Hello, hello, hello there! How are we? Everyone happy and healthy?
Oh my actual days! You know proper bloggers? Like, people who blog every day? Where in the name of Christ and all his carpenter friends do they find the time?! Do you think they’re all just mainlining espresso through an intravenous drip? Well, I’m very sorry that I’ve been neglecting my bloggy duties. I did actually start this post on Bank Holiday Monday but then someone offered me a fish taco and a bowl of chilli and I got distracted. Ooops! (Although, to be fair, story of my life. What did you expect?)
Anyway, I’m here now and I’m all yours. I won’t try and bring yous right up to date because then we’d (I’d) be here all night, but maybe I can just fill yous in on Week One? Super!
Our very first day in the kitchen saw us donning our chef’s whites for a morning lesson designed to ease us ever so gently into what would quickly become our daily routine. We met our teacher (Florrie: absolute gem, genuinely hilarious, patience of a flippin’ saint), as well as the other members of our section and our cooking partner for the week. At Ballymaloe, recipes get assigned to each cooking station and you divvy them up between yourself and your partner – it’s great for getting to know your classmates and sharing tips and tricks (plus, my partner Ioannis managed to finish his cooking before me pretty much all week and then always offered to do my washing up! Winner, winner, chicken dinner!). We had a whistlestop tour of the kitchen and then were put to work. Well, we chopped some carrots for carrot soup and sliced some onions and mushrooms for pasta sauce. Hardly rocket science, eh? Except this was our introduction to “Proper-Ass Professional Chopping 101” (NB: not an official Ballymaloe title. Please don’t get me in trouble already). What knife do you use to cut a carrot? How do you hold it properly? How do you cut proper batons? Or a dice? How do you slice mushrooms? How do you prevent yourself from cutting off every last one of your fingers? Hmmm? I cook a lot, and consider myself to be not-utterly-crap at it, but I really struggled with the professional cheffy chopping (probs cos my knives weren’t properly sharpened, naughty!), and ended up properly butchering my poor wee onion as a result. Not so cocky now, are we Nicola?
The afternoon demo focussed on a few seemingly basic but actually pretty key recipes, including chicken stock and green salad. Yep. Chicken stock. And green salad. Not a whole lot you can say about either of those, right? Wrong!
The French word for stock, we learned, is “fond”, which translated literally means “foundation” (correct me if I’m wrong, Frenchy friends). And what is stock, pray tell, if not the foundation or base of a great many dishes? Mess up your stock, or your foundation, and you’ve messed up your entire dish. Thankfully, Darina and Pam were willing to share all of their tips and tricks on how to extract the maximum amount of colour, flavour and nutrients from a bunch of organic chicken carcasses and their giblets to achieve a really tasty and nutritious stock. Pam even came up trumps with a couple of turkey feet that she had saved in the freezer from Christmas. I think I’ve said before – absolutely NOTHING gets wasted here and the turkey feet, whilst utterly gnarly and gross-looking, added a good bit of flavour and gelatin to the stock. Apropos “organic”, we’re strictly forbidden to bring non-organic chickens into the school (like if we go grocery shopping, not as pets … although probably also as pets … I digress) because they’re far more likely to be infected with salmonella or campylobactor than organic chickens and the risk of cross contamination is far too high. And we also learned that whilst you can render down chicken fat and use it to roast your spuds (kinda like goose fat, om-nom-nom), you should only do it with an organic chicken as the fat cells are where the body stores toxins. It seems like where organic meat is concerned, you’re paying a premium for what’s NOT in it, rather than what is. Proper food for thought, methinks.
Next up on our list of recipes was a green salad. Ok, time for a little pop quiz. How many kinds of salad leaves and herbs can you name in two minutes? Go on! I’ll go and pop the kettle on and give yous a wee while to think.
Alright, time’s up! How many did you get? Ten? Maybe twenty if you’re Bugs Bunny? I bet you all got buckler leaf sorrel, right? *crickets* And how many of you got tatsoi? Mmmhmm, me neither! Pals, there are SO MANY leaves and herbs that I had never heard of before I coming here. But my God do they make a tasty (and beautiful) salad! And what’s more, leaves like these that are fuller in flavour are also fuller in anti-oxidants, which means that they much more beneficial for our health (a benefit almost certainly undone by the amount of jersey butter I’ve been horsing into my face, but nevermind).
