I’m not sure if I’ve done something crazy or totally inspired but I recently packed in my secure, well-paid job as a History teacher to move into the world of food full-time. I have paddled in this pond many times in the past; working as a waitress, in a food truck and writing this blog, but this was my first massive dive into the industry and it started when I signed up for the 12 week cookery course at Ballymaloe in East Cork.
Irish people will be very familiar with this school and Darina Allen. Darina is the Delia Smith or Martha Stewart of Ireland. Every Irish household has at least one of her cookbooks on their shelves or some of her relish in their cupboards. The ‘Ballymaloe Cookery Course’ book has been my food bible for the past few years, and I’ve also used Tim’s (her husband’s) bread book, and many of Rachel’s (her daughter-in-law) recipes. This is a true family business that has a solid ethos and a huge amount of passion, which seeps out of every inch of the school and grounds. This particular course appealed to me for many reasons. The number one draw was that you live and learn on a 100 acre organic farm, and this fact runs through everything we do here. We only ever work with seasonal ingredients from the farm and local suppliers and don’t just cook but also have duties, such as picking salad leaves or making butter in the dairy. One of the most important things we learn is to respect the ingredients and waste as little as possible. At the start, you are surreptitiously hiding leftover food in nooks and crannies allover the place (you can’t risk being spotted), but after just a day or two your mindset begins to change and you’re also watching out for other people who may not be making the most of every morsel. Vegetable scraps go into a stock bucket or hen bucket, citrus peels go into a bucket for candied peel and almost everything else is recycled.
Before you start the course you are warned multiple times that it is an “intensive 12 week course”. As usual, my relentless positivity meant that I didn’t bother to dwell on that, so the actual workload was a bit of a shock to the system. There are a good few activities and duties that start at 7.30 in the morning, such as picking salad and vegetables for the day. Sometimes you are also in school until after 6 in the evening helping to serve food or clean up. That doesn’t even include the multiple optional activities in the evenings (such as cheese making, butchery and film watching) and things to sign up for on weekends (like market visits or experience in professional kitchens). Although it’s been hectic, this is paradise for me. I love being fully immersed in the world of food, farming and sustainability. That’s the focus of life in school and it even continues when you get home in the evenings and share your thoughts with like-minded housemates.
Back to week 1… We learnt loads!!! It began with pizza on Sunday, cooked in the wood-fired oven. Monday started with a tour of the farm where we learned about the importance of good quality soil and saw just a few of the hundreds of vegetables, fruit and herbs grown here, as well as the chickens and the dairy. Everyone on the course then had the chance to introduce themselves, and it was brilliant to see how diverse our backgrounds are. There are people from ages 18 to 70, and all in between. People with a solid professional background in food and those who have worked in completely different industries and are moving in a new direction, and a few fresh-faced types who are just out of school. Apart from the incredible knowledge imparted to us by the teachers here, this is the best part of the course… Hanging out with people who are happy to debate the merits of kombucha over kefir for weeks on end.
Most days here consist of cooking in the morning, with a demonstration of recipes in the afternoon. One day a week we don’t wear the chef’s whites and have a day full of lectures, demonstrations and occasional off-site talks instead. The first week was a bit of an introduction so we only did ‘serious’ cooking on two days. The theme of the week for us students was definitely pastry. All you heard in the halls was “Have you done pastry yet?”. “How was it?”. “Was it short enough”? “Did you have a soggy bottom?” The stress levels were high with loads of people wondering why they seem to leave their brains at the door of the kitchen. I managed to avoid pastry on my first day of cooking and was happy out with my soda bread, onion and thyme soup and blackcurrant and apple compote. The main criticism from my teacher was that my apples were a little mushy. After such a relaxed and stress free day in the kitchen, I was not mentally prepared for my pastry day, where I was cooking a chocolate and hazelnut tart. When starting new techniques (such as pastry making) we are told to ask our teacher to keep an eye on us every step of the way. I was very obedient and asked for help getting started, more help when adding liquid, even more help for rolling it out and then I thought “Ah feck it, I’m sure I’ll manage to get it into the tin easily enough.” I missed the tin and had shards of broken pastry littering my surface. So I had to roll the whole lot up and start again, which meant my pastry was overworked and tough (as described by my teacher).
The demonstrations and lectures have also been fantastic. We were lucky enough in week 1 to have Darina, Rory O’Connell (Darina’s brother and excellent restauranter) and Rachel Allen cooking for us. We all congregate in the demo room, where they show us how easy and straight-forward all of the dishes are that we will fail miserably at the following day. They are all inspirational. Darina is so passionate about preserving food culture and is clearly concerned about the direction we are in danger of taking as we move towards over-processed and imported foods. She is energetic and enthusiastic about everything she is doing and is so encouraging, constantly suggesting food niches that we could one day fill. Rory is slick, quick and smooth. His dishes look like a work of art after he has finished with them and he is great at telling us how to adapt his recipes to a professional kitchen. Rachel is lovely, warm and friendly, and gets so excited about the ingredients and the finished project. She is also an incredibly patient and informative teacher. The teachers who help us on the hands-on days are also great. They seem to have endless patience with us and are also a good laugh.
In our first week, as well as cooking, we had special lectures on Irish farmhouse cheeses and an introduction to wine. I have had a minor obsession with cheese for a long time. So much so that I insisted on my husband and I having a wedding cake made of cheese, but I think Darina may have out-cheesed me. She spoke about different farmhouse cheese with such passion, not only for the finished product, but also for the people who have invested time, money and energy into making them. I learnt so much about a product that I often take for granted (especially living in Switzerland).
The wine tasting was delivered by Colum McCann, the former sommelier at Ballymaloe House. He taught us more about chardonnay over the space of two hours than I’ve ever known, and it didn’t hurt that we got to sample a few tasty wines!
So, at the end of week 1 I couldn’t be happier to be here. It’s been tough, but I’ve learnt a ridiculous amount. From how to pick salad leaves to how to cook and eat crab (they must be cooked live). Time is already flying by, but I am ready for week 2 and another roll at pastry.
Here’s some more photos of what I’ve been up to…