Saturday, 9 October 2010

Taking it easy

A day without cooking is like a day without sun. Not an ancient and sage saying but the fact that it is Saturday and we do not have school today. Washing in the machine by 6:45 and out of the dryer by 9 so a free day. First up advice on bus etiquette for an American housemate who did not realise that to get a rural bus to stop you have to stand in front of it waving both arms in the universal gesture for STOP!!! Leaning back into the hedge for fear of colliding with the bus and waving as enthusiastically as a 98 year old being removed to a home is unlikely to attract anyones attention unless they are looking for hedgerow fauna. As she did not return shortly after the scheduled departure of the bus I assume that she made the connection.

A quick trip to Midleton to collect essential sustainable and local supplies (Frank Hedermans Salmon and Crab mayonnaise, Arbutus Sourdough Bread, Hard Cheese) and some other stuff like iboprufen (probably not local but essential and sustaining) and the world was, as Del Boy said, "Your Lobster".

Despite the grey day my Zimbabwean, golfing and rugby fanatic, housemate decided that today was the day to visit Kinsale and also to check out the Old Head golf course.

Now the Old Head of Kinsale is a rocky promontory jutting out into the Atlantic with the next nearest bit of land being Boston. As a golf course it costs €150 per round plus the cost of several hundred golf balls lost to the pounding surf some 300 feet below. He did not want to play there but knew of another student who would be. On the way we passed Fota Island another famous golf course where he decided that today was not the day for golf. Personally I thought if it is not the day at sea level, what will be your opinion at cliff top level.

Our approach to Kinsale was marked by the skies becoming even more leaden and the wind racking up a few more points on the Beaufort Scale. Crossing the harbour and heading higher and higher the wind increased and the fog began to come down. When we eventually reached the Old Head it took real strength to open the car doors and small groups of would be walkers and bird spotters huddled wherever the relentless howl and push of the wind could be avoided. Even the wild Goats were nowhere in sight presumably tucked up somewhere and laughing at those stupid bipeds.

35 seconds later and red of cheek and chilled to the bone we were back in the car and heading down hill faster than a Lithuanian luge rider. Desperate for warmth and sustenance we stopped at the first pub which we came to.
What a little Gem. The Spotted Door was a real find.It offered hot food and on a cold day what could be better? and it seemed to be mainly home made or home cooked. What a change from pubs which offer microwaved meals from a menu of such huge variety that, unless they employ 25 chefs, must be pre-cooked and frozen or at least chilled.

Now to me one sign of a good restaurant or pub is one with a blackboard written in chalk and with clear signs of rubbing out. It means that the menu changes and Specials really are Specials not just a subsection of the corporate 100 item menu.

At this stage I should introduce you to King's First Rule of Restaurants. "Never eat in an establishment that has laminated menus." and Rule 2 "Unless it's Breakfast."

For an explanation of Rule 1 see the paragraph above. A laminated menu means that the menu is unchanging and, therefore, neither seasonal or local. How many times do you see "Chef's selection of Market Vegetables" on a menu? And how many times is that Carrot, Cauliflower/Broccoli and mangetout? Where the hell is this market where the chef obtains these vegetables fresh all year round? or has he discovered the secret of instant travel? If he has he is wasted as a chef, surely a major career in science and invention beckons.

 Rule 2 is equally simple. Breakfast is virtually immune from seasonality. Fish is smoked year round, good quality bacon, eggs and sausages are universally available to those who source sensibly. Bread is baked daily so no need for the menu to change.

Right, rant over back to the blog.

Two items immediately stood out on the board. The first a bowl of seafood chowder. Those who know me will be amazed that I have been over in Cork for three weeks and this was to be my first bowl of chowder.

And what a Chowder. Rich and thick this was more of a stew than a soup. Large chunks of fish without too much added (farmed) salmon combined with onion potato and leek in a rich sauce to provide a filling bowl of goodness, the accompanying brown bread and butter proving a great counterpoint. Of course Ballymaloe would not have allowed it to be served, as there was no garnish, but it really did not need one, it did what it said on the board and did it well.

