Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Last Post

So the three months at Ballymaloe were over. Exams done, house cleared, car packed, time to go.
But it wasn’t that simple. Three months in the bubble meant that the umbilical was still there, still strong. It had to be cut but in a gentle manner. My re-entry to the real world needed to be gradual not some sort of caesarean section.
I needed some sort of comfort blanket so a cunningly devised rehab was devised,
Some easing away from Orchard Gardens, and into Coed Eva.  A routine to prepare for reality. So, after Darina’s farewell it was off to the Farmers Market for one last time.
I wanted to take some good ingredients with me. Three months of cooking with the best meant that I would only accept the best at home.
That done where to spend the night? Obviously Ballymaloe House!

Checking in (with the student discount) was one step towards home. It also gave me the opportunity to show my newly acquired wine knowledge, successfully choosing a white by the Allegrini family and then pouring PX over the vanilla ice cream.
Which of these could you cook? asked Janet, perusing the menu. Actually all of them I was able to respond.

A lengthy, and for me, very alcoholic dinner later I slept the best sleep for three months. Not once did I dream of food. My order of work didn’t make me wake in a panic and a large bed afforded comfort which had been lacking in my small cell in Orchard Gardens.
On reflection the Ballymaloe existence had been almost monastic. Early rising followed by hard labour , lunch and exhortation to greater heights followed by contemplation and a little rest before repeating the experience.
Now I was free!!
A massive breakfast combining a small farmyard on a plate, half of the Irish oat production for 2010, flour in its bread, cake and croissant forms with a small tropical country’s worth of coffee set me up for my last day on Irish soil – for a while.

Shopping for ingredients in Supervalu and loading two cool boxes and several bags completed the morning and I headed d own the route taken by so many colleagues back to Rosslare.
Stops for a late lunch and an early dinner saw us at Europort watching lorries loading. I guess that Sunday nights in December are not the busiest and the terminal building was deserted, even the coffee stall was closed. It did eventually open, but I seemed to be the only customer.

Our Priority Loading status meant that we were first onto the ferry, though the other three cars in line had saved €18 and followed us on.
At 8:40 we cast off and the Ballymaloe adventure was over.
So why did it take 2 months to write it up ?
I was waiting for the exam results to round it off.
Eventually they arrived – and I passed!!

So this is the last of Bill’s Ballymaloe Blog. It was real fun to write, hopefully summed up the experience from a student’s point of view and entertained a little along the way.
Now for the new blog. All about local foods, mainly from Wales but in reality from wherever I happen to be, and find something good to write about. So over the next few weeks expect reports from Ireland, Italy and Spain, as I travel around a bit. And where to find my musings?

Monday, 3 January 2011

Last day at Ballymaloe

And so it ended.
A big meal, and party, for the end of term. The Kitchen 3 Dining room transformed by decorations, students dressed to impress, a small band playing, drinks flowing and a strange mixture of sadness and joy.

The meal coked by Rory and the teachers was wonderful, an amazing soup, more Lamb, the creamiest gratin dauphinoise and a dessert to die for.

The hard core students then moved on to the Blackbird to party the night away. Well, many did. Some, booked on early morning ferries, took early nights and some were due to leave at 2am for their new jobs working in ski chalets across the continent.
I returned to the house to complete my packing and prepare for departure.
Saturday morning meant final goodbyes to housemates, welcoming friends calling in on their way home and even the odd refugee who failed to make it home after a night at the Blackbird!!
The final act of the course was Coffee at 11am with Darina. Over fine coffee and cakes we received our valedictory words, said goodbyes and it was all over.

