Monday 19 January 2015

Week 2: Learning from the Butter Queen of Ireland

After a relaxing weekend I found myself in Kitchen 1 on Monday morning. Most of us arrive between 8-8.30am to gather all our ingredients for the morning’s cooking. There is a room between kitchen 1 and 2 where we get them, it’s a bit hectic sometimes as we queue up to get our things and use the weighing scales.

We also have to wait for our teachers to arrive at 9am before we actually start cooking, to avoid unsupervised catastrophes. There is one teacher for every 6 students and we change teacher each week, as we change kitchen (although some people sometimes don’t move kitchen). The teachers are very helpful and make sure we’re doing ok in the kitchen as well as rating our dishes at the end of each morning. After the teachers taste our dishes we all place the rest of our food in the dining rooms as part of a big buffet that we enjoy (if we have a little time and not too many duties) at lunchtime. Most of the time I try to have a little taste of everything but then I’m so stuffed for the rest of the day that I barely eat at home in the evenings. This is also because at the end of our day we taste the dishes that Rachel, Darina or Rory demonstrate in the afternoons, even if they’re small portions they’re enough for me not to be hungry until the next morning.

My white soda bread
I was a bit more comfortable cooking and didn’t burn or cut any of my fingers this week but I’m not very good at finishing on time.  Every day I feel like I have lots of time at the start of the morning until I realise it’s 11 am and have to be finished by 12pm. Then I panic a little and rush towards the end of the morning and never finish on time. It’s funny and a bit scary to see how less confident I am in the kitchen here than in my own house but it’s a great opportunity to learn how to cook under pressure and in a more stressful environment. That’s said I had a great week overall in the kitchen and got good grades which I was pleased with.

I was happy to see a bit of ethnic food included in the demos last week with Rachel demonstrating dishes with Indian influence on Monday, such as spiced chicken with almonds, raita, poppodums and basmati rice. We also had Darina show us how to cook some Mexican food on Tuesday. Darina reckons that Mexican food is the next big thing and that Mexico will be the next gastronomic hub after the Nordic countries. She was delighted to mention a very successful past student Thomasina Miers who trained in Ballymaloe and went on to win the English Masterchef in 2005 and is now the owner of Wahaca in London, a chain restaurants focusing on Mexican street food.

Our lecture day (Wednesday) was one of the highlights of the week with a big focus on dairy products, a subject I’m quite interested in. The first part of the morning was about tray bakes and we got to see lots of variations (lemon drizzle squares, spiced orange squares, plum and flaked almonds…) and tasted them during the coffee break. 

The rest of the morning included a visit from Eddie O’Neill, dairy artisan food specialist at Teagasc who shared his passion for everything dairy with a particular focus on milk, butter and cheese making.  Darina looked so excited on Wednesday, she’s the “butter queen of Ireland” after all and you can tell this is one of her favourite subjects. 

She had the idea of including a lesson about butter a few years ago when she found a student in the kitchen who looked flustered after over whipping cream. The girl wanted to throw it into the hen’s bucket and then Darina told her she was actually about to make butter if she kept whipping so Darina decided to show her. The end result was that all the students around them in the kitchen were fascinated, hence she decided to include butter making in the schedule of the course. Darina’s eyes were smiling as she told us ‘It’s kind of magic turning cream into butter’. She showed us how to make buttermilk, yoghurts and some simple cheeses like ricotta, cottage cheese and all sorts of variations.

In our second wine lecture on Wednesday we got to taste the wine produced next to where I’m from: the delicious Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre. I just wished I had a little piece of Selles-sur-Cher goat cheese (from my region in France) or St Tola ash (to stay local) while tasting it. Then we had a Riesling from Alsace, a pinot noir from Burgundy, a pinot noir from California and a sweet Riesling from New Zealand, which I also enjoyed. I was on duty after the class and had to polish glasses with a few others. It wasn’t the most difficult duty but it’s still interesting to discover how Ballymaloe is really a gastronomic bootcamp!

Thursday’s demo with Rory was fascinating. We learnt how to fillet a round fish, pipe Duchesse potatoes, how to perfectly poach an egg, make a few salads and variations of bread and butter pudding. I was surprised to learn how easy it is to smoke fish or meat at home and will certainly try to smoke my own duck when I get back.

On Friday morning I got up early as I was on herb and vegetable duty at 7.30 am. A few of us met the school’s gardener Hollie who has been working here for the past 32 years. Andie from the UK, Ayane from Japan and yours truly found ourselves pulling leeks from the ground and trimming them in the dark and freezing cold. You really appreciate eating after you’ve seen that they don’t just magically appear from a pack. When I ate some leeks at lunchtime I knew they couldn’t have been fresher. We also got to pick some thyme before heading to our respective kitchens for the morning’s cooking.

Friday wasn’t my best day, after the excitement of the first week and a busy second week I felt exhausted by mid-morning. This was bad timing as we were practising fish filleting and I was struggling with my cod. The Friday afternoon demo started with Philip Dennhardt (Darina’s son-in-law) showing us how to butcher lamb cuts for roasting. As always, Darina was super energetic on Friday afternoon and thankfully I didn’t fall asleep on my chair while she showed the different variations of roast lamb, vegetables to accompany it and of course the sauces. I particularly liked the dessert recipe of chocolate mousse served with almond macaroons (not macarons). There are teachers in the demo kitchen every afternoon who assist Darina, Rory and Rachel and they do a fantastic job. They’re like little kitchen fairies, always ready with ingredients and helping throughout the demos as well as giving some great advice. I hope one day I’ll be as knowledgeable and experienced as they are.

Week two went even faster than the first one and even though it was quite exhausting, I found myself thinking everyday about how lucky I was to be here and to learn about food every day.

 “Our babies are scattered all over the world”- Darina Allen talking about past students of Ballymaloe.
“Lard is the hottest new fat” – Darina Allen
 “After you leave here, you can’t cook without Irish butter”- Darina talking to 12 different nationalities of students.