We’re really encouraged to taste all of the leaves we don’t know (especially as we have a herb recognition exam at the start of June), including plants such as chickweed, which most people would consider to be just a common garden weed, but which is actually a delish and nutritious addition to salads, and which Darina saw selling for $12/lb at the Union Square farmer’s market in NYC! Think of the fortune you could make off the weeds in your back garden! Only joking, please don’t poison yourselves.
I think for me the most important thing that I’ve taken away from this salad and herb lesson is just how crucial it is to buy organic (Jesus, Nicola, would you ever give over about everything being organic? Er, no!) It’s no big secret that the bags of salad we get from the supermarket are washed in a nasty chlorine/bleach solution, and you don’t have to be a brain surgeon to work out that that MUST be doing something horrible to our guts. The salad at Ballymaloe, on the other hand, hasn’t had a pesticide or anything of the like anywhere near it and is picked fresh from the farm every morning. And yes, that occasionally means that there’s a bit of dirt or a wee beastie crawling around on it, but they can easily be rinsed away under the kitchen tap. I’m genuinely a bit concerned about where I’m going to get my salad fix after I leave here. Maybe this is the kick up the arse I need to finally get an allotment or a new flat with a garden or balcony where I can start growing my own veg. Wouldn’t that be fun?
For my first proper morning’s cooking the next day, I was assigned a leek flamiche (which is basically just a Flemish quiche. I know, I think it sounds made up too, don’t worry), and a strawberry and raspberry compote. I make quiche pretty often but am almost always unhappy with the pastry (my rough puff often ends up sliding down the tin, and my shortcrust tends to taste good but look messy), so I was looking forward to learning as much as I could from Florrie and hoping to wind up with a nice thin, crisp pastry shell. Her first words of advice (or perhaps they were Pam’s) were to remember my ABCs: assume nothing, believe nobody, and check everything. Ha! In more concrete terms, that meant checking and double checking my ingredients before I started working, making sure my rolling pin and marble slab were in the fridge before rolling out my dough (in the summer we’ll actually be expected to make our dough inside the walk-in fridge), and making sure my oven was pre-heated. For me, though, her most invaluable tips were when we came to rolling out our pastry and lining our flan tins, which is where I always seem to go awry. Normally, when I roll out my pastry it ends up looking like a flippin’ map of Ireland, all raggedy and skewiff and full of holes. Florrie taught us how to roll out a nice thin, even circle, and then when lining the tin to push the dough at the rim forward a tad to leave yourself with a bit of excess standing just proud of the tin, which means there’s less chance of shrinkage after baking. I hope you’re taking notes here, folks! Write that down!
I’m not gonna lie, chicas and chicos, I was chuffed to bits with the flamiche I presented to Florrie at the end of the morning. The pastry was hands down the best I’ve ever made (albeit with a great deal of assistance), the filling was super yum (because bacon and leeks, duh!), and I kept my presentation nice and simple. Florrie’s feedback was really positive and she also provided some much-needed constructive criticism – the rim of my pastry was a teensy bit thick in some parts, which just means that I need to be more careful about making sure that the baking beads properly fill the shell and don’t allow the pastry to puff up. And as for the strawberry and rhubarb compote, its easy peasy and very quick to make, but I found it a tad sweet for my liking (we use a lot more sugar here than I’m used to, but Darina says that sugar has also gotten sweeter over the years, and that they’re always having to amend their recipes to compensate). I even bottled up some of the leftover syrup to make lemonade with – Rhabarberschorle for the win!
