Saturday, 25 September 2010

When Saturday Comes...

Food neither begins in the kitchen nor ends in the dining room. There is a whole life before hand and, hopefully, a lifetime memory after. Certainly to provide the latter it is essential to know the whole history of the former.

Put another way a great cook with poor ingredients will only produce mediocre food. Quality seasonal produce is the key so on our first day off the great sourcing safari began.

For many the first stop was Midleton Farmers Market, just 12 kilometers, away where two of our colleagues were helping out on the Ballymaloe stall, 7o'clock starts notwithstanding. By the crack of 9 when we arrived the market was in full swing with queues forming at the fresh fish counter

 and groaning stands of the freshest organic vegetables were subject to the kind of scrutiny normally reserved for Pakistan bowlers foot fall.

Amongst all this action we prioritised fresh espresso followed by organic breakfast rolls - well we had to see whether pork products reacted well to fresh crusty baguettes!

Following this it was a visit to Arbutus Bakery where the precise provenance of our chosen sourdough - 20 hour slow proving wrapped in linen - was explained and we were invited to do a night shift in the bakery!

Well you can't have bread without cheese so on to the cheese people where after deep discussion of provenance, vegetable v animal rennet and raw versus pasteurised milk, we settled on a cheese from Dingle which contains dillisk ( seaweed to you) and which had an almost emmental texture. Maybe we found one that not even Darina Queen of Cheeses has tried!

Bread and cheese has become almost the accepted evening meal. Well we have lunch, cooked by us and quality approved by the teachers then, around five, a tasting of up to eleven dishes from the Demo. Unsurprisingly evening meals are simple.. However man does not live by bread alone (even accompanied by great cheeses) so we looked for interesting alternatives to the lactic rush and came up with three interesting alternatives, an organic tapenade, a second made with added dillisk - laver spread almost - and a delicate baked salmon and crab marie rose. Tonight's snack looks interesting. The latter we found on Frank Hederman's smokehouse stall.

Then on to Cork City and the English Market

Nearly overwhelmed by the huge variety and quality of the assorted ingredients a restorative coffee was needed. An espresso with a kick like a rhino on speed was provided by a stall holder and as my body got the kind of jolt that normally results from touching the live rail my mind followed and I was able to purchase some of the aforementioned jump juice. Two cups and those early morning kitchens will not know what has hit them!!

Much staring at meat (and cheese, fish, chicken, veg, bakery etc) later we pulled ourselves away and decided to go to Ballycotton to search for lunch. Somehow we never actually made lunch though we did visit Ballycotton

Then back to the cottage via Ballymaloe House where some additional implements were purchased from the shop and we tried the food in the Cafe at the End of the Shop. We approved.

Sunday being a day of rest probably means a filing mountain followed by writing up the work plan for Monday morning and then a return to the groves of academe. Still we chose to do it and in an intensive way. If learning is exponential but the brain's capacity diminishes with age I shall have to start abandoning some of my huge range of gratuitous trivia to make room for the new.

Friday, 24 September 2010

It's not even the end of the beginning

Friday morning and the kind of dawn that East Cork delivers at this time of year. Bright and sunny which matched the disposition of many students piling in to the Kitchens for the last cook of the week.

Not quite the mad rush of Wednesday, especially when those who started early were told that if they started before the teachers arrived at 9 - they could not correct any errors before cooking and would have to do the dish again.

The kitchen was more familiar ground today, which is probably why they move you through all four kitchens over the length of the course. I was determined that today Nadia would not have her dish drowned with soup again - mainly because we were not cooking it.

My three dishes were Chocolate Hazlenut Tart with a tricky pastry, Raspberry Jam, and a Greek salad which had to be made at the last minute. This gave me time to prep for the tomato puree, which Nadia would cook, whilst she was on duty elsewhere.

Eventually I manged to complete the three just before cut off time and managed to get two of them into the dining room, the Jam will be either eaten in our house or be sold at the local Farmers Market.

Hazlenut Tart

Greek Salad

And to prove that I cooked them
 Then in to lunch and some swapping of kitchen nightmares before the final Demo lecture of the week.

Darina started by reminding us that we had survived the first week and as we settled in it would seem easier, even if it actually got harder. She also said that the first week seemed like a month, not one voice was raised in dissent!!

Then encouragement to visit the farmers market, take part in a sponsored walk and to litter pick one mile of the road past the school before some actual recipes.

Crab seems to feature heavily next week with it appearing in tarts and two kinds of dressed crab, both hot and cold. Entertainment was provided by one crab attempting to capture Darina's finger before attacking and locking on to his partner! No nonsense Darina defused crabby combat by dumping both into warm salty water where as it heated they would "slip away quietly imagining they were in a rock pool on Ballycotton beach on a summers afternoon. 25 minutes later they were back and this time dressing for dinner - though not in a good way.

Somewhere along the way we had ice creams demonstrated and I include photos just to stoke the jealousy factor.

