Friday, 7 August 2009

Vive España - vivo en españa

There are times that I feel this blog should come with a bit of a health warning. In fact there are people recently who mentioned that I should come with a health warning. My love for cakes and posting recipes here aside, my last 4 months have not been what most intelligent adults would recommend during the current times of economic crisis.

Now as I sit having a beer outside after 11 at night in sweltering 33 degree heat I feel even more that I should put a bit of a warning out there. If your sole aim in life is being sucesful in your chosen career then you should stop reading now and not even consider giving up your job for 3 months of cookery school followed by some time learning Spanish in Granada and more time eating around Spain.

I feel its only fair to announce that it will be a while before these posts are at all sensible again. Im enjoying the heat, wine and food far too much. I will be back with photos sometime soon.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Ballymaloe 12 week cookery course review

I decided that I would love to do this cookery course years ago, but one day last September after visiting a friend in hospital at lunchtime and coming back to a job which I wasnt enjoying I booked the course and put down the deposit. The only person I asked for advice on whether I was being crazy was a friend of mine who thought, he told me afterwards, that I wanted to do a week long course and not potentially give up my job to move to Cork full time for 3 months.

When I started telling people there was this constant echo in response - "your job, that well paid job, are you crazy?". There were very few people who straight up said to me that they were envious, or wished me well or even said that I should do what I want to do when I have the chance to.

Not far off one year later and I am so glad I took the plunge and asked for that sabbatical and then handed in my notice when a sabbatical wasnt possible. Im glad I did something I have wanted to do for years and years, something that was ultimately just for me and threw caution to the wind in these crazy recessionary times (one good thing about Ballymaloe is that the "r" word is never mentioned!).

So what did I get from my 3 months in Ballymaloe?

  • Lots of visitors - even those who thought I was crazy in my cookery quest came to visit

  • A love of meat again - fillet steak is my friend
  • A trip mackerel fishing where I scored on two counts - didnt vomit and actually caught some fish (not that I could gut or eat them due to seasickness)!
  • Lessons on how to cook lobsters - yum if not entirely scary

  • A weeks work experience in Ballymaloe House and Cafe - where I cooked for a Michelin starred chef and made more cheese biscuits than will be needed for the coming 3 months

  • Lessons on how to skim a stone - failed this one miserably

  • A jump from the cliffs into the sea and many beach swims, with jellyfish - I am your hero

  • Many, many cuts and burns on my hands. When I am 90 I will point at some of these scars and have some bloody fantastic tales to tell though

  • At least 7 pounds of lard deposited on my body - not bad given that we are meant to consume a pound of butter a week

  • A schedule of a good 5 weeks workouts to shift said weight from my body before I next see a beach

  • A love for butter, softly whipped cream and herb garnishes and an understanding that it will be difficult to survive in a city without those herb garnishes at hand at all times.

  • A desire to never eat sliced pan again - it will be homemade bread all the way

  • Chats with the empire building Darina Allen and her husband Tim who are truly inspiring

  • One on one bread making classes with the fabulous Tim

  • A sourdough starter called Peggy which will no doubt last a lifetime making amazing breads (of whose offspring I am currently eating while typing)

  • A new collection of jams, candied peel, stock and kitchen bits and pieces to bring home with me along with 4 over flowing folders of recipes

  • The promise of 2 hens to arrive in September for daily fresh eggs

  • To insult a famous chef and then eat in his fantastic restaurant and have him apologise however quietly

  • A visit to an amazing cheesemaker who makes the cheese that has given me at least one of these pounds on my hips.

  • Demonstrations and talks from some very inspiring food producers
  • My first A in an exam in years - 89% in my wine exam (which I wasnt planning on taking at all as was feeling like I knew nothing)
  • Fear in most of my friends about choice of restaurant and wine!
  • To meet and befriend such a varied group of people including a 3 time World Champion and Olympic rower (and yes I got to touch thse medal and god knows youd need to have some neck to be able to carry it), a surfer who surfed for Tahiti, a possible squillionaire eating his way around the world and some very cool wasters like myself.
I dont regret my decision for one second despite the slight insanity it has caused in the household. I am now given to things like waking up in the middle of the night and making bread rather than toss and turn myself back to sleep and have planted enough pots of herb garnish for my neighbours to think it may be a new business idea. It was all worth every pound and every penny.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

How not to go about cooking lobsters

Lobster are apparently about €3 cheaper per pound at the moment due to this crazy warm summer that we have had so far according to local Ballycotton fishermen (or according to the Irish times it has something to do with the downturn in the restaurant trade). Lobster also happened to be one of the things I was most excited about cooking at the school.

