Ballymaloe Cookery School – Days 1 – 4

5 May

It has begun. Finally, I am in cooking school. I have worn my uniform, cooked good food, forgotten to add salt, tramped in the rainy Irish gardens, and learned so much that my brain feels completely overwhelmed at times. But oh the joy. To immerse oneself in a place where food and cooking, respect for the earth and the environment, laughter and honest hard work are the dominant themes … this is pure joy. This is testing myself – seeing if, as I suspect, I am made for this cooking life.

Before I came to Ballymaloe Cookery School, I was scared. Worried that I would not fit in, wondering if I could get accustomed to living with other people again (6 adults in one house!), and most of all … there was this little, nagging feeling that may be I would be exposed as a fraud-cook – someone who loved food, but really did not have the cojones to live a life of cooking. But fear met, is fear conquered… and the last few days have been real, deep, abiding bliss. I come back to my little room atop Mrs. Walsh’s Cottage every night exhausted, but so excited about what tomorrow will bring.

Of course, there have been adjustments that needed to be made. Negotiating the living space has been one of them, but also learning how to cook in a new kitchen (someone elses, not mine), with new rules and new places for everything. Accepting that I have to ask, and ask again … about just about anything. Being humble. Being present, really present. And pacing myself, and accepting that perfection is in the trying and learning.

I have had an amazing time, and to try and encapsulate the last few days in words… well, I just dont think thats possible. So instead, here are a few photographs, which I hope will give you a feel for the breathtakingly beautiful place I am in, right now – on every level.

Day 1 – The Lay of the Land

The first day was pure confusion. There are 64 people on this course (and 10 teachers – so the student to teacher ratio is 6 to 1, and sometimes even less – amazing!). Trying to introduce everyone to everyone else, and help us learn the lay of the land is a daunting prospect. In the morning, we walked around the farm, though we kept on having to come inside due to the mizzle (mist and drizzle).

From the beginning, the philosophy of Ballymaloe is abundantly clear – respect and tread lightly on the earth, honour and recognise local artisans and producers, be careful and conscious about what you consume and produce, and always maximise the potential for using and re-using the natural gifts all around. The Allens, who run Ballymaloe, raise chickens (in the Palais des Poulets!) and Jersey cows for milking, as well as managing a 100 acre organic farm, including a 1 acre greenhouse. Everything co-exists in an eternal cycle – and they work extremely hard to ensure that there is balance and harmony. Food and waste gets recycled for the hens’ feed every day, and then gets remade into compost, which enriches the earth to grow fruit and vegetable. Its carefully and stringently managed, and we received a crash course in how they expect us to live for the next three months.

Darina welcoming the students in the main lecture room. Note the amazing mirror above so that we can all see the cooking and work as it happens.

Some ducklings near the Palais des Poulets, being fostered by a very proud hen!

Everywhere you look, there are things growing - and most everything is edible in some way.

The lushness - the layers of green - are stunningly beautiful.

The greenhouse is Tim's domain - and its incredible. A full acre of the most beautiful produce, grown organically and with great care and love.

We all planted our own sweet corn plant, and over the next three months will watch the plants growing, and tend them, until right at the end, we will be able to eat sweet corn that we put in the beautiful earth our selves. Such a brilliant way to teach by doing.

We also had our first cooking demonstration and learned some of the basic skills – chopping, slicing, sauteing and making a brown soda bread. We were fed an astonishingly beautiful tasting lunch by our teachers – and were exposed to our first taste of how breathtakingly beautiful good organic food, prepared simply and with grace, can be.

Day 2 – Herding Cats

If Day 1 was confusion, Day 2 was chaos! All fresh and awkward feeling in our new uniforms, we arrived at the school. This was the day when we were given an overview of how Ballymaloe Cookery School actually works – we met our teachers, walked through the kitchens, were given instructions on how everything worked and where everything was, and learned about our duty rosters and kitchen rotations. Its a very organised system at Ballymaloe, but given that 64 people were asking the same questions over and over again, our teachers were remarkably patient and kind.

We also cooked! (Well, with a lot of assistance).

Darina giving us an in-depth demonstration on how to make Ballymaloe Green Salad - a staple at every lunch meal - and a revelation of taste, texture, deliciousness.

Introducing our teachers - the patient and wise women who will guide us through the next 12 weeks.

What bliss ... these are the kitchens I get to cook in for the next 12 weeks! Do note the carrots, onions and potatoes lined up on cooking boards for us - the first and last time that our ingredients are laid out for us during school πŸ™‚

Darina demonstrating our first set of recipes in the afternoon. We learn a whole set of recipes in the afternoon, and the next morning, after preparing an order of work, we cook our own lunch from the recipes of the previous day. Each day, they give us new techniques and skills to learn, and we are constantly building on our skill set. We started with simple soup, pastas and crumbles, and we then graduated the next day to more complex tarts, biscuits and compotes.