Next week's assignments and recipes were handed out and we scrambled to meet our new kitchen partner, discover which workstation we would be using and divide the cooking between us. Oh yes and check for additional duties especially those scheduled for Monday.

Now, Darina's Aunt Florence who called by the cottage last evening for tea and biscuits had hinted that on a Friday we would finish early so that people could get away home. True to Florence's word Darina announced that we could leave after we had tasted the dishes from the demo.

Brilliant I left at 4:57!!!

So a weekend off? Nope, Farmers Market then into Cork for a sourcing session in the English Market but first maybe a pint or two to celebrate survival and the end of our first week of living the dream

Thursday, 23 September 2010

Fear of Food and Fire

As what passed for dawn struggled though the threatening clouds, and fueled only by espresso, nicotine and hope, I walked the dewy grounds to the main school.My mission to meet the farm manager and collect vegetables and herbs for the day.As it was a lecture day my presence was deemed unnecessary and Haulie(manager) suggested I come again one day when there is real work to be done.

So, at 7:50am when lectures did not start for another hour I was left to contemplate the day accompanied only by some chickens celebrating freedom from their coops'

My early morning colleagues

Gradually more and more students emerged and by 9am the Demo room was buzzing with anticipation. First up was a demo of Tomato Puree (more like a Passata) and redcurrant jelly. Then down to the main event of the day Introduction to Cheese. A brief history of artisan cheese production in Ireland was followed by detailed notes and exposition of the varying types and styles of cheeses most named after the farms or townlands where they are made. With many questions being asked the demo lasted much longer  than anticipated and the actual cheeses were not unveiled until the very end.

Then the good nay great news, from here on cheeses would be served every day with lunch!! and the bad news two students per day would be detailed to produce the lunchtime Cheese Board. Lunch followed and mine was a little truncated as I was delegated to play host to some visitors to the school but the main course was pretty good.

Then back to Demo for a scary afternoon.
The threats to all engaged in the food industry were outlined in the Health and Safety lecture on which there will be an exam. After Hazard Action Critical Control Point plans and requirements were outlined the differences between recommendations and requirements were made clear and we were advised how to deal with Environmental Health Officers and Inspectors. Basically ask to see the relevant section of legislation and if it cannot be revealed point out that recommendations are not compulsory. So intrusive regulatory authorities stymied - though the importance of safe sourcing and operation were absolutely driven home - it was on to the scary stuff E Coli, Botulinus, Staphuloccocus and Salmonella. Detailed advice on symptoms and prognoses were given and also the best ways of ensuring that no customer ever succumbs to any of them. What was really scary was that I thought that I remembered Dr Who taking on the Staphycoccans on Planet Botulism.

Before that the ever entertaining but also serious fire prevention and fighting guide. It looks as though we will only ever use the black labelled CO2 extinguishers as they are effective but do not contaminate food. Oh yeah, some of us got to try them out!!

So if faced by a fire as serious as 5 gas burners on a hob being lit we know what to do. Shame a certain friend of mine had not had that lecture a few years ago!!! No names no packdrill just think herb that goes well with fish.

Tomorrow it's back to the kitchen and back to the cooking. Will we survive with all phalanges and digits intact? will the first student turn up at 3am to ensure getting the best ingredients? will the first week end with a full complement of students. Tune in tomorrow, same blog time, same blog channel

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Phony War is over!!

They say that confession is good for the soul so here's mine: I forgot my camera today so there is a limited degree of topicality about any visual aids in today's blog.

Now, basking in the absolution granted by the ever expanding coterie of true believers and followers I shall begin.

Another view of the Herb Garden

It was genuine kitchen combat today as we had to produce the dreaded work plans and then work to them to produce lunch. Somehow cooking to a plan is so much harder than cooking by instinct and belief, and so we all found.

The carefully crafted workplans went out of the window as an undignified scramble for ingredients and utensils commenced. Not everyone realised that the ingredients were in our own kitchen weigh up area and various harrassed persons went on Livingstone-esque voyages of discovery for potatoes or cream. Others just got in dead early and captured ovens for their bread at 8:15 having it in the oven by 8:30 when the session did not even start until 9am.

Just after 9 there was a mass exodus to sign in, a daily requirement, but one which is impossible to satisfy until the roll list is actually available - or at least until you know where it is!!

So much angst and an environment in which there is no chance of a soothing nicotine input until lunchtime!! Still my daily input is reducing spectacularly and I may graduate as a reformed individual, albeit a 27 stone bad tempered, but qualified, first class git.

Somehow with soothing words from Debbie the teacher supporting our group and endless kindness and washing up from Nadia my partner for the week we delivered roughly on time. My Potato soup with fresh pesto was considered suitable for general consumption ( not all dishes are) and my housemates similarly fought off the traumas and tribulations to have their food eaten and critiqued by all.

Poor Nadia suffered the (near) ultimate disaster as her perfect mushroom quiche was drowned in soup as the heavy handed buffoon cooking with her, shot potato soup over her plate. She was very gracu,ious and we are still friends.

