There we are. It’s finished. Over. Done. It feels a bit weird to be writing this at my parent’s kitchen table rather than on the floor, with my back pushed up against the radiator, my feet resting against my single bed and the laptop on my lap! I’ve taken a whole week to ruminate over, dwell upon and philosophise about the course, as well as catch up on some much needed sleep and experience some pretty impressive life stuff.
But first things first… Week twelve… Monday was our last day in the kitchen, and was a joy, until I met Pinchy. I wasn’t scheduled to cook lobster, but when they arrived there were a few leftover that needed adopting, and I decided to put myself forward as proud mum. I clearly didn’t think it through. Next thing, I was lowering him to his watery death. We were taught that the most humane way to kill a lobster is to put it in cold, very salty water and gradually heat it. That way they fall asleep as the water gets warmer (“they think they’re in a sunny rockpool” is how Rory put it) and slowly and peacefully pop their clogs. I sang him a verse of Edelweiss, stuck the lid on, added a weight on top (just in case) and went about my business. Next thing… There was a clatter from inside the pan. I took off and pegged it to the other side of the kitchen. It sounded like poor old Pinchy was trying to escape. My teacher tried to convince me he was just going for a swim but I’m not so sure… The best tip I got for next time was “don’t name your lobster”.
The rest of the week was filled to the brim with exams. These were not little, inconsequential nuisances. They were massive, looming monsters. The practical exam came first. Here, we had to cook a three course meal and a bread (chosen at random the day before) within three hours. This sounds pretty straight-forward, but bear in mind that most days during the course we only cooked two things and rarely finished within four hours. One thing we had going for us in the practicals was that we could pick our own menu. The biggest tip I had gotten from past students, when planning, was to keep it simple, as they deduct marks for going overtime. So I decided to pick a menu that was seasonal, delicious and that I thought was manageable within the time-frame. It wasn’t particularly showy or glamorous, but could tickle the tastebuds. If I were to go back, perhaps I would have gone slightly more refined but I think my choice of menu was fine. What wasn’t fine was my nerves. Ten minutes into the exam I sliced straight through my fingernail and a good bit of finger and ended up in first-aid getting paper stitches and my first finger condom of the course. It was actually the best thing that could have happened because I gave myself a bit of a talking to and went back more focused and ready to take it on… Final dishes were good (except my Tuscan cake which was a bit pale) and I only lost 1% in overtime (I was 25 minutes over. You get 15 minutes free and .5% off for every 5 minutes after that, like parking in Tescos).
In the days leading up to the exams, we spent a lot of time probing the teachers for tips on the written paper. Sometimes we were met with a firm “no”, at other times they would make a face of fear and say “I’ve heard they’re very, very difficult”. When you asked what would come up, more often than not they responded by saying “everything”, and they were right. The written exam is made up of three papers, each lasting about 2 hours, and they cover everything that was on the course. From ‘Where is roquefort stored?’, to ‘What are the incubation periods of the most popular food poisonings?’ to ‘Look at this bit of meat. What part of the animal did we get it from?’ It was very tricky, and you spent most of the day reaching into the dark recesses of your brain trying to pluck out some small fact that seemed unimportant at the time. One tip for future Ballymaloers, would be to try to read over the notes as you go, it will definitely save you time and effort at the end.
After the exam, we went back to the cottages for a mega cleaning blitz, before our farewell dinner. What a gorgeous occasion… Rory took over the kitchen with a team of teachers cooking and serving. The food was incredible, the wine was delicious and the atmosphere was warm and emotional. Darina gave an incredibly moving speech, impressing on us how lucky we are to be so privileged, and how we need to share what we have learnt and never forget that we have had opportunities others haven’t. She touched on the refugee crisis and her own charity that promotes gardening and cooking in primary schools. They have provided many schools in the area with a chicken coop and skills and facilities to grow their own vegetables. Those children are also invited to the cookery school to learn what to do with all their lovely eggs and other produce. She then finished me right off by saying “I know every one of you will make a difference.” So cheers to that!
To finish my Ballymaloe chapter, here are a few of my favourite quotes from the masters…
- Rory – “Cold salmon should actually be warm. Cold and warm are stratospherically different”
- Rory – “Always make a wish when using an ingredient for the first time in a season”
- Rory on potatoes – “Waxy hold their shape, floury have a better flavour. Therein the dilemma lies”
- Rory on freezing beef for carpaccio – “Some restaurants freeze the beef which I think ruins the flavour. Actually, I don’t think. I know.”
- Rory on garnishing his poached salmon – “I’m going to pipe a ruff of mayonnaise on it because Darina likes it. Sometimes I like it too.”
- Darina about Emer – “Jesus. What’s she like? She’s like Google”
- Rory – “Just because something isn’t necessarily good for you, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you”
- Darina on putting sliced pan in the hen’s bucket – “I hope it doesn’t give them indigestion”
- Rory – “I’m sure Tipperary is awash with Verjuice”
- Rory to Sorcha – “You’re the best girl in Ireland”
- Rachel on having fishermen friends – “If someone gives you crabs. No, I mean… If you get crabs from someone… Ah. Forget it.”