The main course was as simple as possible but better for that. Homemade Black Pudding with Fried Eggs and Chips was just that. Two large slabs of Black Pudding with an egg on each and a bowl of thick cut chips tasted great.

The pudding was simple, blood, oats and herbs set in a tray, sliced and fried crisp outside, meltingly smooth inside and runny fried eggs. Who could ask for more especially on a blustery day?

Lunch over we headed back for more mundane tasks, more washing and the ever present filing. But a good way to spend Saturday.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Chicken several ways

Dawn snuck in early and we headed towards the kitchens in the strange half light that presages a good day, though ancient folk lore warnings about shepherds and red skies remain imprinted deep in the subconscious.

My first task was to create the biscuits for lunch and before eight I was weighing ingredients and constructing the stiff  dough that rolled to 1/16 of an inch provides the perfect cracker. A task I was keen to get out of the way because it meant that I could move on to the day's alchemy, the construction of Chicken Liver Pate.

My favourite pate of all time, and one I know adored by certain followers of the blog, I have made it for years but having carefully watched the demo I knew could be improved upon. A couple of areas of technique gave insights as to the means of improvement and were duly incorporated into my version of the dish.
A lower and slower application of heat and the introduction of garlic and thyme earlier in the process added depth of flavour to the chicken livers and, whilst the recipe said deglase the pan with brandy, it did not specify which type of brandy so I chose a Calvados and introduced a slightly appley background flavour. Chilling the livers before processing also improved taste and, when blitzed and given over their own weight of butter to make a silky smooth pate, the morning's little burst of alchemy was complete.

The work was not over though, and over the next hour and a half, I added buttered cucumber to the list of dishes completed and assisted this week's partner Sarah to complete her dishes by passing 1,000 pounds of potatoes through a mouli.I also got to fillet a Haddock to tick off another marker and practice for a likely skill in the Techniques exam.

Eventually I had to plate my dishes for adjudication and received very good and helpful comments about presentation etc. Here in all of their glory they are:

Well, you didn't really expect to see bowl of buttered cucumber did You?

My mouli work paid dividends when Sarah presented her work, first to the teacher and then to me for lunch, haddock in Mornay Sauce and Buttercrumbs with Duchesse potatoes. Knowing how keen some of you are to see the lunches I have included Sarah's handiwork.

The afternoon passed by with Rory demonstrating 1,001 things to do with eggs, like perfect classic omelets, souffle omelets, frittatas, bindings for fish cakes oh you get the picture. I now believe that the poultry of East Cork and beyond will be working overtime this weekend as 62 students desperately practice their ovoid culinary classics. Certainly the Ballymaloe hens were racing toward the safety of the Palais des Poulets as we left.

Another week complete, a quarter of the way through, three weeks till the first exams, an awful lot learned and a hell of a lot more to come. Intense yes, Shattering yes, Worth it Oh Yes.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

Hogwarts in Kitchen 2

Another day of Alchemy in the Ballymaloe Cookery School kitchens. Starting with 3lbs of windfall apples and some lemon peel and mint the students of culinary alchemy applied both water and fire to the base metals.

Once reduced to a pulp the mixture was strained through a jelly bag and the resultant liquid, now a healthy blush pink was reheated with additional sugar and finely chopped mint till it reached setting point. Transferred into jars we had turned apples into a stunning Apple and Mint Jelly.

My other main task today was to create a Coconut Milk and Lemon sorbet, a beautiful creamy concoction which refreshed as it melted in your mouth and which combined with a Crunchy Orange Scone produced ummami. Sadly it was so good that no photos could be taken as it was consumed faster than the click of a lens.

At this point I suffered my first injury of the course.

This was not caused by my ineptitude with a knife or self inflicted during a fastest chopper competition. No, sadly it was as the result of someone leaving broken glass from a Pyrex jug in a sink full of soapy water. Not the worst injury so far managed but one which was totally avoidable and thus totally annoying.

Off then to lunch and a combination of elements cooked by colleagues, spicy bean stew, salsa, tortillas and my own contribution basmatti rice. I have to say the method employed here produces really great rice and is one which I shall adopt henceforth.

