Hi, pals! How’s tricks? Are we keeping well?
I’m sure yous’ll all be glad to hear that, as day two at Ballymaloe draws to a close, all of my fingers and thumbs are fully intact, and I’ve as yet managed to avoid stabbing myself (or anyone else) with a sharp knife! Hurrah! Thank heaven for small mercies, eh? In all seriousness though, some people here have bought really top-quality, brand new knives for this course and they’re as sharp as all get out, which did unfortunately result in a few nasty cuts for some people who are a bit more used to working with blunter knives at home (more blunt? – answers on a postcard, please). There was even a show of hands at this afternoon’s demo to see who came away with a “blue plaster badge of honour”. I needn’t get cocky, like, as I’m sure I’ll be next, but given my track record with fainting / “going all wibbly” at the sight of blood I’d very much like to stay injury-free (so step away from the voodoo doll …right now … thank-you!).
So, anywho, you’re probs wondering what the craic is and what we even get up to on a course like this. Well, gather around and I shall tell thee.
Day one involved a breakfast with all of the other course participants, followed by a full tour of the school and farm, and so much information that I felt a bit dizzy by the end of it.
Brekkie was what Darina likes to call a “non-executive” affair, with not a rasher of bacon nor a sausage nor a fried egg in sight. Instead we were treated to porridge made with Macroom oats from the last operational stone mill in Ireland, plus cream and honey from the farm, farm yoghurt with roasted rhubarb, stewed fruits, Ballymaloe raspberry muesli, labneh, and bananas in lime syrup which might as well be crack cocaine given the way in which I’ve become instantaneously addicted to it and can think of nothing else (I’ve yet to break into a car to feed my banana-lime habit though, so there’s hope). Anyway, you get the gist, none of us here are starving.
And so, tummies full, we made our way to the tour. We started with a quick welcome and introduction by Darina, before following her outdoors like little ducklings to learn about the be-all and end-all of food and farming: humus. No, no no. Not hummus, *humus*! (Brief aside: does anyone remember that clip where Harry Hill keeps saying “WHO-MOUSSE?! Ha! LOL!) Anyway, humus, or “black gold” as they like to call it here, is essentially all the decomposed organic matter in soil, and it’s full of all kinds of biodiversity and bacteria and fungi and the like. Darina was quick to quote Lady Eve Balfour, a farmer, educator, and organic farming pioneer whose ideas inspired the formation of the Soil Association at the beginning of the 20th Century, as having said “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”. Essentially: healthy humus equals healthy you-mus. Quite scary when you consider the current rates of soil degradation and the soil nutrient deficiency crisis we’re facing worldwide. I read a wee article on the topic recently that’d put the fear of God into you, but if you’re interested in reading it you’ll find it here:
So, what can we do? Well, as the article points out, organic isn’t a perfect solution, but it’s a good place to start, so if you can afford to – buy organic. Or even better, start your own wee compost heap and/or veg patch at home.
Having touched on the importance of healthy soil, our tour then took us on to the vegetable and herb gardens, where Darina encouraged us all to take tonnes of “before” photos, since the gardens are set to change dramatically in the coming months as the seasons change and lots of yummy organic veg and herbs begin to grow and thrive.
We also paid a visit to the wildflower meadow, which she credited with having encouraged several bird species, including the snipe, to return to the area after an absence of over 40 years. Darina informed us that a recent environmental survey revealed that the Ballymaloe farm has an absolutely incredible level of biodiversity, with more than double the number of bird species of most other agricultural areas. A proper wee ornathologist’s paradise, and a very encouraging sign for the future, fingers crossed.
Our next stop was the farm’s palatial glasshouse, where we were handed over to Tim. Ermagerd friends, why don’t *I* have a glasshouse like that?! (Probs because I don’t have even a post-it note to build on, let alone 100 acres of arable land, maybe?) It’s like Christmas come early for anyone into their food, or into gardening for that matter. Tim showed us a host of veg that they’ve currently got growing there, ranging from chard to radishes to spring onions to garlic to beetroot. He also let us have a nosy at a leek that had “bolted” or gone to seed – you could see that a flower was getting ready to open at the top, and the centre had formed a hard, dense core, which made it kind of unsuitable for cooking (except we used it today in a stock – waste not, want not!). He also taught us how to properly sow a seed, spoke to us about the mechanisation of seed sowing (which is aided by odd-shaped seeds being coated in clay to make them more uniform, thus allowing precision sowing), and shared a few interesting little tidbits, such as the fact that French tarragon is sterile (poor thing!), i.e. it doesn’t produce seeds, so if you’re buying tarragon seeds they’re almost certainly Russian (you can check by asking them about the height of Salisbury Cathedral!).
