If the serenity of Ballymaloe House, the graceful self-assurance of the manor home itself initially hinted that this LitFest gathering might ever be in danger of falling on the wrong side of chi-chi, more Pimms than porter, white bread sandwich with crust removed, then life in and around The Big Shed was an excellent reminder that the pearl in every oyster begins with a piece of grit.
It was billed as the home of the 'Fringe' but, as the weekend evolved, it gradually became apparent to all that 'The Big Shed' was actually the beating heart of the festival. Housed in a vast working barn given a magnificent makeover by Ted Berner – aided by Dublin collective The Queens of Neon and an army of willing helpers who transmuted a whole host of recycled materials into a bucolic, funky cathedral – it was the main chamber to which all arteries from other parts of the festival flowed. It is where everyone, audiences and 'performers' alike, came to recharge, to refuel and to share in a communal sense of celebration. Something very special was obviously afoot in Ballymaloe; The Big Shed was where you came to pay testament. And what did we do there?
Well, we ate: brunch of single pot still whiskies and cheese with Gubbeen Queen Giana Ferguson, Firehouse Bakery's Patrick Ryan, Jayne Murphy from Irish Distillers and Seaneen and Michael from L. Mulligan Grocer; bulging breakfast baps of Woodside Farm's exquisite rare breed free range sausages and rashers; sumptuous salty slivers of Bill Casey's Shanagarry Smoked Salmon on brown bread; possibly a sneaky sample of Eryngii and Dill Butter from the Ballyhoura Mushroom crew.
We looked for companions to aid in finishing the monstrous wooden platters of fare served up from the heart of Fingal Ferguson's giant oven, some class of locomotive engine, it appeared, beaten into culinary submission; after the Grande Dame des Lettres Claudia Roden finished up talking about the Food of Spain, we raced back down to see if Silvia Hilara Iglesias had any more of her roscos de naranja left, anything at all from her Andalucian-influenced range of beautiful baked comestibles to chaw on with a coffee. Coffee? This was coffee Nirvana: the Marco Brew Bar running along one side of the barn featuring on-site roasters Golden Bean; Badger and Dodo; Bewleys; Robert Roberts; Ponaire; Cloud Picker; Bailies; and Nic’s Tea.
Ballymaloe Sommelier and all-round Beverage Missionary Colm McCan hosted his own little oasis for the weekend; alongside those aforementioned whiskies, there were wines, sherries, ciders and cider brandy on a river of information. Children ate Marcus' delicious ice cream from Yum Gelato, pizza from Volcano Pizza and flowers at Incredible Edibles hosted by Belfast's Root and Branch organic food project, all the while recounting awestruck tales of the tethered birds of prey seen earlier on a lawn in front of the Grainstore.
There was no hierarchies in The Big Shed: Madhur Jaffrey signed books at the Kenny's pop-up bookstore while oblivious diners sat alongside on benches recycled from pallets; renowned chefs such as Paul Flynn and Denis Cotter shared food memories from a small stage next to the bar and whether you chose to stop and listen or not was just fine. The bar itself was quite a wondrous construction though you suspect the never-ending queues all weekend were perhaps more concerned with the fantastic array of Irish craft beers on offer. And we danced, oh how we danced: to the Pied Pied Piper of Mahon, Rupert and Co; busting hip hop moves with Niamh Sheils @eatlikeagirl; and waltzing to country tunes with Birgitta Curtin of Burren Smokehouse until closing time ... Why did The Big Shed have to end?