2012 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 8,800 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 15 years to get that many views.

Click here to see the complete report.


Food For Thoughts; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Realize That Life is Delicious.

I’ve been putting off this blog entry for way too long…and it is painfully obvious in my mind why I’ve been procrastinating: it means that my time at Ballymaloe is well and truly over now. I suppose that I am only coming to terms with the fact that I have to close this truly memorable albeit crazily exhausting chapter of my life. Anyway, here is a final play-by-play of what went down in that last week at Ballymaloe Cookery School.

Monday was our last day in the kitchens, and since I had spent about 54 days straight cooking and rotating through all four Ballymaloe kitchens, it was bittersweet. It all came full circle, as I found myself back in Kitchen 1, which was the same kitchen I started in on the first week. My last meal that I cooked was roast pork with crackling, spiced aubergines, and herbed potatoes – comfort food fit for a proverbial last supper. Later that day, Darina gave a presentation and tasting on olive oils and olives. Once again, I was struck by how little I actually knew about a product that I use all the time in cooking. (My favorite of the oils we tasted: Colonna Granverde – an extra virgin olive oil blended with the zest of organic lemons.).  On Tuesday morning, Rory O’Connell gave us our last cooking demonstration of the course, and when he was finished, he received a well-deserved standing ovation from all of the students. I, for one, will certainly miss his personification of food. Until Rory came along, I had never heard of food being described as “good-humored” or “obstreperous,” but I will likely carry on the tradition. After the demonstration, our names were pulled in a lottery for the breads that we would be required to make during our practical exam. I got plaited white yeast bread, and although I had been hoping for something easier and less time-consuming, (i.e. not containing yeast or requiring kneading, proving, and shaping of the dough), I would make the best of it. Since my practical exam was the following day, I tried to relax and do a little bit of studying for the rest of the day. Yet, the prospect of having to cook a three-course meal with a bread (and now knowing that I had to do a plaited white yeast bread) in under three hours beginning at my assigned time of 8:30 in the morning the next day was a little daunting to say the least.

Wednesday came and went in a total blur. My menu for my practical exam was a chilled green pea and mint soup for the starter, a Caribbean monkfish curry with basmati rice and poppadums as the main course, and a fluffy lemon pudding with variegated lemon balm and whipped cream for dessert….plus, the dreaded plaited white yeast bread. I had already anticipated the timing being an issue, even in my detailed order of work, and I was right. Filleting an entire monkfish, waiting for the yeast to activate, proving, kneading, and shaping the dough ate into my overall cooking time, and I went over the time limit. Yet, since I had anticipated it happening anyway, I just kept my head down and carried on. I got a little nervous at the end when I gave the tasting judges my warning that I would soon finish, and they suddenly all appeared and kind of hovered around my station. Once again, the plating of my dishes was not fantastic (my weakness throughout the entire course), but I knew the food would taste good. I had given it my best, and I was satisfied with my output. After it was all finished, I saw Pam, one of the instructors and tasting judges, in the hallway. She told me that her favorite dessert was lemon pudding, and mine was one of the best she’d ever tasted. I was a little stunned to have received such a glowing compliment from her, as she never struck me as the kind of person who would freely give out compliments unless she really meant them. Anyway, it meant a lot to me to hear that, and at least I know that my dessert was good….who knows what they thought of my other dishes though?

Thursday was a free day of study…or rather a purported free day of study. It also happened to be one of the most beautiful and idyllic days down at Ballymaloe since the course began. I was supposed to be worried about Friday’s impending written exam, but the gorgeous weather proved quite distracting. The sun was shining, and temperatures soared well into the high 60s (or around 15-18 degrees Celsius for you metric system kids). It was as if Mother Nature wanted us to see Ballymaloe in all of its verdant glory. I ended up spending a good part of that day strolling around the duck pond, meandering through the herb garden, visiting the baby chicks in the Palais des Poulets, stopping by the dairy to check on my cheese, listening to the cows mooing, and watching birds flitting about the grounds of the school. I was all too well-aware that the probability of me getting to experience this kind of pastoral lifestyle again was quite low and rather unlikely, so I had to take full advantage of taking in those sights and sounds. I did manage to fit in some revision that day, including a relaxing picnic-style study hour in the gardens and a late-night cramming session with the usual suspects in ‘girlworld’ (a.k.a. the infamous name housemate Matthew had dubbed my room in the Coach House).

Then came Friday – written exam day – and it was a beast – a six-hour written exam beast to be exact. Six hours of questions covering a myriad of culinary topics including food poisoning bacteria, menu planning, food hygiene, identification of meat cuts, fish, spices, salad leaves, and herbs, foraging, seasonality, cheese and breadmaking, culinary vocabulary and techniques, food costing, preserving, recipe creation, mother and daughter sauces, and the list goes on. My head was spinning by the end of it, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that the two-day Illinois State Bar Exam that I sat for and passed in 2005 when I became an attorney was easier than this exam. Yes, I realize that I didn’t squander precious study time for the bar exam by attempting to review my notes outdoors in glorious weather on a breathtakingly beautiful organic farm, and yes, I also realize that this fact alone made me better prepared for the bar exam, but no matter – I just really hope that I pass my Ballymaloe written exam.

