Quote of the week has to come from the great Rory O’Connell himself… “Just because something’s not necessarily good for you, doesn’t mean it’s bad for you.” Never a truer word spoken, and Ballymaloe follows that pattern to a tee. They’re not afraid to add a bit of butter here or sugar there (all in moderation of course), and when you eat some of it, it makes you feel so damn good!
This week went pretty well on the cooking front. I finally conquered shortcrust pastry with my epic chocolate tart and my first foray into the world of the brioche went extremely well. I got full marks for my butter-laden buns! I also learnt loads of useful techniques, such as the route to a perfect tiramisu and how to craft the perfect crépe, as well as plenty of less useful, such as how to make flaky pastry (I would say “never again”, except mine was so awful, I have to do it allover tomorrow. The joys!!) They are definitely upping the ante in the kitchen and on Friday my order of work was so busy I had to colour code it. I managed to make a million brioche, a paté de campagne (French paté terrine), onion marmalade and flaky pastry, and only went over by an hour. As part of our final exam we each have to cook a three course meal and bread in under three hours, so I guess they’re trying to work our lazy bums up to that.
Once again, Wednesday crept into the lead as best day of the week. It started with Rory demonstrating a plethora of vegetarian dishes. There were curries and stirfries and salads and burgers, and everything was delicious. It was actually a relief to have a break from the meaty stuff for a while.
We then had another afternoon of wine tasting, with Colm McCan and special guest Pascal Rossignol. Pascal is a Frenchman who has run ‘Le Caveau Wine Merchants’ in Kilkenny since 1999. His speciality is organic, biodynamic and natural wines. He started the lecture by telling us that “wine was never made to be a commodit. It should be a surprise.” By that he means that winemakers should not be put under pressure to create the same product over and over again. They should focus on making a wine that tells the tale of the year it was created in, the terroir (soil, environment etc.) and the winemakers themselves. He believes that natural wine producers are the best at following those principles, but also supports organic and biodynamic winemakers.
In order for a wine to be certified organic, everything in it must be organic, but they can still add additives (organic of course) to the fermented grapes, and often 20-30% of an organic wine is made up of non-grape. Biodynamic wines are organic too but the vineyards also try to practice biodiversity. For example, rather than only growing vines, they partake in other farming activities too and try to build up a relationship between soil, plants and animals. They also follow a specific calendar where days are listed as fruit, leaf, flower and root, and they plant and sow according to that. This is probably the most airy-fairy of the wine types, and although the farming is very strictly controlled, in processing the wine, they often add extra stuff. This is where natural wines come in. With natural wines, nothing is added. The grapes are picked, fermented and bottled with almost no intervention. This means that the final result is far less predictable which some (including Pascal) would argue, makes them more exciting too! Most of the ones we tried were delicious. The reds tend to be a little lighter (and lower in alcohol) than non-natural wines and they are often more acidic. The whites also have the tendency to be a little cloudy, but like any naturally fermented food, this makes them a lot better for you. The most interesting ones we tried were an orange wine from northern Italy that smelt like fart but tasted amazing, and a red wine from Sicily that is fermented in massive, Georgian, clay pots (Qveri) buried underground. The other advantage of natural wines is that they’re not supposed to give you a hangover, and I can vouch for fifteen of us who had a fair few glasses in Ballymaloe House on Thursday night and were positively spritely the following morning!
Another great benefit of being here at Ballymaloe is that there are opportunities to do work experience in cafés and restaurants. A few weeks ago I got to help out in the kitchen of the The Café at Stephen Pearce. Christine, the owner and a past student at Ballymaloe, rules this tiny kitchen and makes the most delicious brunch and lunch dishes as well as some fabulous cakes. My personal favourites are the middle eastern Shakshuka (with specially imported tahini) and black pudding and poached egg on toast with chutney. While I was there I saw how much amazing food you can produce from scratch in such a tiny space. I also got hands-on and made brown bread, hummus and marmalade!
This Saturday I was lucky enough to go and work in the kitchen at Sage in Midleton. Kevin Ahearne (the head chef) is an up and coming star on the Irish foodie scene, and it’s easy to see why. His restaurant follows a ’12 mile’ ethos, where the vast majority of food he uses comes from within a 12 mile radius of the restaurant. His dishes are like a work of art and he is extremely creative. It was fascinating to see ingredients that we use every day in Ballymaloe being transformed into ultimate, cheffy masterpieces. Kevin explained how they use every part of every ingredient for something in the restaurant (back to Darina’s “no waste” mantra). All of the stalks I removed from the mushrooms were dehydrated and made into mushroom powder. The leaves I removed from the purple sprouting broccoli (whose end I finely tapered) were sautéed in butter, horseradish and lemon thyme for lunch, and the potato skins I lovingly protected while scooping out the contents (for gnocchi of course) were fried and served up as a dinner masterpiece (see the screenshot below). I got to do all sorts of behind the scenes prep, and saw how many elements go into every single one of Kevin’s dishes. It was also clear how much thought goes into each dish. When I asked about the amuse bouche, he had me taste each tiny morsel, and explained how the compressed pear provided the fruity, the sorrel gave some bitter, bit of creamy from the goat cheese, sweet from the honey toasted oats and a kick from the white turnip. It was a real eye-opener to hang out there for the day and see how the basic premise of using local, seasonal ingredients has no limits. It was also great to hear that even top-class restaurants like to stick on a bit of heavy metal to get fired up for the evening rush!