Category Archives: Ballymaloe

Ballymaloe Day 4: “It’s a moment in a glass”

As I stared at the limp body in my lap, with my fingers plucking away at its torso, I realised that everyday some kind-of randomness happens here at Ballymaloe.

I had an early start today and got up at 7am to head off to our optional gardening class. About 14 of us trudged around the gardens with Tim Allen, Darina’s husband, and we learned more about the many plants he had growing on the 100 acre grounds.

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The compost pile at the moment is at various stages with the prime being a year old – it smells rich and earthy.

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Brushing off the soil from our boots and hands, we headed into the demo room where we were to learn all about cheese, wine, fire safety and the principles of food safety.

Sadly, Darina was away for the morning so we had stand-in talk from Pam, one of our teachers.

Pam studied at Ballymaloe, so it was really nice to know that she knew exactly what we were going through – information overload. Swiftly and with skill she made a lovely red currant jelly along with cheese crackers and brought us through some of the Irish farmhouse cheeses.

Then, and much to my excitement, Colm McCan (not the author!), was taking us for a wine lecture.

For those who don’t know, Colm is a top-class Sommelier and has worked at Ballymaloe House for many years – he’s now their consulting expert on wine.

I’m pretty much clueless about wine (barely being able to distinguish red from white – I JOKE), so I really was curious about this lecture.

Colm is so passionate about wine and what’s great about him is that he doesn’t present himself as a wine snob. He speaks about the drink in an everyman manner and made me feel like I was actually able to understand wine someday.

As he says, drinking wine is “a moment in a glass”.

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We tasted four wines throughout the demo including one non-alcoholic – and it was a truly fascinating experience.

The Chablis was very crisp and fresh, perfect for seafood and tasted exactly like what the Burren would taste like if it was bottled (trust me) And the Rustenberg Stellenbosch from South Africa had a gorgeous oak and toasty flavour – definitely good with blue cheese. I’ve never used my nostrils so much.

We also tasted a Chauvée Marine, a blend of three grapes which was quite lovely.

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The rest of the afternoon was pretty much heavy-theory focused so I won’t go into details here. BUT, did you know that people can be natural carriers of salmonella? And if you are a natural carrier you can never work in a kitchen – in fact it’s incredibly irresponsible to take on a food position.

You thought I forgot about the duck didn’t you? Back to the present!

Like I said before, things at Ballymaloe can be rather random and this evening Darina came sauntering through our courtyard with dead fresh mallards hanging from her arms.

As you can see, I was handed one and was given the task at plucking the feathers and down from its tummy. It was rather bizarre but with the help of a fellow student, Oscar, we managed to do our best to declutter his tummy! (We called him Sir Barn McCoachy Barn – don’t ask).

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We’re back in the kitchen tomorrow where I’ll be making Brown Bread, Raspberry Jam and Spagetti and Courgettes.

Some things I learned today:

  • Chablis HAS to be made from Chardonnay grapes or it’s not Chablis – it’s French law and you could be fined or arrested if you’re trying to pass off wine using other grapes.
  • If you make stuffing, you shouldn’t store it in tinfoil – the particles drop off and you’ll get a metally type flavour.
  • The bigger the freezer, the more junk you’ll have in it.
  • Excise duty in Ireland on wine is absolutely ridiculous – say for example a bottle that’s priced at €8.00 in shops, minus the packaging and VAT you’re actually left with about 51c worth of wine. There’s twice the excise duty on Champagne.

Ballymaloe Day 3: The need to knead!

Still no blue plasters on my fingers so all’s well in camp Ballymaloe this evening.

Each day we’re to prepare an “Order of Work”, where we time out how we plan to spend our kitchen time and let’s just say, when it came to cooking the plan went out the window.

We’re meant to be in the kitchens by 8.30am but everyone was in by 8.00am measuring up ingredients and bustling around. I had to cook a Quiche Lorraine, a Middle Eastern Salad and an extra pesto with my partner Paula, and so tried to master the cumbersome weighing scales.

It’s quite strange cooking with so many people in the same room – not only do you have to be wary of keeping measurements but you have to be keeping your station clean, having an eye on ovens and making sure you don’t accidentally stab someone.

I never realised how long pastry takes, from making it, to popping it in and out of the oven – the need to knead is crazy!

So far, speed has not been on my side, and I finished up tired and worn down at about 12.15pm – 15 minutes over the preferred 12pm deadline.

Despite having a slightly too short-shortcrust pastry (irony), and not remembering to dress my salad, overall I was happy, if not a bit overwhelmed.

