Last week I had a really good time in the kitchen with lots of ideas for my final three-course exam meal. We have to have the menu and a detailed list of ingredients in for Wednesday, alongside the occasion for the meal, the reason for the choice of menu and accompanying wines. I’ve been toying with cooking Shanagary Chicken Casserole but, the closer I get to the deadline, the more I’m veering towards a duck dish, maybe the Pan-Grilled Duck Breast with Spiced Lentils and Caramelised Apples that I made on Friday or the Duck Legs with Onions that we also cooked that morning. We have three courses, along with a bread – allocated by lottery – to be prepared in three hours and we’re penalised if we go over time. Conversations revolve around the pros and cons of different dishes, my head is full of menu permutations and I’m also working on the latest collection of short First Course pieces for Intermezzo magazine. Is it any wonder that I dream of cooking food every night?!
Some days, after the morning’s cooking, you feel on top of the world; others leave you feeling like you never want to set foot in a kitchen again! Thursday was one of those days. I had a simple enough list of things to cook – Pan-grilled Steak with Béarnaise Sauce, Cauliflower Cheese and Pommes Allumettes (matchstick-thin chipped potatoes). I was also on lemonade duty (which reminds me: did that jug of lemonade ever make it to the dining room? I got out of the kitchen so late that I completely forgot about it!) and decided to get another bread ticked off my technique list so made a Stripy Cat, a soda bread flecked with chocolate and, because I love that combination, orange rind.
After a scattered start – I forgot to check this week’s duties and I was actually on early salad prep – Monday was a day spent sitting in demo for the home butchery part of the course. We started easy, jointing a chicken and duck, gradually working our way thorough half carcasses of lamb, pig and a large chunk of a dead bullock. It was not the day to have a hangover as German master butcher Philip cut and sawed his way through a small mountain of flesh and bone. As a child I loved being sent to the local butcher, especially if there was a long queue as it gave me an opportunity to gaze, fascinated, at the butcher as he went about his business, reducing large hunks of meat into family-sized portions. Today we watched as chickens were spatchcocked, legs of lamb filleted, pork brined and sausages made. I’m not sure when I’ll next be landed with a lamb carcass to cut up but at least I’ll have the notes at the ready.
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?
Up at the crack of dawn on Saturday – well, at 6am it’s still pretty dark this time of year – to work on the Ballymaloe stall at the Midleton Farmers’ Market. As well as the compulsory practicals and demos at the Cookery School, we can also volunteer for other experiences. Last Tuesday evening I was working and observing in the kitchens of Ballymaloe House, in a few weeks I’ll spend Friday night baking at Declan Ryan’s Arbutus Bakery – I’m looking forward to the breadmaking, not so much to the 12pm to 7am shift. I’ve also signed up for a Saturday at the Crawford Gallery Café in Cork city, run by Darina’s son, Isaac Allen, and each Wednesday we have a voluntary organic gardening class at 8am. The only thing I’ve not volunteered for – so far – is the cow-milking!
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!