, now please just put on this loose-knit rainbow beanie and let’s go.
On our arrival there was the awkward moment when my son asked me why I was putting on an accent and using words like splendid and scrumptious, as opposed to my usual repertoire of casual swears. I had to then explain in angry whispers that these were the gentlefolk of east Cork and I desperately wanted to fit in with them and he wasn’t to blow this for me. So we set our faces to benign smiles, and went off to peruse some of the wares, under strict instructions not to touch anything or seem too interested lest our social awkwardness gerrymander us into a purchase. We were there for free samples only, and no-one was to be shy about it. Oh, it’s dairy and gluten free, vegan, foraged, handcrafted and 100% ethically sourced? Please do tell me more while I pick up your sample bowls and empty them directly into my mouth. Wow, so ethical it doesn’t even cast a shadow, great stuff, any chance you could refill the bowls please.
After a delightful buffet of free food, it was on to the crafts, where half the stuff seemed to be upcycled, recycled, foraged or found, like browsing an especially posh recycling centre. There was even a stall selling antique children’s sleds, which seemed a little on the nose given that we were surrounded by the Citizens Kane of east Cork. But this upcycling and foraging ethos is one I can get behind – find a free thing, do a bit of polishing, and sell it for as much as possible. As I walked around I couldn’t help but think of all the tat I had lying around at home I could have flogged to the petit bourgeoisie of east Cork, broken antique radios, bags of 2013 blackberries from the bottom of the freezer, artisanal bedpans. If it grew in a hedge or stopped serving a function in 1952, then this fair could be its new home. After a while, we realised that we should probably buy something, so I plumped for a vegan chickpea brownie that almost pinned me to the ground such was its density, while my kids got the bargain deal of three small-yet-ethical chocolate bars for a tenner, all made from grainy, slightly bitter chocolate that my daughter summarised as ‘not as nice as a Freddo’. Money well spent.
Of course, the success of our brief sojourn into the upper echelons of east Cork foodie culture was ultimately down to the fact that I only brought the older two children, while my wife had to wrangle the smallies into a rain-soaked playground some miles away so they could all come home with wet arses. This, sadly, is often the way we have to manage things – the older two want interesting excursions, the smallies want to destroy. Finding things that we can all do together is hard, and my wife and I often feel more like shift partners than a couple, dividing the kids and attempting to conquer them, meeting only for brief moments between her job and mine, when we do handover, maybe find the time for a quick argument about money, and then say goodbye. It has become like a relay race, and I keep thinking that there will be a finish line, when the kids are grown, and we will be able to watch a film, have an uninterrupted conversation, chew our food or just be able to go to the bathroom without a child suddenly barging in the door to tell you someone pinched someone. Perhaps in some distant halcyon future we will have our own craft stall, selling preserves, watercolour painting of root vegetables and hats made from itchy wool. See you in a few decades.