Little did I know when these lovely fellas caught my eye how much trouble they were going to make or how they would leave me cowering behind my shield of saucepan lid screaming like a little girl (along with half the rest of the kitchen lobster novices). If you havent cooked lobster before you could no doubt learn a lot from my mistakes!

Firstly when putting them into your saucepan they might pretend to be dead or asleep but dont believe them. Keep your fingers well away from their claws - grab them down their back.

Next fill up the saucepan with cold water and for every 4 pints you use throw in 6oz of salt. This is definitely a time to keep an eye on them as the big fella in the picture below climbed out and into the sink at exactly this point. Lobsters are loud when they climb into sinks, loud and scary.
The loudness gives you no indication of how fantastic tasting they will be once they are cooked, but theres still some fighting to do before they get to that point. When you have the water and salt in the pot make sure you cover it with a tight fitting lid. Then stick the pot on the heat, a low heat so that the water slowly warms up. According to the RSPCA this is the most humane way of cooking lobsters because they chill out as the water warms and then die in their sleep. The teachers in Ballymaloe also claim that they are at their most tender when cooked this way.

My lobsters had a bit of a party as they fell asleep though, a bit of a loud thumping party where one of them tried to escape the pot despite the water not even being at the lukewarm stage yet. This is when I started shrieking like a girl and cowering behind the saucepan lid that had been pushed to the floor. Then when the lobster had been returned to the pot and the lid removed from my very firm grip I spent the remaining ten minutes holding the lid on the pot (you could also use a really heavy weight - like a 50kg barbell if you had one).

Once they have stopped kicking and you have had a peek to see that they are turning pink then you can remove them and put them into a pot of boiling court bouillon until they are a really lovely pink colour like above. There isnt any great way of checking that they are cooked other than the pinkness all the way along their tail. Dont worry too much though because you can always take out the flesh and cook it a bit more in some butter (lots of butter if you want to be true to Ballymaloe of course).

To get that meat out (something that does look like it could be a lot of hassle) you should stick your knife in right at the cross in the middle of his head and cut down towards the front of the head. Then turn the lobster around on the chopping board and chop down in the opposite direction towards the tail. It should look something like the above but dont worry if it looks really green, that just means its not fully cooked - fry it up in a some butter until all the green turns pink. There is quite a bit of meat in the big claws too (dont worry too much about those small ones.

You could also put this into a nice creamy winey mushroom sauce and return to the shells as we did or just eat it from the pot dipping it into melted butter as you go.

For a bloody scary looking (and sounding) creature these were fantastic, well worth a try.

Friday, 10 July 2009

Last day of cookery school

Ive been planning so many updates, really I have. I just havent had time to write them. Today is the last day at Ballymaloe Cookery School for me and while half of me is completely heartbroken to be leaving this beautiful part of the world and all the lovely people I have met here, the other part is dying to be finished with these exams - 3 written ones today!

the matriarchs of irish food and me

I promise to update next week when I will be hanging around the area with far less homework to do (but some work to do all the same - more on that later). For now I hope you can keep yourself amused with some of the pictures I have taken over these past amazing 12 weeks.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

The Cliff House Hotel

If you want a quiet dinner at the Cliff House Hotel just make sure you dont go posting a photo or blog entry using the words "molecular gastronomy" anywhere near Martijn Kajuiter's name beforehand. The Irish Times got away with it but I certainly didnt. This telling off didnt affect my meal too much and I would definitely without any hesitation say that this is the best meal I have ever eaten, of course eating in the company of 18 confirmed foodies is also a big bonus!

Rather than call him anything with the words molecular in it I will refer to him as a food magician going forwards as given the quality and taste of his food creations the word chef just seems far too plain of a word for him. He did say that I am allowed say that he smoked a lot in his youth which may partly have influenced his fantastic food creations and pointed out that he was right to defend his honour as "only the paranoid survive".

Our night for dinner last week happened to coincide with fabulous weather and Martijns birthday. The Cliff House Hotel in Ardmore sits on a stunning part of the coastline which on that evening felt very like the Mediterranean and I would imagine even when the weather is awful is still a very fabulous place to spend a few days.

After a glass or two of prosecco on the terrace we went in for the full 8 course tasting menu which my words are far too inadequate to describe so hopefully the photos and some descriptions will give you an idea.

First off the following three dishes were brought as an Amuse Bouche:

This was a test tube of apple and tarragon gazpacho and a celeriac icecream with ham crumbs and coriander blossom. The bread it was served in wasnt for eating (although we did try).

