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.
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).
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 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.
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.
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!