Lunch over we all headed back to the Demo room for the afternoon. More ways to cook fish were highlighted and accompanying dishes before white yeast bread was added to our repertoire. BUT the main highlight for me was a demonstration of the legendary Ballymaloe Chicken Liver Pate. I have made this for years but having seen Darina perform it I can only get better. Luckily I will be making my own version tomorrow along with Cheese Biscuits and a Redcurrant Glaze. ( These do not necessarily all go together but, when combined with the output of others will provide a healthy balanced lunch.)

Finally in the Demo a real treat. Next Thursday is the School Trip!!!!! Not a museum or theme park but visits to producers. How lucky are we? Getting right to the heart of the provenance of food is really important and a day to which we are all looking forward.

And the last point. Some readers may have noticed a difference between earlier and later editions of the blog.  This was because some of my comments about wine proved upsetting to the producers,importers and demonstrators. The purpose of the blog is to reflect honestly, if slightly out of left field, on the experience of being a student at Ballymaloe. It is not to cause distress to anyone so I was happy to amend the later version. Hopefully no one else will take umbrage and the followers will continue to get an insight of the fun and value of being a 12 week certificate course student.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Wine Wine Wine

Wednesday is lecture day, and day 2 of the wine course!

First up though a visit from Mary Burns the iconic creator of Ardrahan cheese -  made just outside Kanturk in West Cork. She told us of the production process and also of the bureaucratic nightmare facing small producers. Originally an unpasteurised cheese Ardsallagh was snapped up by the French and was 99% exported, then one calf in a herd that they owned on a separate farm and nothing to do with the cheese process tested positive for TB. Immediately production was closed down, ans in future all milk had to be pasteurised. The French could not understand why one incident not related to cheese production should end raw milk cheese making and promptly cancelled the contract. The way back was long and hard but they now produce not only the Ardsallagh but also a new, milder, cheese Duhallow. Mary also spoke of another West Cork cheese Durrus. Later her tasting plate emerged as part of lunch.

A demonstration of two cakes followed Mary's talk, Tunisian Orange Cake and it's sister cake Moroccan Orange and Almond cake, but more of those later.

Time had arrived and Wine was the next subject (One of my three pet hates along with Lamb and Tea). Surprisingly the lecture proved not only informative, but also very interesting. After the great wine regions of France were explored and explained we settled down to a tasting of wines from Burgundy and the South West. Six wines before lunch? What are they doing to us? How will we concentrate in the afternoon? Four of the six were unexceptional, they tasted pleasant at the front of the tongue but I unfortunatley do n ot like the tannin which dominates the taste buds at the back. If only wine could be drunk solely at the front of the mouth or at a really low temperature like a Prosseco or Champagne I would get a lot more out of them.

Then came a red, Chateau de Cedre 2006, made from the Malbec and Tannat grapes, and produced bio dynamically. This split the students. A robust wine by a top maker I found it too strong for my taste but others loved it and the chateau has great respect around the world and from leading wine critics. All a matter of taste and better palates than mine love this one.

A sweet Jurancon Clos Urolat 2008, from the Petit Manseng grape proved brilliant. I LIKE this wine. Sweet but a background of acid, Orange and Apricot flavours dominated and this wine, admittedly a sweet dessert wine, would go brilliantly with the cakes demonstrated earlier.

And so to lunch. Now you will recall my partial vegetarianism due to lamb being on the menu for the last two days, and how it is one of my top 3 hates. Well guess what? Lamb again today as not all of the shepherds pies and moussaka had been eaten.

Fortunately I had plan B. Ballymaloe works with local schools to give top junior classes the chance to try cooking and gardening and a group of 10 year olds were in today. Even better they were making and cooking sausages from scratch.

Now show me the 10 year old who can resist an obvious authority figure marching into their dining room and saying "Give me that plate boy!"

Actually I had a word with one of the cooks doing their session and she offered me to hold back a few sausages. These went well with the veg on offer today and caused some jealousy amongst those who were trying lamb again.

Back to Demo and guess what? The Treble!!! A lecture on ..... Tea. Fortunately no tastings were involved and though it will apparently come up in the exams the questions cant be too hard as we only had 55 minutes of presentation.