A sense of emptiness crept over me. Some students had referred to the Ballymaloe Bubble, a small area of the world exempt from reality in which our own realities and aims and ambitions were all that mattered. Bursting the bubble and emerging into the outside wall was strange.
Immediately things were different.
The familiar surroundings of kitchens and Demo seemed alien in their silence and emptiness, close friends from the course seemed different somehow, no longer bound by common experience but individuals with their own lives to re-commence. Many would keep in touch but some would leave for ever.
A final walk around the grounds and away.
Whatever was to come the three months at Ballymaloe was a life changing experience, my skills had improved exponentially, my understanding deepened, and my passion for food and cooking reinforced and focussed. I came a keen amateur, I left dedicated and enrichened by the Ballymaloe experience.
To everyone involved, students, teachers, Rory, Darina, Rachel, the support staff whether administrative or on the farm my heartfelt thanks, I met you as strangers, I left you as friends.
Now I have to use the knowledge and skills that I gained to further the future of food. Whatever happens I will always be part of the Ballymaloe family and will obey the command on the blackboard.

Friday, 10 December 2010

And now, the end is near

Not much of a blog today,6 hours of exams have destroyed my mind and nearly my will to live.

To say that they were eclectic and hard is an understatement. Add to that Irish H&S rules being different to the UK and we were talking foreign language here. Technical questions on the chemistry of spices and the additional two flavours in Hindu ayavedic cookery and you get the picture. Fish recognition and a recipe, Meat and one, 15 spices and 2 recipes, 10 herbs ditto, 10 salad leaves without. The finer points of menu planning - my favourite response to the question what 8 things go into a Standard Recipe was Eggs, Milk, Butter, Flour, Salt and Pepper. The correct answer was something like Ingredients, Equipment, Cooking times and temperature, portion yield, serving method etc.

One person suggested that the best way to cure choking was to perform the Hymen manoeuvre!! To the question "What is a Ganache?" came the brilliant "An elephant headed god from Hindu mythology". The second last question was "What else could you have done over the last 12 weeks" and the final question "Name 8 methods of suicide, and select one".

No it was hard but we have had our knowledge tested to the full and those who survive fully deserve the kudos that comes from having trained at Ballymaloe.

Tonight the end of term dinner. Doubtlessly there will be ample and embarrassing photo opportunities which will be reported tomorrow- assuming my hotel has wifi.

In the meantime my thanks to all at the school who taught me so much, the behind the scenes staff and my fellow students who made it all happen and all worthwhile. Most of all thanks to you Dear Reader, If you hadn't been there I would not have blogged.

Last word from Darina "By now some of you will never want to see another pot or pan in your life, but in a couple of weeks you will be gagging to get back to the kitchen". I think she may be right.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Just a day till the big knowledge test

So Thursday, and not a lot to do. Well for me but there were four housemates cooking this morning and at least three anxious faces in the kitchen when I rose at a very leisurely 7.07am. The fist left virtually immediately for a 7.30 date with destiny whilst the other two stayed for a few minutes.
On my second cup of coffee the fourth, with an 11.30 start emerged and we drank coffee and discussed the day and the written exams tomorrow.
We have to get the house into some kind of order before we leave so a run to the school recycling centre was on the cards. Sadly we decided that it was essential and, with a car full of rubbish we set off.

The glamour that is the recycling centre
The campus was deserted, if you weren’t cooking you would not wish to be there so, rubbish dumped, a few logs for the fire collected and we headed back. Our other colleague was hovering downstairs and in a fit of guilt I decided to tidy my room before anything else.
Bored with cleaning I essayed a little indexing before deciding that more coffee was what was needed. In the meantime friend 4 had gone for her 11.30 cook but doubted that she would start on time as we had all run over yesterday.
By lunchtime no one had re-emerged, and when they did drift back, it was with tales of being 1 hour 45 over. Seems that the three hour exam should really be 4 ½.
Wild talk of revision filled the air but I concluded that, if I hadn’t learned it by now it was unlikely to sink in overnight. So, coffee and begin the packing. I shall finish it after the exams tomorrow and before the farewell dinner. Two colleagues are, however, leaving straight after the exams and have to get everything sorted by today. We all accumulate additional stuff – 4 files and 1000 recipes for a start – and getting them home could be a challenge, especially if you have purchased half of Ireland and have to get a trans-Atlantic flight. Oh well, provided it goes and does not incur any penalty charge for leaving a mess I am happy.
The a wave of selflessness hit me. Right opposite our house is a clothes bank into which I deposited, suitably wrapped in a bin bag for protection, my entire collection of cooking school T shirts, 6 purple and five white. The last white one was kept, not for sentimental reasons but to wear tomorrow. Saves me taking them home and, if it helps someone who needs a shirt and raises a few euro for charity,good luck to them.
Not a lot happened really but I would like to share some photographic highlights of the last 12 weeks with you

