Christmas is coming/The goose is getting fat… and it’s more than time to have your Christmas lists made and almost completed. This year, between living out of the city and being completely immersed in the Ballymaloe Cookery Course, it’s almost crept up on me – and I know that I’m not the only one! Here are a few present ideas for your similarly-food orientated friends.
Yesterday we had our last day of cooking in Kitchen Three. It’s hard to believe that we’re into the final few days of the course already. At least I got to murder my first lobster before we finished up, for yesterday’s Lobster with Cream and Fresh Herb lunch. The other dish I made was a Walnut and Armagnac tart with a really short, biscuity pastry and – of course – another pair of sourdough loaves. Had a bit of a disaster with the bread on Friday, however, as I forgot to put in the salt so it misbehaved and didn’t turn out very well. At least the loaves yesterday were much better, which is a relief as I’m hoping to use the bread toasted under the cheese in my exam starter – A Warm Salad of Ardsallagh Goat’s Cheese with Walnut Oil Dressing. After morning demo today, many of us have Cook Ahead time – my Yoghurt and Cardamom Cream needs to set overnight and at least that will be one less thing to worry about tomorrow although the time will be taken off. It’s nice to think that I might get the whole dinner and bread cooked in three hours but, at this stage, I’m not so pushed about that. I just want to get finished!
Today everything clicked into place, despite last night being a late one with the Sister at a musical evening in Ballymaloe House and lots of red wine! I was in at 8am on gardening duty with the ever-perky red-socked gardener. The two of us whizzed around the greenhouse or, rather, she whizzed – I plodded along behind at half speed – gathering quantities of parsley, chervil, coriander, kale and Swiss chard, which we then sorted, washed and labelled back at school.
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!