The Shell Grotto in the grounds

Lunch over it was back to Demo for the recipes we will cook on Friday morning.

But first a demo of Parmesan cheese by Peter Ward who runs Country Kitchen a major outlet for well sourced, beautifully produced foods. His enthusiasm was boundless and inspirational. Peter is a huge player in Irish

Half an hour later we launced into the demo with Rory O'Connell demonstrating dishes as diverse as Chocolate Hazelnut Tart ( I have to cook it on Friday), Greek Salad, Scones, Pasta with a Tomato/Chorizo Sauce and Candied Peel.

Another day over the survivors, bloodied but unbowed headed back to their respective cottages to plan for Friday's battle of the cooks and wonder how they will survive non stop lectures tomorrow - not because of the content but the bum numbing chairs in the Demo Kitchen!!

Updates later.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

A new routine

After the alarums and excusions of day one, today began the pattern that will dominate our lives for the next twelve weeks. Report to kitchen having signed in, prepare the recipes which we were given yesterday, eat them for lunch, back into the Demo kitchen for tomorrows workload, tasting at the end and back to the cottage to sort out the workplan.

And in between - a range of duties within the school, for example on Thursday I am on early veg collection and then acting as host to visitors at lunch time. Others in the cottage have already signed up to go to Ballymaloe House kitchens tomorrow for observation and also to go to the Farmers Market on Saturday. But that is for the future and this blog deals with the recently occurred.

Slicing dicing and chopping were the first skills which we acquired, amazingly with only a few flesh wounds amongst us and no major traumas so far. Onions, carrots, potatoes and mushrooms all fell  victim to the flashing blades of the 3rd Kitchen brigade. The dismembered victims passing to a higher cause and regenerating as lunch along the way.

The first loaves of Soda Bread made their appearances, just a hint of the total bakery experience yet to come whilst , with the aid of a stock syrup summer fruits became a compote.

So by lunchtime we had produced bread

Carrot and Cumin Soup

Penne Pasta with Mushroom a la creme

and the afore mentioned compote

Then back to the demo room to run through pastry and a range of quiches and flans along with new soups another compote, salads of several varieties, dressings etc.  You can get a flavour here:

By the time the demo had ended, we had tasted and discussed with our cooking partners which dishes we would each do tomorrow it was 5:30 and nearly 10 hours after we left the cottage we could go home, to block out tomorrows part of the culinary mystery tour.

Is it worth it? On yes, if I can produce half of the flavour that is inherent in every dish I can die happy and go to food heaven,

Monday, 20 September 2010

Back to School

The day dawned bright and early, well early at least and after a healthy breakfast of muesli and youghurt I and my housemates tripped through the dew of the orchard towards the school where a special welcome breakfast awaited 62 nervous newbies.

Breakfast over, and fortified by a rousing speech of welcome and intent from Darina Allen, the cohort for September 2010 set out on a tour of the gardens and farm to get the whole picture and an understanding of the relatrionship between soil, foodstuff and human well being.
The Herb Garden

Pausing only for a brief exposition of crop sowing we planted spring onions in  the greenhouse and hopefully will use the matured product in our final dish of the course. Then a trip to see the milking parlour and the recycling operation and a demonstration of waste being turned into good rich compost via the 300 or so hens who wander the grounds.

So we had been walking for about 2 1/2 hours and were feeling a little tired so we sat down and did the proper introductions and personal aims from the course before being called in to lunch!!!

Now this was not just a jolly. Oh no this was serious stuff building each person's master pallette and contained items that some found challenging such as smoked eel. It was locely though and the hazlenut meringue delivered both taste and texture.

Then the first really serious session as we had demonstrrations of the dishes we would be expected to cook tomorrow along with finding out who our first partner would be - mine isn't here yet - and which days we would be on the duty rota - Thursday am I have to collect herbs and veg from the gardens before class starts.

Lots of helpful hints and suggestions followed and before we knew it it was 5:30 and our first day had ended. Tomorrow we get exposed to sharp things and hot ones too. Should be fun!!

Sunday, 19 September 2010

Finally here!

The waiting is over, the ferry has landed and here I am.
Checked in to the school, been allocated a new build cottage which I am sharing with four others and collected the huge box of files and folders that will hold the course work.

Also been given the folder which contains the first week's work. It is very detailed and not a little daunting.

Oh yes also got final bits of uniform so slightly less like a trainee mullah.


Also had a chance to meet some of the students at an informal soup and salad introduction. Tonight we have a get together to make pizza in the courtyard and I am sure that I will meet the rest of the 62 students on the course.

Tomorrow it all begins in earnest when we report at 8:30 for breakfast, the only one that we get and then spend the day signing on, seeing the farm and having our first lessons and demonstrations. No need for whites as we will not be cooking but first thing Tuesday morning, dressed appropriately and armed with dangerously sharp new knives we will e at it for real.

If I still have 10 fingers more later.