In another key lesson both on farming and on food security, we then planted our own sweetcorn. It’s already about 5 or 6 weeks old at this stage, and will take until the end of the 12-week course to be ready for harvesting and cooking and eating with a metric tonne of the salty jersey butter they have here (NOM!). Tim informed us that, at any one time, there’s only actually about 3 months worth of food on the planet, and that this exercise was designed to make us think more about the processes that go in to making our food. It doesn’t just appear on the supermarket shelves from nowhere, and you can’t just conjure it up by magic – it takes time! Soil degradation and food scarcity are very real issues, and we need to think more about what we eat, where we buy our food from, and how it impacts the environment.
We rounded off our tour with a trip to the composting bins to see how the farm uses, or should I say *re-uses* its waste. The composting bins are right beside the chicken enclosure, because the chickens also enjoy rooting through the bins to see if they can find a wee tasty morsel to nibble on (a bit like Miranda in that episode of Sex and the City, only with feathers). I learnt that chickens were originally a forest-dwelling bird, and prefer to roost in trees (a fact that I think I read in Michael Polan’s description of Joe Salatin’s Polyface farm, but then promptly forgot given that I’ve a mind like a sieve. PS: everyone go out and read The Omnivore’s dilemna). The 200-strong flock seemed pretty happy with their digs, and were kind enough to lay me pretty much the freshest egg I’ve ever eaten. I’m gonna be honest and say it tasted no different to any other egg I’ve eaten (apart from an Easter egg, teehee), but I guess the satisfaction comes from knowing exactly where your food comes from: happy, well-cared-for, organic free range chickens.
Tour over, we headed back to the school for lunch which was DELISH. But I think also a bit challenging for some people, myself included. We started with some tomato soup and Ballymaloe’s 72-hour sourdough, which by this stage you must all know I worship, and then were treated to a veritable smorgasboard of (mostly) local fare. This included shrimps (some still with their roe), cucumber pickle, tomatoes, potato salad, salami, kalamata olives, devilled egg, radish, smoked Lough Neagh eel (whoop, whoop, represent NI!), smoked mussel, horseradish, chicken liver paté, smoked salmon and a dill sauce, smoked mackerel, a scallion, and home-made mayo. Ja, so, I’m just gonna out myself now and confess that I’ve never liked smoked salmon. Or paté. Or horseradish. Just, no. *Insert boaky-face emoji*. But one of the hard an fast rules on the 12-week certificate course is that we have to at least try everything. Everything. It’s the only way to get to know foods and train your palate and taste-memory. So I did. And, dudes, my God, the smoked salmon!! I’m a convert. Super yum. Paté is still a complete no, but I’ll give it a go if it comes up again. Horseradish I can take or leave.
Monday afternoon was our very first demo, where we got to watch Darina and her flock of angels (I’ve just Googled “collective noun for angels” but “choir” doesn’t fit and “pinhead” is just wtf, so I’m sticking with flock) cook the dishes that we’re to cook the next day, whilst also teaching us about the providence and health benefits of the food, demonstrating key chopping and cooking techniques, and imparting wisdom on everything from health and safety regulations to the value of good equipment, such as an electric juicer (quote: “Buy one! Sure, doing it manually would drive you to drink!).
I’ll maybe write a bit more about the Monday demo and Tuesday’s escapades tomorrow, but a) I think I’ve waffled on quite enough for now, and b) I’m on “salad duty” tomorrow, which means rocking up at the glasshouse at 7.30am to pick and prepare salad for our student lunch, and then trotting off to class at 8.30am to make my assigned dishes of leek flamiche and rhubarb and strawberry compote. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to find out the difference between a quiche, a flamiche, and a savoury tart before I get a chance to ask my teacher, Florrie.
Thanks again for reading and for all your kind comments. Love yas! xx