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(My Quiche Lorraine)

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(My Middle Eastern Salad)

Lunch came and went, and strangely enough I didn’t feel hungry at all. Ballymaloe has been very weird in the sense that I don’t feel like I need food, despite being surround by aroma all morning – and I’m not the only one! (Maybe this myth of losing weight while here is true after all…)

Understanding that we were physically not very present in the afternoon demo, Darina’s brother Rory O’Connell got us to all stand up and stretch our arms to the ceiling. We looked like awful yoga amateurs, but it worked on getting the energy back.

Today was the first day that Rory was with us and I was pretty excited – all the blogs that I read before heading here said that he was their favourite teacher. For our amusement, he was in charge of showcasing the 14 dishes we’re going to reproduce on Friday from Chocolate and Hazelnut Tart, Candied Peel and Heirloom Tomato Salad with Wasabi and Mascarpone to traditional White Scones (take a second to imagine what it’s like to try and take in all this info!).

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(Rory’s scones and jam, they’re so light and beautiful)

Sage advice from Rory today? “Don’t try to be an Olympian in the first week, or you’ll be an Olympian without a finger”.

By the way, Darina brought in three dead birds so we had a plucking party in the courtyard during our break.

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Come 6pm and after our information fill we trudged out headed back home.

Currently I’m sitting in the communal area with a few of the girls, attempting to work the TV and getting down to our filing system – we live riveting lives folks!

Tomorrow we’ve a theory day (a nice break from the sweaty kitchen), and we’re getting to learn all about… wait for it… CHEESE. Bring on the fromage.

Some random things I learned today:

  • 180°C in the oven will sterilise jars if you’re planning to make jam or pesto.
  • If beans squeak when you eat them, they’re undercooked.
  • Majoram is part of the Oregano family.
  • Reserve pasta water to help it unstick if it becomes stuck together.
  • If you scoop out a cucumber, you can use the seeds for a gin and tonic.
  • You can usually tell what sauce a pasta needs by its shape – things like Penne has two open ends so a sauce that runs easily through is preferred whereas a pasta with a curve in it, like Conchiglie, would welcome a thick sauce with open arms.
  • I can officially survive on 6 hours sleep.

Ballymaloe Day 2: No soggy bottoms please!

I think my body clock is learning that it’s time to re-adjust the system. Before the course started I was going to bed at about 3am each night, now I’m going to bed at about 10.30pm.

Today was our first day actually cooking in the kitchen and the eager beaver in me couldn’t wait to put on the whites and hop onto the hob.

The working day kicked off with a demo from Darina about the mastering the art of a decent vegetable and chicken stock and making the classic Ballymaloe garden salad with their signature dressing.

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This week I’m assigned to Kitchen 3 near the front of the cookery school and proudly carrying my knives, I headed down with my group to Florrie – our tutor. (Honestly, if this had been any other setting other than a cookery school, 62 people wielding a set of knives that they’re not used to is a crazy thought).

Cooking in a foreign kitchen can be the most confusing things in the world, and for our first day I was glad that we were all working as a group.

Tears streamed down my face as my knife cut through the onions, and I was worried that Florrie thought that I’d already given up hope. “Thankfully”, another girl across from me was also crying from the vegetable so we both felt the pain.

Soon, the fruits of our labour began to appear with Mushroom a la Crème, Carrot and Coriander Soup and Brown Soda Bread making their way to the dining room.

We finished up our dishes under the watchful and patient eyes of our tutor, we got our dishes out and served for the Kitchen 3 and Demo Room entourage – We even got high-fives from Florrie for managing not to cut ourselves on our knives.

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(Our mushroom dish with pasta and Ballymaloe’s salad – I know it doesn’t look astounding but you should have tasted it!)

Afternoon demo began after we had our luncheon fill and we all scuttled into the classroom with our pens in hand.

Ingredients in Ballymaloe are unbelievably fresh, and as Darina placed basil on the table, the aroma wafted into the front row. The list was long but we managed to cover about 11 dishes, from a blackberry and apple compote with sweet geranium leaves, French onion tart and heirloom tomato salad to tasty fork biscuits.

(Darina emphasized the need to prevent and avoid “soggy bottoms” which I hope to replicate – it sounds dodgier than it is!)

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(Lines of fork biscuits, topped with icing sugar)

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(Blackberry and apple fruit compote)

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(Potato and chorizo soup)

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(Individual mini-quiches)

Come 6pm we were pretty wrecked and trudged back to our cottages with an information overload. (By the way, taking off your shoes after a day in the kitchen is not pretty).

Following a long day of learning and knife-throwing , myself and a few of my fellow food addicts headed off foraging with one of the teachers.

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(Blackberry picking with Julia, Sophie, Rhonda and Emer – our teacher)

It seems like all my evenings are surrounded by sunsets but picking blackberries in the stillness of Cork’s countryside is pretty special.