Of course, there’s more to life at Ballymaloe Cookery School than just whipping up the odd Flemish quiche or summer fruit compote. Oh yes, yes indeed! There’s all of our duties and extra-curricular activities to endure/enjoy, depending on your POV. I know that a few of my fellow course-mates aren’t massively pleased at having extra responsibilities on top of our cooking and classes and homework, but I am a complete nerd/teacher’s pet (still, at the age of 33, for shame!) and have also paid an absolute bloody fortune to be here, so I am keen so soak up as many experiences as I physically can, like some kind of experience sponge … or succulent plant. Hmm, yes. Anyway, that might explain why I was so uncharacteristically chirpy when turning up for my first 7.30am salad shift with Haulie, one of the Ballymaloe gardeners. He guided us around the glasshouse, showing us how to identify and harvest the salad leaves and flowers, and then drove us over to the herb gardens where he patiently waited for us to photograph and nibble and THEN collect the herbs for the day’s salad.
A similarly early and outdoorsy start was had the next morning, when a bunch of us attended Tim’s organic gardening class. We planted all sorts of lovely veg – hispi cabbage and onions and courgettes and scallions – some of which we’ll hopefully be able to harvest and eat before the end of the course. We also built a kind of protective tunnel over the cabbages using some netting, just to keep the hungry pigeons and rooks from munching on them. The farm is slowly converting to “no-dig” beds, meaning that the beds aren’t ploughed or dug up between veg rotations. Instead, they simply use tarpaulins or hay to keep weeds at bay. That and a whole hoard of students eager to get their hands mucky. Pretty nifty!
Come 9.00 am, we all traipsed back to the school to begin our very full day of seminars. And what a day of seminars it was! Cheese and wine, people! Cheese and wine! Yaaaaaaaas!!
Darina began the seminar by telling us all about Ireland’s strong history in the field of dairy. You only have to look at the global reputation of a brand like Kerry Gold or have a nosy in the dairy aisle of an Irish supermarket (where a course-mate of mine recently found 48 different kinds of butter! This is my nirvana!) to see that she has a point – the Irish take their dairy very seriously! I did have a little chuckle, though, when she floated the idea that the Irish were educators, in that the monks went out and set up monasteries and passed on their knowledge, and so it was very possible that it was the Irish who taught the French how to make cheese and why the Irish farmhouse cheeses being made now present such a real challenge to their French counterparts. Hey, it’s not beyond the realms of believability … I just know a few French people who’ll probs whack me round the head with a baguette for saying it.
Anywho, as mentioned, the morning’s main focus was not just any old dairy, but cheese. How to buy cheese, how to store cheese, how to serve cheese. But most importantly, the history behind Ireland’s artisan farmhouse cheese revival, and the incredible cheeses that are now being produced as a result. Darina explained that Ireland’s entrance into the EU in 1973 brought with it a wave of subsidies for milk farming, quickly resulting in the birth of an Irish farm cheese industry. West Cork soon established itself as the seat of Irish farmhouse cheeses, but perhaps not for the reason you might expect. You see, in the early ’70s, people were genuinely terrified by the prospect of nuclear war, and at the time it was determined that rural West Cork was probably the safest place in the country to be if you didn’t fancy getting nuked. Cue hoards of “well-educated hippies” upping sticks and moving to the middle of nowhere to start their wee farms and live in peace. Darina joked that, around that time, “this corner of Ireland had the highest proportion of uni graduates and the lowest proportion of flushed loos”. Ha! Amazing!
Cut to 45-odd years later and we were only too happy to be allowed to sample a whole range of de-flippin’-licious Irish cheeses. Omg, seriously, guys, the Milleen, the Gubbeen, the Cashel Blue, the Ardsallagh. Wow! If none of these names mean anything to you then you are missing out! Stop what you’re doing right now, stop it, and go and get in your car and then if needs be then get in a plane or a boat and come and eat these cheeses! They are world class. And that’s from someone who doesn’t even particularly love cheese!