More tomorrow if my brain still works after the exams, and thanks for all the messages of support.                                                

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Big Day - exam fever strikes

So this is it. 12 weeks, and a lifetime of cooking, are about to be tested to the limit. The most important meal I have ever cooked is just around the corner and like Time Team I have “just three hours” in which to do it.
Careful menu planning, ingredient research and ordering, detailed Order of Work, knife sharpening and mental runs through could all be thrown down the pan if I don’t get it right. The good news is I have to cook a bread which is straightforward and not too time consuming. The bad news is a 12:30 start – last of the day – so plenty of time to get nervous, have kittens, raise a whole genus of butterflies internally and otherwise panic. Can I do it? Of course I can – but can I do it today and in the time allowed, and to the standard required?
An extra long shower, before heading down to get the espresso going. Arriving in the kitchen of the house I met a housemate with an 8:30 start eating her breakfast and mentally rehearsing. Not a lot was said, it was not one of those mornings. Another with a “cook ahead” on a multi stage dish joined us silently, the only sounds in the room being the kettle boiling and the dishwasher churning.
Condemned men are meant to eat a hearty breakfast but coffee and toast was as much as I could face. Next meal after I finish the exam, and only caffeine, adrenalin and nicotine to keep me going till gone four.
A double check on my recipes, knives and uniform and I was as ready to go as I would ever be. Shame it was only 9am!!
Eventually I could stand it no more so by 11:40 I was on my way to school although I did not have to be there until 12:15 and it is a 10 minute walk. Time for reflection and more nicotine!!
At 12:10 I entered the hallowed portal to be told that they were running late and that I should take a seat. I joined a small crowd who were also delayed; the dining room began to take on the appearance of Gatwick during an air traffic controllers strike. Most people do overrun and with stations being turned around on an Easyjet style 4 hour time slot any minor delay adds up as the re-provisioning cannot take place until the station has been vacated and cleaned. I chose the dishes on which I would plate for tasting and twiddled my thumbs.
Some of the delays today were because people had to take time out after accidents, when I arrived the most serious had been with a Mandolin and required some serious attention and time out before the unfortunate victim could start again.
I went in around half an hour late. First the bread, made and in the oven in 10 minutes, then the Consommé. ¾ lb of shin of beef was my order – but this is Ballymaloe so I started by detaching the meat from the shin bone of a cow (at least you know that it is what you ordered). Then dice the vegetables, combine with egg whites and stock and bring to the boil. Once it has you have a break from the Consommé for 45 minutes to an hour. Caramelised Banana Tart next and in the oven for 45 minutes.
On paper it was all downhill from there, bit of boiling, bit of dicing, touch of frying then plating and out. But time was flying like Usain Bolt and my downhill was more like a parachute less sky dive.
Eventually I pulled it all together but about an hour over the allotted three. The Consommé, clear as a mountain stream allowed the julienne to be seen like carp in an ornamental pond – no need for further garnish. The Pan Fried John Dory, just 50 minutes earlier still attached to a fed up looking fish, were arranged over a small mound of herbed mashed potatoes with a little garnish of crispy fried mushrooms and a pan juice reduced sauce artistically drizzled around the plate, buttered Spinach and Leeks with Yellow Peppers sat in their own side dish. The Banana Tart needed no embellishment other than a quenelle of rum flavoured Crème Chantilly.
Then you get to leave whilst three judges taste and comment. Been there, done that but on BBD you found out the result on the day not two months later. How do I rate it? Bread Ok but not spectacular, Consommé did what it says on the tin, Mains above average but I could have done better, Banana Tart – Bleeding Epic.
Have I got photos? To be honest I was so tired by the end that I forgot to take any!!
Have I done enough to score the pass mark of 60%? I don’t know and will not until February, but if i haven’t I question the value of Friday’s 6 hours of written exams as the only way you graduate is by passing the Practical Cookery exam.
A hard day, a testing day but that’s what we signed up for.
Tomorrow a day of rest and revision oh yes and cross referencing.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Austerity Budget? Pass the champers and grill another Koi Carp

