Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Week 1 : From Dublin to Ballymaloe Cookery School

On Sunday 4th of January it all became real. I finished packing my bags, said goodbye to my cats (I cried) and Mammy Mr. FFID drove us down to Shanagarry.

At the sight of the school my heart started to beat faster and my legs got a little weak: this was it.

Every student has to check-in on the Saturday or Sunday before the course starts. I was warmly welcomed by Darina Allen herself and Mammy Mr. FFID couldn’t believe she shook hands with her. The school is in Shanagarry East Cork and it’s quite something when you get there as you hear so much about how magical this place is. The school itself is decorated with taste, it is artsy and while also keeping the countryside feel.

Most of the students live onsite in one of the 5 cottages (there are between 5 to 10 students in each) and they are adjacent to Darina and Tim’s house. 

The school also rent 3 houses locally in Shanagarry Holiday Village where I’m staying. My accommodation is very modern, fully equipped and I share with 3 other people around my age.

On Sunday the students were invited to the cafĂ© to meet everyone while having delicious homemade pizzas and ice-cream. It was the first time I saw everyone (64 students I think), mostly women of every age from 18 up to maybe mid-fifties. Many Americans, English, Irish and a few other nationalities, I’m the only French. After pizza, a few of us went down to the closest pub (The Goal Post Bar) for one.

The course started on Monday which was very much an orientation day. We first enjoyed a beautiful breakfast, an amazing spread of homemade breads, granola, muesli, porridge, cheeses, charcuterie and much more. After that, Darina brought us around the school to visit the different areas, the gardens and the glasshouses. 

We got to see what was in season at the moment and we even got to plant our very own pak choi that we’ll see grow during our time here.

Darina makes sure you understand their philosophy of self-sufficiency, using local produce, support artisans, growing your own food and not wasting anything. The hens are the best fed in Ireland and if they don’t like it, it will become compost.

We had our first demo on Monday afternoon. Basically every afternoon (except on Wednesday which is our lecture day) we have a cooking demo by one of the teachers Darina, Rory O’Connell (Darina’s brother) or Rachel Allen (Darina’s daughter in law). They all have their own style: Darina is like a food encyclopedia and has so much experience, Rory is funny and explains things elegantly and Rachel is so charming. It’s just so great to be able to learn from them. They demonstrate a variety of techniques and dishes that we have to reproduce the next morning in the kitchen. After each demo we get a taster of everything that has been cooked by the teacher, they have to be the best afternoon meals ever!

Every week we are assigned a kitchen (there are 4) and a partner with whom we divide recipes. We cook in the morning from 9 to 12. Besides cooking there are also duties we get assigned to like making stock, serving the food, picking the herbs and vegetables, making bread, preparing the cheese platter, washing up after the demo… A weekly rota is made and available on the boards in the school. You can have duties before your start in the morning, during the day or even after the lecture in the evening.

Week one flew by. On Tuesday we all cooked in groups and put into practice some of the things we learned. Wednesday and Friday were the days where we had to cook our own dishes. At home I’m pretty confident in my cooking but let me tell you it’s another story when you find yourself in a different environment sharing ovens, sinks and kitchen appliances. I managed to cut a bit of my nail and finger, burn the veg for my soup, battled with my roasted hazelnuts for my tart and burnt my hand all in the first five days. Nothing too bad and I wasn’t the only one. I don’t let myself get too stressed. I’m here to learn, it’s not Masterchef and I don’t see it as a competition. My teacher Florie told me I was a rascal but a lovable one, so it’s all good.

We also had our first wine lecture with Colm McCan and Peter Corr on Thursday. We got to watch a video about Chardonnay from Australia and France and then got to taste some. We also had an introduction to farmhouse Irish cheeses, a crash course on food hygiene with Darina as well as a fire precautions and safety course by William Cahill form Callan Fire protection. It really is full on, in week one we covered:

-       Basic techniques: chopping, peeling, slicing, sweating vegetables...
-       How to make stock
-       Basic soup techniques
-       Roux
-       Salad leaves/dressing
-       How to make soda bread
-       How to prepare an order of work
-       How to make shortcrust pastry/ how to line a flan ring
-       How to poach fruit
-       Cooking dried pasta
-       Peeling/roasting hazelnuts
-       Jam making/ How to segment citrus fruit
-       How to joint a chicken + making chicken wings, prepare a chicken breast….
-       Chardonnay wines
-       Fire safety and Food Hygiene
-       Farmhouse cheeses.

I can’t believe the amount we covered in a week and it’s only the beginning. I’m literally in the school of my dreams. We spend out days cooking, eating, breathing and talk about food. Darina Allen is so charismatic; I could listen to her all day (well I do). I love the way she gives us some personal stories about her family or her in-laws and when she mentions previous students. She always says ‘If you want to make a living from your cooking’ and then tells us about Clodagh McKenna who started selling pates at the farmers market or Sophie Morris who has her own business and has written cookbooks. We also sometimes have food producers come in and give us a talk , so far we have had someone from Irish Atlantic Sea Salt (the salt I use at home) and Michael Woulfe a beekeeper from Middleton.

At the weekend we’re free to do whatever we want and enjoy our well-deserved break. This weekend I took it easy. The week went so quick between school all day (not seeing daylight at all), running in the evening, blogging, skyping Mr. FFID, filing all the recipes and preparing my order of work for the next day, that I didn’t get to breathe much. On Saturday I made it as far as Ballycotton with one of my housemates and on Sunday we went around the school to take some pictures.

All I can say is that I have the feeling the 12 weeks is going to go so fast!

The teachers are great and can be very funny at times, I take notes during the demos so here are a few of the witty lines they have come out with so far:

“Belgian Chocolate biscuit cake is my idea of H.E.L.L.” – Rory O’Connell
“Tasting is different from grazing” – Darina talking to us when we taste dishes at the end of the lecture.
“You can smear your face with pomegranate’ – Rory O’Connell talking about the great properties of pomegranate in cosmetics.
“We have definitely the best potatoes in the world” – Rachel Allen making traditional Irish boiled potatoes.

I’m reading '30 Years at Ballymaloe' at the moment, it’s a wonderful book by Darina Allen which gives you a great insight to the school, its philosophy, how it got started and there are lots of recipes too. If you’re thinking of ever doing the course it’s well worth a read!