Aaaahhh Wednesday. It was the most perfect of days. The sun was peeking above the horizon as we strolled up to school through the orchard. The birds were tweeting away about how they’d put off their holiday to Africa, what with all the balmy weather. Through the corridors, there was a sweet, naughty scent wafting… Wine. You could feel the anticipation in the air as row after row of glasses was laid out in front of us and you would have thought half the room was already pissed judging by the noise levels. We have already had a few lectures from Colm McCan, who is a wine expert (he used to be head sommelier in Ballymaloe house). He is a charming man and an excellent teacher who often gets so enthusiastic about a particular grape or vintage that he looks like he might dance. He also shows us occasional clips from an hilarious 1970s wine show, where Jancis Robinson runs around the world in high-waisted trousers… (I can’t get enough of the moustachioed shot-gun touting vinters she quizzes on her travels).
But this Wednesday, there was the added bonus of special guests… First we had the pleasure of a Spanish wine tour with John Wilson (Irish Times writer). He knows absolutely everything there is to know about Spanish wines, from whites, to reds, to sherries. He gave us tips on the best upcoming regions and grapes (alberinho and Rias Baixas), and best of all, he let us have a wee glass of seven wines before 11am.
We then had the pleasure of being introduced to Mario Hiraldo, an incredibly talented cortador. As a cortador, Mario spent four years studying the ins and outs of jamon iberico (Iberican ham), and in particular how to carve a leg of jamon. He spoke with passion and enthusiasm about the iberico pigs, and explained how special the breed is, and how they mostly consume these delicious little creamy acorns, which give their meat an extra creamy texture. He also spoke with a strong accent, and dropped little smatterings of Spanish into his patter, such as punta (long side of ham), puntilla (special knife for carving the ham) and bellota (little, creamy acorns). He was immensely proud of jamon iberico and the strict regulations that surround its production, but was even more proud of his own family’s role in that world, explaining how they have been producing this delicious ham since the 1700s. We then got to taste different cuts of the jamon to see the variation in flavours between the different parts of the one leg. This was set off perfectly by John Wilson’s choice of sherry. If Carlsberg did mornings…
As wonderful as Wednesday morning was, it was in stark contrast to Friday afternoon. We started off with a pizza demonstration, where Darina whipped up everything from calzone to panzerotte to pizza fritti. She would assemble them at the front of the demo kitchen, cook them for a few minutes, and then pass them around the room to the salivating audience. I am convinced that they were using it as a (successful) distraction technique before the exams, which started at 1pm…
I haven’t sat an exam for years and I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time in such close proximity to other people sitting the same exam before. The night before there was mad panic, with questions flying around such as, “What does chickweed smell like?”, “How much pith is an acceptable amount to lose when segmenting an orange?” and “How do you prevent mayonnaise elbow?” Random answers were also being chucked around willy nilly and it became like a multiple choice quiz with no big reveal of the correct answer. So I took off to the chipper with another housemate, where we got told by Skinny (the owner) that they don’t get many Ballymaloe students in there. I take it as a compliment?!
As for the exam… It went fine. First I had my technique exam. Everyone had to chop and sweat an onion and make a paper piping bag. “Easy”, I hear you say, but we had been pre-warned that any hole at all in the tip of the piping bag (no matter how miniscule) would result in an automatic fail… For those of you who have absolutely no idea what I’m talking about, here‘s a video demonstrating how you can make one yourself! I was happy enough with my sweaty onion and my parchment bag, but then came the individual challenges. Out of a list of about twenty techniques, each student got two, and I knew exactly what was going on when I walked in to find a massive haddock staring at me, willing me to fillet him. He was a beast. He couldn’t even fit on my chopping board. I dived right in, grasping the slippy dude like Jack gripped the lifeboat in Titanic, and having about as much success as Jack. I did fine removing his head. I pulled out his gills like a pro, I even found the pinbones, and flipped him over, but then my mind started racing, and I got so confused I convinced myself that my particular fish didn’t have a backbone. I was seconds away from informing my examiner (Rachel Allen) of this affliction but instead just kept hacking away. When it came to skinning the fish, I completely forgot to turn the fillets 45 degrees for ease of skin removal until Rachel pointed it out… Rookie error. My last task was to make caramel sauce. The final result was flavoursome and caramelly, but I was so paranoid about burning it, I barely simmered it and it took hours to cook.
The second step of the exam was in a separate (less stress-filled) room. First, we had to identify ten herbs and suggest two dishes that the herbs could be used in. That part was handy enough. As a responsible ex-teacher, I had prepared flashcards for myself with the herb on one side and the foods on the other, so had that well learned off. Luckily, I had also spent time sniffing and tasting all of the little flavour enhancers over the previous week. We then had to identify ten salad leaves which was also fine. I had to do a good bit of revision for those as there were loads I had never even heard of, including buckler sorrel, chickweed and mizuna. The last couple of tasks were putting together a magimix, setting a table and pouring a glass of wine (which I aced).
Once the exam was over, it was long weekend time. I headed to West Cork and met my husband and some friends. It was great to get out of the kitchens and have a bit of a Ballymaloe break, although I didn’t think they sympathised enough when I got a text from my housemate describing her exam: “I got segmenting an orange and making mayonnaise”. I was disgusted “She had to open a citrus fruit and whisk a few yolks and I had to dismantle an entire fish?!”