The final ever Demo this morning and the luxury of a 9am start. Overnight rain had frozen hard so the walk across the fields was a lottery, wet feet or broken ankle. Miraculously I managed to get to School safely where I met a teacher who had fallen on ice and damaged her shoulder. Others arriving told of falls, and even Darina had lost her footing.
However by 9 we were all assembled and looking forward to Rory's demo. On the day that Ireland faced an austerity budget Rory promised Oysters in Champagne Sauce, Quail done several ways, Haunch of Venison in Red Wine Sauce and one or two other trifling dishes. A display of swordsmanship was unlikely given the size of the average Quail but what could stop Rory?
Though you might need a fairly small knife to joint them, something larger would be required to halve the Quail.

Note Knife to Bird ratio 2:1?

Given the minute nature of the birds even a standard Chef's Knife looked massive and the birds fell into the required cuts at the lightest touch of a blade that looked as though a Ninja had sharpened it. These would be served in different fashions and with accompaniments such as salad or even Grapes.

9lbs of Venison Haunch was lightly marinated and sent to the oven for 10 minutes per pound whilst 1/2 bottle of red wine was reduced to a tablespoon and then Port and Grand Marnier followed suit before stock was added and reduced by only two thirds. Finally butter was added Rory selflessly limiting the addition to only one ounce per person. The resultant ruby red, deep and intense sauce was amazing and would go well with Steak or Beef as well.

The Champagne sauce again saw half a bottle being reduced to a tablespoon and then butter being added in Beurre Blanc style. This would be used to nap Oysters before grilling. The Oysters themselves were placed under a hot grill to open before the lids were removed, the sauce added and the whole re-grilled. Great taste, and for many a cooked Oyster is probably prefferable to a raw one.

Carpaccio of Beef was the other main feature of the demonstration with good quality Fillet being thinly sliced and rolled to wafer thinness. Served with Rocket, Parmesan and a Mustard Sauce these little delights were served as a starter and also as canapes (well the trimmings).

All too soon the Demo and our learning process were over. Well we will continue to learn for ever and, as Rory said"I am going to do a few day's work experience before Christmas at The River Cafe".

The end of learning though means the beginning of testing and those of us cooking tomorrow were on tenterhooks waitng to discover which bread we would be cooking as part of the practical. Drawn by lot we could have faced anything from a White Soda Bread to a White Yeast Plait or a Focaccia. My relief was immense when I drew a Brown Soda. Though I do not claim to be a Master Baker ( though I may have misheard some suggestions) but the key thing is that bread is part of the exam and must be included within the three hour cooking time allowed. A yeast takes more time to prepare and knead so it cuts down on the time available for the other dishes and, as overruns incur penalties of reduction in marks, avoiding it improves your overall chance.

This afternoom we had a trip to Ballymaloe House to tour the Kitchens and Wine Cellar, visit a Coffee Roaster who has just set up in one of the farm buildings and have tea. We were also treated to a few words of advice from Myrtle Allen the Grande dame of Irish Hospitality.

Tomorrow at 12:30 I shall put my newly acquired skills to the test in the Practical Exam and then, hopefully after a restful Thursday the new knowledge will be tested in three written exams.