Next a semi-dried cherry tomato with a pipette of tomato juice, gin and celery salt along with a crostini with broccoli puree and a black olive. Some amusement was to be had as to how exactly we were to ingest the pipette.

Then onto a Helvic Oyster and Guinness - an oyster meringue with gooseberry and hazelnut. Are you beginning to see why I call him a food magician yet? We are still only on the Amuse Bouche! This came with a lovely glass of Gruner Veltiner.

Next we had what was described as West Cork Scallops with Green Asparagus Textures and Mizuna. There were at least 4 textures of asparagus here between the deep fried with a scallop roe popcorn, jelly cubes, powder and raw shavings along with the most perfectly cooked scallops to have ever crossed my lips.

Then we had some "Local Suffolk Lamb with Apple Mint, Broad beans and Verjus 8 Brix". Fresh new peas and broad beans have been my absolute favourite veg over the last few months on an organic farm so this course had me beaming and wondering was everyone else drunk enough yet for me to be allowed lick the plate (the answer was no). From this stage on my photos get a bit blurrier due to it getting a bit darker outside and my hands getting a bit shakier.

The next course arrived like this to a very much stunned hush despite the fact that we had all seen the word smoke on the description in the menu (Organic Clare Island Salmon, Carrot, Marsh Samphire and Smoke)

Once the domes were removed there was a rush of smoke (unphotographable at this stage of the night) followed be a view of salmon presented in a number of different ways from a lollipop to an iced mouse and the most perfect eggs which werent eggs at all but salmon juice magically conjured into eggs using a calcium chloride bath. These little eggs had the whole table purring with delight.

As our final savoury course we had "Skeaghanore Duck with Beetroot, Sweet Potato and Amaranth Spinach". The meat once again was perfect along with the few different types of beetroot -gel, chip and boiled (and how lovely it is to see beetroot on menus when its in season). Surprisingly it was still too early in the night for me to be licking my plate despite the fact that at this stage we were onto Wine number 4 if not further along.

Next onto the Pre Dessert of a Lemon Verbena tea sorbet and a lovely white chocolate with lemon peel and pop rock which was so fantastic that there wasnt one left on the table by the time my camera was at the ready.

Should I ever get to chose a last meal then I will have at least a pre-dessert and 2 desserts to follow so these few remaining courses were very much my cup of tea. This "Strawberry Collection 2009" comprised of a sorbet, a strawberry dipped in caramel, a coulis, powder, a consomme infused with elderflower, an infusion with verjus and a honey custard made of soya milk (not pictured). To say that Martijn got every possible last bit out of the strawberries is a massive understatement.

Finally then we had what was described as "Dark Chocolate 70%, Coffee Ice, Olive Oil and Sea Salt" which comprised of a mousse in a chocolate curl, some white coffee ice cream, a white chocolate parfait with a popping mini malteaser and some olive oil dehydrated with tapioca flour.

The quality of the local produce (some even sourced from the hotel gardens) and the work that goes into putting this food together is well worth every penny you pay for this menu, even if the service, atmosphere and view were not all as impeccable as they are. Despite the fact that Martijn wont be giving me a job any time soon for my misuse of a certain term I really enjoyed my meal and am looking forward to his forthcoming book and hopefully another trip to visit!

PS. Thanks to the lovely Charlotte J who was wise enough to bring a pen and write down some of the descriptions of the foods!

Monday, 8 June 2009

Week 8 - the meat thing

Hello, so its been a while and I cant quite believe its week 8 already. To be honest I dont even know where my time goes these days. I had all these amazing intentions of coming to Cork and reading a book a week and visiting my cousin and friends in Cork and my weeks seem to fly by without so much as an update.

Week 6 I have an excuse for as we had two exams which was quite daunting (especially to those of us who havent done an exam in almost ten years). The first was a technique exam where at random we were given 4 techniques from a list of 25 to complete within 20 minutes. The second was a herb and salad recognition exam. For about ten whole minutes I qualified as the queen of herbs and salads but am pretty sure they have all but disappeared from my head now.

So now to sit down with my glass of red wine and fabulous smoked mackerel (Im a cookery student after all and need to make that palate of mine a bit more adventurous) to tell you how things have been going.

Up until now Ive pretty much been talking about all the positive side so let me tell you about what I find a little harder as it struck me earlier today when cooking. Until coming to this course I had almost completely avoided red meat where possible mainly due to a dislike for the taste but also a certain level of squeamishness (not that Id admit that to anyone on the course but there is something that turns my stomach of cutting into bloody meat that looked like the inside of my finger when I chopped it in week 3). I made a bargain with myself that if I was going to shell out €10k that I was going to try everything so I have eaten things I normally would completely turn my nose up at including sweetbreads, oxtail, kidneys, livers and an awful smelling mexican herb thats meant to stop you farting (Epazote).