Day 3 – We Cook!

Having assessed us, and made reasonably sure that none of us were likely to chop fingers or toes off, we were allowed to have our first full morning session of cooking. We had to prepare an order of work – basically a timed list of what we had been assigned to prepare, and the order in which we would go through each step of the cooking process. We were watched carefully by our teachers, who answered all our questions with grace and patience, and we learned the rhythms of the Ballymaloe style. We gathered the ingredients, and worked towards serving ourselves lunch. It was exhilarating and scary, and absolutely wonderful – and totally exhausting. Every day, in addition to our cooking, different people are assigned jobs they need to do – from feeding the hens to picking and making the salad to setting the table to cleaning up the kitchens. This way, students are exposed to the stringent requirements of working in a professional cooking environment, and learn not only the Ballymaloe cooking style, but also how to work in a structured and organised manner.

In the afternoon, we had two visits – one from the inspirational and funny Jane Murphy, who makes the artisanal Ardsallagh Goat’s Cheese – and the second from representatives of Ireland’s food research institute, who spoke to us about GM crops and their effect on the environment. This process of learning is incredibly multi-layered. We are exposed to so many different points of view and ideas – so much information and so many stories. We are given the space to make up our own minds, but we are constantly shown, in the food we cook and eat, and the histories of the land and its cultivators, how important it is to be conscious and aware of what we are doing as a community to our greatest resource – the earth.

We made these breads! I also made a potato and onion soup with a wild garlic pesto, using vegetarian stock, and a mixed berry compote with a wild sweet geranium syrup.

Jane Murphy telling us the story of how she began Ardsallagh Cheeses. The importance of provenance, and knowing your suppliers, and understanding the philosophy of the artisanal food makers is constantly reinforced.

We were also given an afternoon demonstration by Rory O’Connell, who showed us how to make scones, salads with the beautiful Ardsallagh cheese, jams, preserves and a hazelnut chocolate tart, as well as a chorizo pasta. We will be making these dishes for lunch on Friday.

Scones and raspberry jam - amongst the many dishes Rory made for us in afternoon demo.

A composed salad of wild rocket, figs, pomegranates, and Ardsallagh Goat's Cheese

I was so exhausted on this day – but so very very happy and satisfied.

Day 4 – Theory Day

Every week, we have one day which is theory day. This day exposes us to new ideas, concepts and methodologies. Today we learned some basics about cheese and wine, had a visit from William Cahill of Callan Fire Protection, who walked us through basic fire precautions and safety tips, and had a lecture on food hygiene and standards.

The highlight of the day was a visit from Peter and Mary Ward of Country Choice in Nenagh, County Tipperary. Peter spoke to us about his delicatessen, which he opened many years ago, with a focus on highlighting slow food, organic produce, and artisanal products. Peter spoke to us of the imperatives of his business, his philosophy, and the ways he sources products that all have a story, an identity and a clear provenance. His passion was overwhelming, his humour was infectious, and he seduced a roomful of hungry cooking school students by talking to us as he sliced open a huge wheel of parmesan. As he sliced, he told us about the artisan that produces that organic cheese – and knowing the back-story gave the cheese added depth, flavour, resonance.

Peter Ward and his parmesan cheese. An inspirational talk that was at once funny, thought provoking and hunger-making.

And now, I sit here organising my filing system – so many recipes, so many ideas and thoughts and learnings going through my head. Tomorrow I make a hazelnut and chocolate tart, a composed salad of wild rocket, Ardsallagh cheese and honey, and another loaf of brown bread. And I cant wait!

17 Responses to “Ballymaloe Cookery School – Days 1 – 4”

  1. raaismom May 6, 2011 at 12:57 am #

    Amazing, amazing, amazing – it is all too wonderful to take in. I’m over the moon for you! Now send me your address so I can post you some wellies to get you through the mizzle!! LOVE xxx

    • delectableblog May 7, 2011 at 2:11 am #

      It is pretty awe inspiring MZ – exhausting at times (theres just SO much!) but a wonderful place, and an astonishing feeling of happiness ALL THE TIME. πŸ™‚ I love you so much, I dont even have words. I will email you my address – but I have a feeling this is the LAND of wellingtons πŸ˜› Send me a photo of my beloved Z instead so that I may put it up in my room πŸ™‚

  2. Afizah May 6, 2011 at 1:37 am #

    Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!
    Two random – and q irrelevant- thoughts that popped into my head while reading this: hmmmm, Martha has a Palais des Poulet too… and that kitchen (with all the fab Andalucian pottery pieces) looks q familiar after many avid nose-to-the-screen viewings of Rachel Allen’s “Bake” series!
    Go cook girl!