Tomorrow I’m cooking Ballymaloe’s Quiche Lorraine and a Middle Eastern Salad. I’ve yet to join the blue plaster brigade but given my knife skills so far, I reckon it could be tomorrow!

Some random stuff that I learned today:

  • Quiche Lorraine is named after an area in the north-east of France.
  • Cheddar was named after a place called Cheddar in Somerset where it originated, but now is pretty much made everywhere.
  • Pork is fresh meat from a pig, whereas bacon and ham is cured or salted.
  • When apples are ripe, their pips are brown, when they’re not, they’re white.
  • The French word for stock, “fond”, means foundation – how apt!
  • Often, bought salads are washed in a chlorine solution (ew), try and get it fresh and don’t be afraid of dirt.
  • Don’t add salt to your stocks – it limits its usage – you can always add salt later. Also don’t add liver to a chicken stock because it adds bitterness and beetroot will just make your stock go purple!

Ballymaloe Day 1: “This is a wooden spoon!”

After stubbing my toe for the third time on the same suitcase and feeling the pain waft slowly up my leg, I knew that I wasn’t off to a good start.

Today was officially the first day of the Ballymaloe Cookery School adventure, I was eager to hop out of bed (not my forte), and go tackle the day.

Despite battling a ferocious cold and cursing my toes, I was in a pretty good mood. Outside was dry and I looked forward to breakfast that was being served to us at 8.30am.

Now I’m not a big breakfast person, but when you see fresh porridge flavoured with strawberries, apple juice from the orchard and a stockpile of Irish cheeses and chorizo – how could I resist?

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I happily tucked into my breakfast treat and though I may not be quite converted to porridge and muesli just yet, it’s certainly upped its game (And the cheese? Well, let’s just say I demolished Clonmore and Cheddar like I hadn’t eaten in days).

“This is a wooden spoon!”, Darina announced, brandishing one in the demo room after breakfast. “I want to make sure that you can make a living from it”. And so, our learning began.

With our folders in hand, name tags on our chests and wellies donning our feet, we headed off into the 100 acre gardens that the cookery school sits upon.

To say it was a jam-packed day would be an understatement, so in a nutshell we learnt about extactly what the Ballymaloe ethos is all about – from leaving no waste to making the perfect compost – information was hijacking our brains (and my ears, with enthusiasm).

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(Darina teaching us about composting)

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(Sauntering through the herb garden)

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(Learning from Tim Allen about the many things he and the gardeners grow outside)

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(Fresh tomatoes on the vine in the glasshouses)

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(Sampling the many vegetables from under the glass)

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(We planted our own Cos lettuce – I shall call him Sebastian)

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(Chilis! I’ll be avoiding these fellas I reckon)

After a quick break from our garden and glasshouse adventures, we learned a bit about each other and the many backgrounds that people had come from. It was like circle time for food addicts.

The majority of people wanted a career change, with people coming from all walks of life in the hopes of making a go of something after 12 weeks. Fingers crossed, folks.

** We also had an amazing lunch full of local produce but my phone is being bold and isn’t sending through images**

Finally the demo began and while I had a massive headache courtesy of my sniffles, I wanted to make the most of it and take as many notes as possible – cold be damned!

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We learned the basics of chopping, sharpening knives, sweating vegetables, baking a loaf of decent bread, oaty biscuits, creating simple soups and making lemonade and from the outset, I found what’s great about Darina is that she doesn’t make you feel stupid.

It’s a classroom environment and all questions are welcome, you may feel a bit unknowledgeable (like me) and be totally embarrassed why you’ve to ask what terms mean – but ultimately, that’s why I’m here. Don’t bluff, it’s not worth it.

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At 6pm we were let go and my body wandered back outside to the lush greenness of Ballymaloe and vast array of herbs and vegetables. Hippy heaven for me.

As I lay on the grass watching the sun dip below the trees, I couldn’t help but think about how wonderful life can be when you take time out to appreciate it (I’ll hand back the cheese now).

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Tomorrow we’re finally heading into the kitchen and while I’m a bag of nerves, I’m excited about donning my chef whites.

Some random things I learned today:

  • Soda bread is our official bread here in Ireland, and it’s unbelievable easy to make. As someone who’s often terrified of baking, I’m hoping convert people to this simple loaf that’ll stop them from buying shop-bought stuff ever again (seriously, if you tasted it today…)
  • Potatoes shouldn’t go into a stock pot, or their peelings – they’re too starchy and they soak up all of the flavours.
  • For the nicest results, always follow the cookbook/recipe’s measurements, try not to convert (that is if they’ve written it well!)
  • Parsley stalks have loads of flavours and are worth popping into the stock pile.
  • According to Darina, apparently people lose weight on the course but I’m yet to believe it!

(All images © Úna-Minh Kavanagh/Spill the Beans)