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.