“There is no such thing as cheap food” – Darina Allen
Last Sunday I took the trip I had been waiting to take for months. I left around 3 o’clock and arrived at Ballymaloe Cookery School just as it was getting dark, around half five. I was nervous, very nervous. I met a couple of my house mates before heading over to the Garden Cafe for pizza and wine. There had been no need to be so nervous. Darina Allen welcomed us all and introduced her husband Tim and son Toby as well as son in-law Philip who was responsible for the magnificent wood fired pizzas. Everybody was nervous, it was obvious, but soon enough we were all chatting, brought together by wonderful food.
On Monday morning we again met in the Garden Cafe for breakfast. A bowl of museli with Jersey cream and yogurt was followed by sourdough with salami and a selection of farmhouse cheese, the perfect start. Darina then gave us a tour of the gardens and farm and explained that although not everything is edible, the vast majority of it is. Despite the trees and ground being bare it was easy to picture the garden in full bloom. Tim took over the tour when it came to the vegetable garden and glasshouses, he is a fountain of knowledge on organic gardening. After planting our lettuce’s we took a walk to the hens, the dustbins of the cookery school. The hens take the food scraps from the kitchens (well any that aren’t fit for the stockpot) and whatever they don’t eat goes into Tim’s compost. On our way back to the school we passed the cows, geese and the beautiful saddleback pigs, all free-range and organic of course. After a quick demo it was time for a “light lunch.” I’m not sure what your definition of the word light is but I can guarantee it bears no resemblance to the Ballymaloe definition. Soup was followed by a tasting plate of local foods including devilled eggs, fresh shrimp, chicken liver parfait, smoked mackerel and mussel, salami and Kalamata olive with fig, cucumber pickle and cherry tomatoes. Lunch was completed with a selection of desserts, a cheeseboard and a cup of coffee. Full! I signed up for everything possible, cheese making, butchery, gardening, bread making and attending market stalls, it’s only 12 weeks, take advantage.
Day 2 began with a demonstration on chicken stock, the most used stock at the school followed by a quick stint in the kitchen making the day’s lunch. The teachers are friendly and approachable and most seem to possess a dry Cork wit, it’s comforting. I was on glass polishing duty after lunch – the school is like a well oiled machine, it’s a huge operation where teachers, students and staff all have to pull their weight to keep everything on track. Darina was a wealth of knowledge during the afternoon session, jumping from quiche Lorraine to potato soup and from parsley pesto to poached apricots. The tasting at the end was a revelation as I realised I had beaten three foods that I previously didn’t like: mushrooms, apricots and berries.
Wednesday began with an early alarm clock; I was on stock duty. After 40 minutes of skimming huge pans of stock and bashing chicken for new stock it was off to Kitchen 1 to begin the weigh up for my quiche and salad. I had planned on making poached apricots too but Tracie, my teacher, quickly put a halt to that saying that the quiche was going to knock me out! The quiche went well apart from Tracie nearly killing me for taking it out of the oven holding the bottom of the tin, an understandable reaction considering it was a loose base flan tin. The afternoon demo was our first with Rachel, it was excellent. She is passionate, knowledgeable and quickly worked her way through a mountain of recipes. I particularly enjoyed Rachel’s stories of the great Marcella Hazan who did guest demos at the school a few times. Rachel spoke with great fondness for her and how she stood at the counter smoking while telling them all what to cook and how she checked a dish for seasoning by smelling it! Struggling a little with the richness of the food, I cooked a lentil and sausage stew on Wednesday evening, a more familiar plate of food.
Thursday was a surprisingly great day. I say surprisingly as the afternoon was a fire safety talk followed by a HACCAP lecture. The day started at 7.45 when 10-15 of us joined Tim Allen for the optional organic farming class. The farm looked spectacular as light slowly took over the dark sky. This was followed by a lecture on Irish farmhouse cheeses by Darina who is extremely passionate on the subject. I had often overlooked Irish cheese, favouring Italian, French and Spanish instead, no longer. Ballymaloe House somelier Colm McCann was joined by Peter Corr to give our first wine lecture of the course. We delved into Chardonnay and how the process of winemaking differs between the Old (Europe) and New (Australia, South America and North America) Worlds. We tasted a very dry Chablis from Burgundy and a fruity Chardonnay from South Africa. No contest, New World wins this one! The afternoon safety talks were very enjoyable, with an entertaining talk from a witty Corkonian and a great lecture on HACCAP from Darina. I wholeheartedly agree with Darina’s thoughts on food safety and hygiene, common sense should always prevail. I also enjoyed Darina’s tangent on chicken and pig welfare and why it’s causing the meat to be riddled with salmonella before it even enters the kitchen. Philip Martin from Blanco Nino also came in during the afternoon to talk a bit about their corn tortillas which contain just three ingredients; corn, water and lime.
Friday was another enjoyable day with my loganberry jam receiving a 10/10 from my teacher Emer. My pasta (with sausage and tomato) and brown soda bread also came out well but there’s room for a little improvement here. Rachel’s afternoon demo was great, I don’t know how she manages to fit so much into a 3 hour demo but she does it easily sharing many tips and tricks along the way. After my demo cleaning duty was complete it was time to spin home back to The Curragh, dropping Alison, Lydia and Marie off on the way. Week 1 down and back home for a couple of days to see Ali, Penny and our wonderful cats. It’s tough to be away so much, it’s always nice to come back to Ali and our zoo after a long day and not being able to has probably been the toughest thing so far.
Quotes of the week:
“All God’s creatures have a place in the fire” – Darina, putting a slug out the window after she found it on a lettuce leaf.
“Chickweed is the bain of the farmer’s life…..but just take your revenge and eat it!” – Darina
“There is more salt in cornflakes than seawater” – Darina
“In some of those countries the wine is safer to drink than the water” – Darina, talking about the wine culture in France, Italy and Spain.
“There is no such thing as cheap food” – Darina
“There’s no such thing as black and white, there really are fifty shades of grey in the middle” – Darina, talking about food safety
“We’re bad here at Buttermaloe but not that bad” – Rachel, talking about not adding cream to a sorbet