Now the bit that will have many, and  I would imagine disproportionately those of the female persuasion, drooling and beating a path  to Ballymaloe, the Afternoon Tea Demonstration. Cleverest of all was the way in which a loaf can be hollowed out to leave a picnic box and then re-stuffed with the insides now converted into sandwiches.

Following this a selection of cup cakes with varying icings, drop scones, a rum and raisin cake, crystallised flowers, a whipped sponge cake, more meringues and the Ballymaloe Christmas Cake were demonstrated. Could Wales handle a really good Tea Shop? You never know where this course could lead a person.

Anyway the photos

and Quote of the day  "Wow what great Cake Stands!"

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

The lamb lies down on Broadway

Enough of the Peter Gabriel era Genesis, the lamb was back and this time he was angry. Yes, as predicted in yeaterday's post all four kitchens laboured under the task of extracting the last ounce of goodness from our recently departed wooly friend. I made one of the many Moussakas that featured on the lunch menu along with Shepherds pie. This was atonement for plating Ballycotton Shrimp with home made Mayonnaise and Brown Bread. Luckily the flow rate of oil into the waiting amalgam of white wine vinegar, salt, Dijon mustard and egg yolk proved appropriate and 10 minutes orso f whisking produced a velvety emulsion coloured deep yellow by the organic free range yolks and a taste that would have shamed a well known brand.

So on to the lamb. At first sight the grey granules that awaited me totally confirmed my suspicions about lamb.

Judicious application of onions, garlic, nutmeg and fresh tomatoes improved the look considerable and sandwiched between layers of courgette and aubergine before being smothered in a creamy cheesy sauce it looked quite good. What the lamb mix tasted like I do not know. Being unable to taste it I seasoned as I thought reasonable and used two freelance tasters to advise. Beautiful one commented and very good the other. The custard I could taste and that was pretty good.

Then just half an hour before lunch things changed. I suddenly discvered that I was the Supervisor for lunch. BAsically this entails advising the other duty people that they are duty people and ensuring that the tables are relayed at the end of lunch. It also entails making sufficient soft whipped cream for 40+ by hand. 2 pints of the bovine world's finest and a dislocated wrist later the accompaniment to dessert was complete, not that I got any dessert as we had other things to do.

At 1:30 we were paraded out into the garden for the school photo. It is of course many years since I was at school, indeed Mr Gainsborough came and painted the school picture with us holding a pose for some three days- well he had 800 to draw. This was simpler, involving only arrangement by altitude and a digital camera but it started me thinking.

 My only experience of school photos is that which my grandaughter gives a s a hristmas present to her grandparents. This is usually accompanied by a DVD with a title like "My Skateboard Safari" in which, an obviously green-screened, six year old slides easily across the savannah, mountains and desert waving unconvincingly at later to be added flora and fauna. This adds around £20 to mum and dad's shopping list and thanks to pester power is a major seller.

I scoured the plan for the rest f the week but could see no obvious slot for a camera crew to catch us unawares and later produce "My first Michelin Star" though now that the idea is in the public domain it may happen.

The afternoon demo was largely mexican though we also learned to convert apples to jelly and the art of sorbet making. This latter demo producing question of the day; "How does the machine know whether it is making ice cream or sorbet?"

Mercifully the demo ended shortly after and we escaped to get our heating fixed, do some shopping and have a drink in a four star hotel.

Tomorrow lectures starting with wine and a promise of six to taste between 9 and 1. Blogging may be a little slurr if indeed possible.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Pure Prawnography

Wait for it, Wait for it.

Monday morning at Ballymaloe started like many others so far, yet today there was something different. At 8am there was the usual air of anticipation and a hint of adrenaline (Adrenaline incidentally is brown) but also something else. A very faint whiff of normality. Though all would change partners and many would vary their kitchen as well a slight outbreak of normality hung over the school. This was our third week and we were beginning to settle in.

The mad dash to the kitchens and weigh up areas had less desperation, it was a casual stroll, people spoke to each other comparing weekend experiences rather than competing blindly. Hell, if we had a water cooler we might have gathered around it.

Signed in and, therefore officially there we collected ingredients for the morning, checked recipes and just prepared. The morning pep talk by the teacher was listened to and acted upon, people shared information like where the carrots could be found and small talk broke out at the stations. We were on our way to being chefs not just highly competitive cookery students.