Of course, cheese and wine have always been happy bedfellows, and so it was quite the fortunate coincidence that our afternoon was spent supping wine with Ireland’s top sommelier, Colm McCann. Colm will be guiding us through 6 wine-tasting sessions before our wine exam at the end of the course, and has also invited a host of wine-producers to visit or skype with us and tell us about their vineyards and wines. He’ll teach us all about the different grapes and wine-growing regions, as well as showing us how to properly store and serve wine, and most importantly of all, how to properly taste wine. Indeed, he began the seminar by setting out a number of spitoons around the classroom, and by advising us that there were no tastebuds in the throat and so there was no real need for us to swallow the wine when tasting it. Unfortunately a really huge and buzzy bee flew past my ear right when he was telling us this and I couldn’t quite make out what he was saying and so I did, accidentally, end up drinking up all of my wine. Oops! Genuine mistake. Could happen to anybody. Bloody bees!
In all seriousness though, wine-tasting aside, it is SO MUCH fun to listen to this man speak. He knows so much and is so passionate about wine, but wears his knowledge extremely lightly and shares it gladly. I must have written about two pages of notes before we’d even opened a bottle of wine. Did you know, for example, that 96% of all wine that is purchased is consumed within 24 hours? Or why Châteauneuf-du-Pape is called Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Or that wine is one of the only consumables which doesn’t have to have its ingredients listed on the label (essentially leaving consumers entirely in the dark as to what they’re buying)? He also explained the Irish excise duty on wine, which is CRAZY, and really makes you question what you’re getting for a €6 bottle of plonk! I could go on, but you probably actually want to know what wines we tasted?
Well, we started with something fizzy – a Pétillant Naturel (or Pet Nat) from Tour de Gendres in Bergerac. This was a natural sparkling wine, which meant that it contained no added sulphites or sugars, and was unfiltered (and so suitable for vegans). I’m a bit of a wine philistine and I don’t yet know all the posh wine lingo so I’m just going to say that it was very fresh and quaffable, and that I’ll definitely be buying a bottle.
Our next wine was a Domaine L’Achilee Alsace white, which was a blend of nine different grapes. Colm mentioned that many people are turned off by the idea of a wine being a blend, and think it somehow makes it inferior, but that most champagnes are a blend of three different grapes, and the hugely popular Châteauneuf-du-Pape is also a blend, so any concern is absolutely unwarranted. I wasn’t a huge fan of this one, but I might have to change my mind pretty soon as the vintner is coming to visit next week to talk to us about his winery (which is the largest building made of straw in Europe).
Colm then had us taste and compare two contrasting styles of Chardonnay: a Chablis by Gerard Trembley in Burgundy, and a Rustenberg from Stellenbosch in South Africa. I’ve never been asked to compare two wines made from the same grape before, so forgive me for sounding like a complete idiot, but they were SO DIFFERENT! We learnt that Chablis is a cool climate wine grown in Kimmeridgian limestone (apparently vines can sink their roots down to 20 metres below ground, so they’re really soaking up all the flavours of the terroir), which gives it a really fresh and zesty minerality. Stellenbosch, on the other hand, has a much warmer climate meaning that the grapes are much riper and contain more sugar. The Rustenberg Chardonnay was aged in French oak barrels, too, and so had a really oaky and buttery finish. Sublime!
So, ja. Not a bad way to wrap up our first week, eh?
Honestly pals, I practically floated back to my cottage I was so happy! And then I had a little happy cry, haha! Don’t get me wrong, it’s been extremely intense, with early starts and long days and that feeling of everything being a bit unfamiliar and just wanting to settle in quickly. But it’s also been SO MUCH FUN. Crazy levels of fun. And I know I’m only a week into this course but I also know it was absolutely the right decision for me. It feels so good to be learning again and to feel like I’m dusting the cobwebs out of my brain, and it feels incredible to be pursuing something I enjoy so passionately. I don’t mean to get all philosophical or soppy, but so so many people have contacted me since I’ve been here, even people I’ve not seen since my school days, to say how fantastic they think it is that I’m doing this and how much they wish they could do the same or similar. Friends, all I can say to that is … JUST GO OUT AND BLOODY DO IT!! If there’s something you’re really passionate about or even just interested in and you think it could make you happy, make it happen! Because life is too short for coulda-woulda-shouldas! Don’t quit your daydream!
Oof! On that note, I think I’m off to bed. I’ll try and get on top of this blogging malarky and keep yous up to date on a more regular basis, promise. Nighty-night! xx