Phew! First exams over. This afternoon we had a comprehensive herb and salad leaf recognition test, followed by a technique exam. Eleven herbs, five salad leaves and four techniques. Last night was spent at the kitchen table, leaves from the greenhouse in front of us as we tried to memorise their different names, appearances and uses, while the Husband ate omelettes, prepared the Ballymaloe way, and the compost bin filled up with orange skins as we segmented enough fruit to keep the house topped up on vitamin C for the next fortnight. Now I’m finished – I was part of the first group – it’s time for postmortems, and a long, well-deserved bank holiday weekend!
Last Wednesday was school tour day. Instead of spending the day sitting through two demonstrations, we got on the road at 7.30am. Our first stop, on a fresh and sunny morning, was at Baylough Cheese, just outside Clogheen, near to my favourite Old Convent Gourmet Hideaway. When we arrived – I got a lift from the Ranelagh Housemate, thereby missing out on a bus trip with 50+ others! – Darina had already unpacked a morning tea of student-made muffins and banana breads as Dick and Anne Keating showed the class how their unpasteurised cows milk cheese is made by hand. The couple are a well-tuned double act; we were entertained as well as educated as they explained how to make cheese and how this particular venture – now on the go for over 20 years – brought them out of the red at a time when there weren’t a huge amount of farmhouse cheeses in Ireland.
I’ve just got the first three weeks-worth of notes filed and already the first folder is bulging. That’s not too much of a problem – the stationary list we were sent before the start of the course specified four lever-arch files – much more of an issue is the actual filing system. In our house, now comprising of three students plus one Husband, there have been several debates over the best way of doing it. Does Tapenade fit under starters or dressings? Or, as I was asked when I called round to our three student neighbours, should Poppadums be put with their appropriate dish in the Main section or be filed under Bread?
Week three – a new partner and, this time round, a new kitchen. I’m cooking in the demo area this week. Lots of space and, with only eight people working there, a calmer atmosphere. Apart from when I discover, at the last minute on Monday, that I’m on cheeseboard duty and have to throw a batch of Cheese Biscuits together at the last minute!
Back in the cottage and briefly online this evening. The Husband and I moved into a house in Ballycotton last night with one of the other students, who had also been commuting from North Cork. After the beds had been made, the fridge stocked and the supper eaten – I used up a large bunch of carrots from last Thursday week’s market in Mitchelstown to make one of Darina’s Carrot Soups at the weekend – we had time for a long walk down through the town, followed by the best night’s sleep I’ve had since I started the course. No worries about waking an hour early to put on the immersion or getting up at 6am to get into Ballymaloe on time. I’ve never been so thankful for an electric shower and physical proximity to the location where I’ll spend my day! In Ballycotton we are also much closer to the Husband’s work place so it’s a winner all round.
Phew! The first week of the twelve-week course – and, according to everyone who works at the Ballymaloe Cookery School, the longest one – is over. It’s been five days of early mornings and late evenings, our heads a-swim with new techniques, terms and ideas as we try to concentrate on Darina’s afternoon demos, knowing that we will have to cook the dishes ourselves the following morning. After the initial few full-on days, it’s easier to see the course structure: we cook four mornings a week from 8.45/9am to 12pm, lunch on the food that we’ve prepared – normally a three-course meal – start afternoon demonstration at 1.45pm and go straight through until around 5pm-ish. Wednesdays are theory days. For cooking, we are divided into pairs, a teacher to every six students, working in four different kitchens. We cook at least two dishes each and then, at the end of the class, present a taster plate to our teacher for assessment.
A day that starts at 6.30am (with a wake-up at 5.30am to switch on the immersion as its timer has refused to co-operate with its owners) and continues until I step out of the car at the cottage after 7pm is, naturally enough, very tiring. When it’s the first day of the 12-week course at Ballymaloe, it is also incredibly exhilarating. Today was a whistle-stop tour of the large gardens and greenhouses at the cookery school, grabbing an Asian pear and a couple of sun-warmed dusky cherry tomatoes to eat en route, a fabulous lunch of products from local artisans and garden produce and an afternoon crammed full of demonstrations, all helmed by the ever-energetic Darina Allen. There are 58 other students from seven different countries in the class, ranging from gap year students to people looking for a career change but, no matter what you’re there for, there’s one thing certain: days are going to be long. We start at 8.45am, will take turns at collecting the fruit and vegetables needed for the day’s cooking from 8am, can volunteer to milk cows at 7.30am – and that’s before we do any cooking. Tomorrow starts with kitchen tours and, with us cooking in pairs, making our own lunch. Now, it’s time for hot chocolate and bed.
Transition from a full-time journalist’s job in Dublin to country-based student life is more than just packing a car, cleaning out the old flat and shifting down to the cottage. Mindless routines – the 45-minute stroll to work, a computer-based eight-hour stint, walking home mentally preparing supper, deciding whether to call into one of my favourite shops on the way (Mortons, Donnybrook Fair, Taste of Italy, Al-Khyrat) – suddenly become more precious as the days speed towards leaving the city. Only one thing to do: sidestep the whole situation by flying off to Girona in Spain the day after the move!