Monday 16 February 2015

Week 6: Halfway Through

We don’t have to go to school in the evenings or on Saturdays but there is always something going on where we can get some extra culinary education. During the week it might be cheese making, a butchery class, making sourdough breads, watching a food related movie and on Saturdays it can be an extra cooking demo or workshop. 

Even though week 5 was technically over I joined my housemate Mandy on Saturday morning for some sourdough bread making. A few of us piled in kitchen 3 to learn all the useful tips from Tim Allen. Mandy and I made the dough for our sourdough loaves and also got to practise plaiting and bread rolling for the upcoming exam.

Monday morning was a great day in the kitchen for me. I made a lamb tagine with preserved lemons. I love North-African food as I grew up with a lot of Moroccan and Algerian friends whose mothers were fantastic home cooks. The best wedding I’ve ever been to was that of one of my Algerian friend. All the women were sitting at low tables and sharing communal dishes of ‘couscous’ (spicy meat and vegetable stews served with steamed semolina). We ate the traditional way, with our hands, drinking mint tea and eating sweet treats with incredible orange blossom water and honey flavours. So of course I enjoyed cooking my tagine as it brought back some of these food memories. My teacher found my tagine delicious and I also made fresh orange jelly with mint which isn’t really something I’d make at home but it was still nice to get to do it.

In the afternoon we had a visit from Jane Murphy from Ardsallagh Goats cheese who told us the incredible story of how she started making cheese. She was living in a cottage and while a man visited her to try to sell her insurance, he noticed that her babies had a little bit of eczema and told her that goat milk would help it. She didn’t buy any insurance from him but the man drove off her property leaving a pregnant goat for her to look after. She then started using the milk but as she had too much of it she decided to experiment with cheese-making. She never saw the insurance man again but he surely changed her life 30 years ago when he randomly left that goat for her.

The afternoon demo included starter dishes using Ardsallagh and St. Tola goat cheese as well as spicy fish dishes with Indian influences. On the sweet side we got to learn about choux pastry with beignets, éclairs and choux puffs as well as delectable marshmallows. Being French I got confused with the éclairs filled with Chantilly cream because in France we fill them with coffee or chocolate flavoured pastry cream, oh la la! I’m not a fan of Chantilly cream in an éclair but Rory made me laugh when he said 'It’s just awful when there is not enough cream in your éclair'. 

On Monday evening I baked my loaf of sourdough bread, I felt so contented when it came out of the oven with a great golden brown crust. When I got home I got to enjoy a few slices of it, still warm and slathered with lots of salty Irish butter. Pure bliss!

So on Tuesday morning I enjoyed cooking savoury dishes like some tasty St. Tola croquettes with rocket leaves, roast pepper and tapenade oil. I love St. Tola goat cheese, it even won best cheese at the cheese awards the year I was a judge. 

Once again I had to fillet a fish, another Pollock and even though I was slow I was a bit more confident that the previous time, my teacher Sorcha was great helping me at it. It may sound easy when you’re used to cooking fish but living in the middle of France we were mainly meat eaters at home and Mr. FFID is allergic to fish so I never cook any in my house. That morning was my first time to finish cooking at 12.15pm and I was delighted with myself I have to say. I even had some time to relax after lunch and visit the herb garden to revise for my exam.

Rory’s demo in the afternoon was a mix of Mexican and Mediterranean food, he also covered more choux pastry with salambos and profiteroles.

In the evening, believe it or not I filleted two fish at home (one flat and one round) along with my housemates. If that isn’t real dedication, I don’t know what it is!

On Wednesday morning there was an optional gardening class with Haulie that got a record attendance as it focused on herb and salad leaves in preparation for Friday’s exam. I felt pretty confident at that stage but it was still nice to have a final look at them before the exam.

Then Rory gave us a cheese and cake lecture which is totally my type of lecture. He mentioned several French goat cheeses that are made in my region (the Loire Valley) and my beloved ‘crottin de Chavignol’ that is the local cheese in the area I’m from. Rory also showed us how to make Tunisian orange cake, Moroccan and almond cake and a lemon polenta cake.

I couldn’t believe how busy the area around the French goat cheese platter was during the morning break, I didn’t think strong French cheese would be so popular and Rory even advised us not to stab the cheeses but it was too late, it got completely murdered and devoured! 

Then it was time for our wine lecture with Colm Mc Can. We got a visit from Mirreia from Alta Alella Privat organic winery based just outside Barcelona. She told us about cava making and we also got to taste some of it. 
Then Nicolas Mirouze, a wine maker from Corbières in the Languedoc region of France gave us a great talk about the different stages of wine making. 
It’s just great to be able to listen to these passionate wine producers who make the lectures even more interesting.

We were then given an afternoon tea demo by Rory and Pam, one of the senior teachers who seems to be an expert at cake decorating. There were lots of cupcakes, meringues and macaroons. My favourites though were the savoury options like the picnic chest of juicy sandwiches and the muffuletta that I forgot to picture. Sandwiches can be amazing if they’re made with very good products and for me they beat cupcakes anyday!

Thursday morning was the last day in the kitchen for the week and I didn’t do so well with my choux. I used ovens that were too hot and my choux were way too dark so my teacher told me to make them again to practice, as it could be one of the techniques needed for the exam. I made them again but I think I was thinking a bit too much like a French person and piped choux that were too small. When I looked around all the other choux made by students were double the size of mine. After I filled them they looked a little bigger and they tasted good according to my teacher. 
I also had to cook black pudding with glazed apples and grainy mustard sauce. It isn’t a complicated dish but because I had to make choux pastry twice I got a little flustered as I was behind schedule. My station became a little bit of a mess as I was trying to finish early. Unlike Monday and Tuesday, I felt that Thursday was a bit of a miss but it wasn’t too bad as my teacher Sue was very helpful and pleasant to work with. Every day in the kitchen can be different, I’m learning and that is all that matters for me.

Thursday afternoon's demo was given by Pam as Darina was away all week. I have to say the school doesn’t feel the same without her, her witty personality fills not only the room but the whole school. The demo was all about salmon rillettes, potted fish, lamb stew, how to make a fruit fool and fudge.

Friday was already here and once I didn't know where the time had gone. The morning demonstration was an interesting pizza workshop and I loved it.  From calzone to fried pizza, from focaccia to dessert pizza we got to see so many different variations, I enjoyed it a lot.

In the afternoon it was time for our mid-term exams. I wasn’t too nervous in the morning but at lunchtime when everyone was talking about salad leaves and herbs it started to become a little more stressful. I had a little break at home to relax and then took my herb and salad leaf recognition exam and soon after went through my technical exam. It all went very well as I didn’t get any of the techniques I was dreading (as you can guess I was hoping not to have to fillet a fish) and I think Friday 13th was a lucky one for me. 

After the exams I was on a high. This week was the first time I felt very comfortable in the kitchen, despite my choux on Thursday. I also realised even more how much I love being here and don’t want the whole experience to be over too soon. It isn’t easy, it’s exhausting and I miss Mr. FFID but being out of my comfort zone, learning so much and just thinking about food everyday for three months is the best journey I’ve ever taken.

“It’s a sin to use imported potatoes in Ireland” – Rory O’Connell.