    • delectableblog May 7, 2011 at 2:14 am #

      Im not sure about Martha’s Palais, but this one looks like an old converted gardening shed! The chickens are awesome, there is one who lives in our garden. Everywhere I turn, Ola, I think of how much you would love this place – the style is very you πŸ˜‰ And the kitchens are incredible – there are four sets of kitchens where we all spread out and cook – I was lucky for my first week to have a 2 students to 1 teacher space (the smallest space in the school) – how incredible is that??? They just immerse us in cooking and food, and its amazing!

  3. christina orow May 6, 2011 at 3:26 am #

    god I want to feel that mizzle! It feels like how I felt when I started school as a very young boarder. I was alone and yet totally in my element – being challenged in such a loving and nurturing way, to be independent and to grow – and I loved every moment of it!
    That vibrant green looks so lovely ad I hope it stays cool for a while!

    I think I recognise that kitchen where you’ll be working. If I am not mistaken, Rachel Allen uses it to conduct her baking classes for her programme “Bake”. Then they go outside into the garden to taste their goodies and I have always loved that final part of the show.

    And now you’re living it!

    Gesundheit!
    C

    • delectableblog May 7, 2011 at 2:17 am #

      I wish you could come visit, C … you would love this place. Yes, thats exactly how it feels – guided and helped on the one hand, and yet given independence and space to move and grow and just be, on the other. Its a wonderful combination. The green is sooooo green. So many different colours of green, so much depth to it. Cool is nice, darling, but its been FREEZING πŸ˜‰ Apparently though, Ireland never really gets hot hot πŸ˜‰ And yes, we cook and then eat in the dining rooms … when it gets slightly warmer, we will be able to go out side during lunchtime πŸ™‚

  4. christina orow May 6, 2011 at 3:31 am #

    sorry Afizah I just read your post and realised you had already recognised the cooking set πŸ™‚

  5. foo may lyn May 6, 2011 at 1:13 pm #

    you will, you have, you are indeed (a) cook. you have captured the spirit and essence of The Food which Nourishes us with so much pleasure and joy in your sharing of it all. This particular posting has also shown me that your writing style is so so apt for food- writing; you’ve always been a good writer, but when you write about food, you show us that that in itself is another craft you are honing beautifully. Do continue to enjoy all these privileges that we too may take the same pleasures through you.
    x

    • delectableblog May 7, 2011 at 2:18 am #

      Thank you Moo πŸ™‚ I feel so blessed that I have so many beloved women and guides and protectors all watching over me during this most fantastical journey. Love love

  6. Sharon Gelman May 6, 2011 at 7:06 pm #

    I am so thrilled for you and so appreciate your sharing the journey. As always it is a pleasure to read your writing and see your pictures. Love you, Pia,

    • delectableblog May 7, 2011 at 2:18 am #

      So glad youre with me on the journey, Sharon. Love you too πŸ™‚ xxx

  7. Muna Şimşek May 7, 2011 at 7:54 am #

    Thank you sooo much for sharing with us your wonderfull experience… I so enjoy your blogs you describe everything so vividly that I can imagine my self there and almost smell everything πŸ™‚ Looking forward to the next post πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚ πŸ™‚

    • delectableblog May 7, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

      Muna my dearest πŸ™‚ Am so glad youre enjoying the blog … I am just purely, blissfully happy πŸ™‚ When one lives one passion and truth – its all good πŸ™‚

  8. palani May 7, 2011 at 8:54 pm #

    Pia! It is just incredible to read and partake and in the excitement of this amazing journey you are going through. I read with greed and envy and saliva dripping down my cheeks. Cant wait for the next post. Wishing you more energy and lots and lots of love. xxx

    • delectableblog May 7, 2011 at 9:18 pm #

      Palani πŸ™‚ Yay! I am glad you like the posts πŸ™‚ And I hope it inspires you to live your dreams. Its scary – but its good beyond words πŸ™‚ Love and light xxx

  9. Monique Labat May 12, 2011 at 6:32 am #

    Simply wonderful Pia. You’ve captured the very essence of our first few days at Ballymaloe and I love it!

    • delectableblog May 12, 2011 at 10:03 am #

      I am so glad you like the blog, Monique! And its so wonderful to be living with a compatriot πŸ™‚ xxx P

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