I had expected these foods to have a bit more of an impact on my body, given that my body is not used to digesting red meat but so far its been fairly ok. This may have something to do with the quality of meats and how they have been cooked by my fabulous co-students. Indeed, Ive been quite surprised as previously when trying beef and lamb Ive ended up feeling fairly awful. I had also expected that my body might completely collapse under the weight of such a heavily buttered variety of foods but so far all is going well and while I cant advocate this diet to everyone (especially anyone with cholesterol problems) I certainly am not putting on the pounds that I had anticipated before doing the course.

Im enjoying the hours in the kitchen every morning a lot more than the demonstrations in the afternoon and have noticed a steady increase in the number and complexity of dishes that we are cooking (todays lime souffle was tasty but not worth the time spent building it or all the dishes that needed to be washed afterwards). The wine tasting is good although I almost feel at times that my palate is becoming less sophisticated as one day I can taste the chocolate, blackcurrant and smoked tractor tyre in the wine and the next it just tastes like alcoholic ribena.

Possibly the most fun day so far was our school tour of which I will post more later in the week. Now I have to get back to my wine and mackerel

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Week 5 - Day in the life of a Ballymaloe 12 week cookery course student

When I talk to my friends the first question most of them have is what I do all day long, I doubt from my words its all that easy to get a picture of how the days fly by here so heres an account of my day yesterday in photos.

Days in Ballymaloe are fairly long. I'm normally up at around 6 to get out for a run and then back at 7 to shower, grab breakfast and head off to school. I have never been able to go without breakfast, even if its only a coffee and banana while I cram for the day ahead.

Over the past week I have been feeding my sourdough starter and on Wednesday night I finally got to start and knead the bread so my most exciting bit of yesterday was seeing my risen dough when I got up. Sourdough takes a long time to make but is completely magical when you see your dough rise without the use of anything other than the natural yeast you have harnessed from your kitchen (and yep I laughed when this was said to me initially too)

The weather has been completely unpredictable for the last few weeks but most mornings I have walked to school which is such a massive change from sitting for half an hour on the M50 that I cant even complain too much when I get caught in a shower. Theres me in the mirror outside the farm between my house and the school

4 mornings a week we are in the kitchens cooking the food that was demonstrated to us the afternoon before. Most people make it in for around 8:30 when we start weighing ingredients for that mornings cooking. The students are divided out between 4 different kitchens and we move stations, sometimes kitchen and change cooking partner every week. There is one teacher to every six of us in the kitchen who keeps an eye on how we are getting on and marks us at the end of the morning.

Being in the kitchen is definitely my favourite bit of the course, that and trying to recreate the masterpieces demonstrated the afternoon before. However the kitchen can be completely chaotic at times between the arguments over ovens (and lack thereof) and the panic some people get into when they are having problems with whatever they are making. Typically between each team of 2 we make a starter, main, side vegetable dish and dessert. There is also a long list of techniques we have to master which we try to squeeze in aswell when we have time - techniques inlcude a list of 8 or so breads, filleting flat and round fish, knife skills and making cottage cheese, caramel, pastries, meringues among others.

Yesterday I made caramel eclairs, a provencale bean stew and filleted a flat fish. We present the foods to the teachers at 11:30 with the goal of then sitting down to eat by 12. Mostly we are doing well if we are eating by 12:30

The teachers taste and mark (out of 6) everything we make before it goes out for lunch. For the first few weeks I assumed this was part of an ongoing assesment but apparently its only in case you suffer from not being able to remember one thing in an exam situation. Typically between the kitchen we will have made a few different starters, mains and desserts so that everyone has a good choice of dishes. That said, most people here eat everything or are trying to eat everything while here. We have a few coeliacs although I know one of them at least has given up on making coeliac bread despite the fact that she cant eat yeast bread.

Almost every day all students have a duty to do either before, during or at the end of the day. These could be anything from sweeping the floor in the kitchen after cooking, serving desserts for the day and laying tables to feeding the hens. Yesterday I was on dessert duty so had to make sure everyone got an eclair or two including all the guests that come in for lunch.

Depending on how the mornings cooking went we have a nice leisurely lunch or barely get to sit down before going in to watch the demonstration for the afternoon at 2. Every day we have either Darina Allen, Rory O'Connel or Rachel Allen demonstrate the foods we will be cooking the following day. All 64 of us sit in rows watching the everything going on through a massive mirror above the workstation and tvs showing the centre of the counter top.

