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.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Monday I've got Friday on my mind

So here we are, the last week and this morning the last cooking session until the exam.

It was still fairly frosty as I walked over and the school was not a lot warmer. Still, it was beautifully clear and the coast was easily visible across the farm.
The kitchen stood empty, unusual at 8am because the super keen are in making 150 extra breads, dicing Rhino down to 1mm cubes, treading their home made wine or recreating the Taj Mahal in meringue. Not so today, the only sign of life was my folder and knives on my workstation.

So a coffee before I started and then down to it. My altruistic side came to the fore as I decided that I would cook the main course Lamb Tagine which my graduating partner would have tackled if present. Lamb is always a challenge as I cannot taste the dish in the making. However a challenge is always welcome so here goes.

3lbs of Lamb were diced and spiced, onions and garlic chopped, tomatoes juiced ( well packet opened) and we were in business.

First 45 minutes gentle simmer then the seasoning checked. Thanks to willing or press ganged colleagues (blackmail is such an ugly word) I had a hint of the possibilities. The Dates and Coriander added and 25 minutes or so with the lid off.

As you can see the mix reduces and thickens whilst heading towards unctuousness- or so I am told. Anyhow some more tasting crash testers and minor adjustments and I thought it ready. But, let's keep it just bubbling and that rich sauce thickening and improving.

The accompaniment was Cous Cous, fortunately given some degree of flavour by Apricots and Pistachios, Olive Oil, Salt and Pepper and toasted Almonds - I salted mine for a little extra kick. Cous Cous is alright but I would far rather have been cooking the Romanesco which a colleague had on the agenda, if for no other reason  - it is beautiful.

But I was stuck with Cous Cous and all I could do was try to maximise the taste of a dish based on wheat. Not only that but Cous Cous does not take much culinary expertise. Pot Noodles are technically more difficult and ground polystyrene more tasty. And it does not take any time so I had a chance to whack out some Rustic Roast Potatoes.

Then time to plate.Amazingly for a dish that I had not tasted it scored 6. Thanks to my tasting team who should be very proud of their efforts.

Lunch and duties over I headed to the second last Demo. Chicken breasts ruled the day and were presented in different ways and with different accompaniments. Rory was unable to demonstrate extreme sword action so he contented himself with a filleting knife and deboning a chicken before stuffing it back to shape.

And that was the last Monday of the course. Some things happened including a Swiss student making little Christmas loaves, figures of elves, angels etc in honour of St Nicholas day, the last one being Darina. Hopefully they will be cooked tonight and I will take photos tomorrow.

Oh yes, I got 85% in the Wine exam and will have at least one certificate to show for my three months at Ballymaloe.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Today, Not A Lot Happened

So here we are, nearly at the end of the course, only one more cooking day and two Demonstrations to go before we attempt to convince the examiners that we have learned sufficient to warrant a pass or at the very least a certificate of attendance.

In common with most other students my mind was in two places, preparing for the week and thinking about going home. Preparation for the week is clearly the most important but just occasionally you wonder what has changed in the last three months?

But back to today. No more snow overnight but an amazingly deep frost had settled giving the instant impression that it had, indeed, snowed. Still with no ironing to be done I was out of bed, out of the house and examining the landscape in close up.

 Yes, as I thought cold and frosty. Being remarkably devoid of any artistic talent whatever my attempts to photograph Life in the Deep Freeze hardly do justice to the actual effects but, since a picture tells a thousand words, here they are.

By now you will have worked out that the thousand words were mainly "Feck it's cold" repeated like a mantra to achieve self enlightenment or some form of spontaneous combustion.

Coffee and toast rectified the situation once I was back in the house and the reality of the tasks ahead sank in. Though the filing was done, it needed to be indexed and cross referenced, before being inspected as part of the end of course ritual. Now I know a wonderful cross referencer but I could not persuade her to leave the Valleys and pop over to do mine. As a result mine is "Cross Referencer Light" but hopefully adequate.

Tomorrow we return to the kitchen we were in on Friday for the last cooking session. On paper my partner and I have 1/2 a recipe for Scallops and Beurre Blanc Sauce, A Tagine of Lamb with Medjool Dates, Cous Cous with Apricots and Pistachio Nuts and a 1/2 recipe of Walnut Tart with Armagnac. But I have a problem, my partner will not be in the kitchen tomorrow having gone to their Graduation Ceremony instead. Though I will not be attempting all four recipes I will need to do sufficient to justify the morning. So grilling Scallops and making Cous Cous, though tempting, would be insufficient and would all take place in the last 30 minutes anyway.

Since I have not made a Beurre Blanc yet I would really like to so I hope to get a compromise agreed. I will do the Lamb - though obviously not taste it - and the Cous Cous accompaniment and will offer to make the Beurre Blanc.

Then it is into Demo for the last afternoon one, only Tuesday morning remaining.

Now at this stage I would like to correct some scurrilous rumours, reputedly with photographic evidence. To aid concentration I often shut my eyes whilst listening to the trickier techniques. This is done in a state of consciousness and any claims otherwise had better be proved or Me Learned Friends will be engaged again.

Well the recipes have been sheathed in plastic - just as well after the Vietnamese Napalm Dipping Sauce incident of Friday - ready for taking in tomorrow, the Order of Work is complete and believe me Patricia Cornwell could not have crafted a finer piece of fiction and the night is drawing in.

Sadly, today not a lot happened though that is slightly more than at my house mate's residence in Cashel as the sign on her wall indicates.