The evil beast that goes by the name of sheep featured heavily on the menu today though for allergenic reasons my own contribution to the forthcoming feast was limited to Mint Sauce, a retro starter salad with home made salad cream, dessert and a vegetable accompaniment. In our new, more professional environment we all finished on or around time and the kitchen seemed cleaner than ever before.

Lunch was a cheery affair except for those of us condemned to a main course of two types of beans, some carrots, turnips and potatoes. Dessert however was delicious with an Italian Fruit Salad, Mango and Banana in Lime Syrup and for me, a portion of flapjack on the side.

Lunch did, however have its lower moments as we discovered the need for the first student to receive treatment in A&E, happily some stitching did the trick and they were able to rejoin us before the end of the day along with another mutilated proto-chef.

Now for the moment which you and I have both been waiting.

But first a demo of things to do with left over lamb and cheap scraggy bits. The Ballymaloe way seems to be convert them to either Shepherds pie or the more popular Moussaka (three recipes)and throw in a veggie one as well, so that everyone looks like they have the same. They seem to have missed my preferred option of casting the flesh into the burning fires of hell for all eternity, though in the Ballymaloe manner it would re-emerge 20 minutes later as a tasty kebab with home made pitta bread, a youghurt and cucumber relish and a tasty tomato and cumin side dish. Damn it even my cynicism is being subverted by food!!

Finally Rory turned his attention to the main event the Pawnographic Display. A short burst of information on the differences between shrimp and prawns was followed by actual preparation of dishes. First the succulent crustaceans were cast still wriggling into hot, very salty water to cook to perfection. This produced questions as to why crabs were gently heated and lulled into the big sleep whilst prawn and shrimp were boiled alive. The answer seemed to be that crabs took longer to cook. The follow up from another student "How do we know when they are dead?" produced the stunningly simple answer that "As they have been immersed in boiling water, we can be pretty sure that they are."

Accompaniments such as garlic butter or mayonnaise followed and demonstrations of plating which will influence my own offering of Ballycotton Shrimp with Mayonnaise and Brown Bread tomorrow. However, if you have made it this far it will probably be because you want to see some prawnographic images, so here they are

Tomorrow I shall probably report on every garlic butter infused second of their consumption and look ahead to Mexican cookery on Thursday, after all Thomasina Miers came to Ballymaloe and then went on to build her own Aztec Empire of restaurants.

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Domesticity appears to be on the menu

Whilst Wales suffered from an overdose of our national natural resource ( for the uninitiated that's rain) and the Ryder cup was destined to an extra day, East Cork dawned bright. A deep dew covered the meadow with a light ground mist forming as the early morning sun gently heated it. The apples still on the trees glistened with a covering of tiny water droplets seen usually only in beer commercials.

Eggs melded with cream, butter and pepper before being slid on to toast as an unctuous scramble and the early morning coffee tasted rich and strong, the aroma scenting the air and counterpointing the remaining woodsmoke of last night's open fire.

But enough of this travel supplement writing.

Breakfast over, it was the day of rest. That meant tackling the rest of the filing. Ironing and tidying the cottage.

The filing was straightforward and was soon tucked securely in plastic pockets, categorised and bound into ring binders.

The ironing proved less of a challenge than last week, or perhaps I settled for a lower standard ( better not get too good or the negotiated settlement I have at home - I receive ironing in return for edible hot food - will crumble) but whatever, it doesn't look as though I have actually slept in it, and an apron covers a multitude of sins (or creases as I believe them to be called).

Hanging from the wardrobe door the uniform looked as though it would pass scrutiny at school.

That left only the cleaning of the lounge and the laying of the fire. Within minutes the hoover had removed detritus from the cheap contract carpet and a large pile of paper twigs and logs gave the semblance of a potential fire. A cup of coffee and a comfortable armchair proved too much and the afternoon passed by without my noticing. Oh well, tomorrow it is back to the grindstone and tales of culinary adventure not just the kind of domestic ramblings that would have made 19th century chick-lit had Jane Austen had a camera with which to record daily life amongst the aspiring classes.