The demonstration is normally finished by 5 (depending on whether the subject of the benefits of free range organic chickens comes up) and we get to taste the foods to get some idea what our food is meant to taste like the following day. By this time the lists of what each team is cooking the following day is normally up so we divide out the dishes with our cooking partners for the following morning. Thats me in the pink crocs in the front row (theres a first for everything)

Yesterday afternoon my sourdough bread also had its final rise so I stuck it in for baking while we had a wine tasting of Spanish wines. Normally we have wine lectures and tasting as part of our one theory day a week but for some reason this week we had our tasting after class. Wine tasting would definitely be in my top favourite parts of the course if it wasnt for the thoughts of an exam on wine looming in a few weeks time. Unless this exam asks only one question (whether I like a certain wine or not) I suspect I may be screwed.

My sourdough loaves came out beautifully, who would have thought that the above loaves are made only of flour, salt and water?

Then off on my way home through the gardens for a bit of baking in preparation for my weekend and to do my homework.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Week 4 - Cake, cake, more cake - when will it ever end

Cake, pudding, desserts. I would like you to take a few seconds out of your day to consider the torture that Im undergoing here in Ballymaloe at the moment.

For your viewing horror, here are some cakes:

Winter Pudding

Fruit Tart

Lemon Pudding (pure torture)

Chocolate and Roast Hazelnut Tart

Sponge without butter - the horrors

Ballymaloe Chocolate cake

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Week 3 - Hurty finger and a trip to a real kitchen

Week 3 was marked by my constant lying about my hurty finger because not being able to wash your knives without a trip to the local doctor is a bit of an embarrassing excuse week 3 of a cookery course. Its only the odd person who reads this, my hero who brought me in a very girly fainting state to the local clinic and my friends who stayed back to wash the rest of the dishes that know that I didnt get bitten by a shark, have my finger bitten off by a overzealous male model boyfriend or suffer a knitting accident.
Week 3 was also the week I got to go visit Ballymaloe house kitchens (queue more lying about finger), where my cooking partner had to wash all the dishes and where I spent quite some time bashing prawn brains before boiling them, forcing them through a sieve and serving them as lunch.
As my typing index finger is still a bit off, I will leave you with a few pictures of food cooked by real chefy people. No pictures of the shy chefs as they wanted me to contact their agents first off.

Duck Liver Pate with Walnut and Raisin toast (not in picture as I ate it)

Roast Ballycotton Turbot with Watercress, Redcurrant and Shallot butter

Hot buttered Castletownbere Oysters on Toast

Pan-fried Ballycotton John Dory with Scallops and Garden Asparagus (Did I mention that Im never coming home again?)

Caramel Ice cream, served with caramel from the Ballymaloe Dessert Trolley

PS - I didnt cook in Ballymaloe house - just sat around, watched, poked at things and took photos

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

Random ballymaloe learnings this far - week 2

Two weeks in and my head is almost bursting with knowledge, most of which can probably not be posted on the internets for fear of copyright so Ill give you some of the very odd bits I have scribbled down for your foodie amusement
  • Rosemary will only thrive in a house where the woman wears the pants

  • That white bit of the rhubarb that you always cut off is meant to be the sweetest

  • Some of the foreign people on our course think that cats are milked in Ireland

  • Keep an eye on your oven or people will change the temperature and stick something else in

  • You can make a wish on new potatoes

  • Darina gets her nails done for the Late Late show

  • Rhubarb leaves are poisonous to us but not to hens

  • Alcohol levels in wine are rising which is apparently a factor of global warming!

  • If you are sick 20 minutes within eating something its an allergy rather than food poisoning

  • Them knives there they are sharp, do not be thinking about anything other than the knives when washing them or you will end up with stitches

  • The whey from making parmesan cheese is fed to the pigs who produce parma ham

  • Fat in meat holds the toxins - a good enough reason to not eat fat or non organic meats

  • Turmeric is an antiseptic

  • The smaller the potato chips the hotter your oil should be

  • The cross in soda bread is to let out the fairies

Tomorrow Im working for the night (as much as one can with only 9 functioning fingers) in Ballymaloe House. Some day soon I will be putting in a night in Arbutus. At the weekend I will be drinking a lot of wine at a wine tasting workshop and walking the beaches and cliffs. It feels like years, not weeks ago that I was sitting in an office!

The photos are adding up here if you want more of an idea what my day looks like.