After a quick disco nap following the exam, I spent the late afternoon with a few other students leisurely watching some of the boys play football (ahem, soccer) in one of the back fields. The competing teams were Dublin versus The Rest of the World, but I don’t think anyone really kept score during that last game. Later on in the evening, Darina, Tim, Rory, Rachel, and all of the instructors at Ballymaloe threw us an amazing farewell feast. The dinner, not surprisingly, was delicious (the evening’s menu: wild garlic soup, ciabatta bread and fancy olive oils, slow-roast shoulder of lamb with salsa verde and aioli, sea kale, rainbow chard, roast potatoes, and a dessert of jasmine tea and lemon parfait with rhubarb and smashed strawberries). Multiple toasts were made, and lifelong friendships were solidified. To my surprise and amazement, I was presented with two bottles of Bollinger champagne and a bottle of very good Cabernet Sauvignon for receiving the highest score on the previous week’s wine exam. After dinner, we all had a final evening of drinks and dancing at The Blackbird Pub, which was followed by a very dare-I-say entertaining after-party, then an unexpected but enjoyable after-after party, and finally a lift back to the cookery school for the very last time in Michael Walsh’s cab in the wee hours of the morning. It was quite a memorable evening indeed, and before we knew it, Saturday morning was upon us. We all awoke (some more hungover than others), said our final goodbyes (some more tearily than others), packed up our belongings (how did we acquire this much stuff over the last 12 weeks?) and hit the road to go back to our respective corners of the world. Tempus fugit, and all that.

So ultimately, what have I gotten out of the course? Well, for starters, I know a hell of a lot more about food than I ever before did. I now actively consider from where food comes and how it is prepared. I look at ingredients and recipes much more carefully and thoughtfully now.  I have been enlightened to the paramount importance of food that is locally sourced, sustainable, and organic. I think about the effort and labor that those involved in the creating and harvesting of food must make in a world that is driven by convenience, mass production, and low cost. As for me, my confidence and abilities in the kitchen have increased at least a bajillion-fold. Despite my original fears that everyone would laugh at me in the kitchen (see my first blog post), I discovered that I could hold my own with the others and make some decent dishes. They might not have looked especially great plating-wise (I’m still working on that), but they always tasted very good (according to my instructors, not just me, I swear). I’ve come a long way, baby, and I’m well-proud of myself.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that there were other benefits of being at ‘gastronomic food camp’ for the last twelve weeks outside of the more obvious culinary aspects of the course (i.e. making and eating a lot of good food and drinking a lot of wine), including but not limited to the following: I learned how to play poker; I learned how to light a fire; I visited parts of Ireland that I had never previously been; I played flippy cup for the second time in my adult life; and I also strangely and unintentionally lost some weight (Darina did tell us that some people would lose weight on the course, but really, who would have thought that eating full-fat everything at culinary school would cause one to drop pounds quicker and easier than an annual gym membership?!). Of course, there were times when I felt like I was on a season of a culinary version of The Real World (“This is the true story…of fifty-eight strangers…picked to live on an organic farm in the remote Irish countryside and cook together every single day…to find out what happens…when people stop being polite…and start getting real. The Real World: Ballymaloe.” Yeah, I would actually watch that show.). Despite the standard ups and downs that we all faced, I met and made some great lifelong friends whom I will miss dearly (you know who you are…).

Looking back, it seems like eons ago that I was an attorney, sitting at my desk in an office building in the financial district of Chicago, eating some shitty Subway sandwich on my lunch break, and thinking longingly about attending the Ballymaloe course. A few months later, I traded it all in for an entirely new lifestyle. My wardrobe of tailored suits was replaced by chef whites; a briefcase was left behind for a set of knives; legal documents were discarded for a stack of recipes; and my hands, which were once typically manicured, now have ragged fingernails that still somehow smell of garlic.  I didn’t chop off any of my fingers as I feared at the beginning of the course, but I do have a scar on my thumb that I hope never fades to remind me of these last twelve weeks. I cannot believe that it is all over. I have experienced so much at Ballymaloe and have been tested in so many ways than I ever could have imagined – physically, mentally, emotionally, etc. It was exhausting and thrilling, and to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, there were some blunders and absurdities that crept in, but I know one thing for certain: my time at Ballymaloe will live vividly in my memory for a long time to come…maybe more so than any other life-shaping event that I will experience.

Now, here I am – done and dusted, finished, thrust out into the world with all this culinary knowledge. So what is next for me? I’m not really sure to be honest. I’m in Dublin at the moment in a sort of existential limbo as I type this. I’m about to move to San Francisco in a couple of weeks. I’d like to do something in wine and/or with wine (besides drinking copious amounts of it, which I will continue to do).  I’m scared. I’m excited…and although reality may bite (literally and figuratively), it is calling, and I better go answer. Thanks for sticking with me and reading about my adventure.

To be continued….

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Ballymaloe Days 51-55 (Week 11) – Penul-tomato

It was penultimate week at Ballymaloe, which meant a few things: (1) only one full week left in the kitchens; (2) exams are imminently approaching; and (3) we will all be leaving this place sooner rather than later. It is so weird at the moment. I don’t know how to feel. On the one hand, I am exhausted both mentally and physically (the bags under my eyes are on par with Billy Joel’s at this stage…no amount of Touche Éclat is going to camouflage these dark circles!), but on the other hand, what am I going to do when I get back into the real world? We’ve all been sheltered in this Ballymaloe bubble, and I’ve gotten used to our little routine of cooking/eating/learning/socializing and repeat. I know that I will likely go through some kind of withdrawal for a while after the course has finished. In fact, it has already been confirmed by a number of Ballymaloe alum that you wallow in melancholy until you finally get consumed again by reality. Oh well – life happens, and I’ll figure it out…

Moving on, here’s one of those bullet point recaps of the week:

  • On Tuesday, I made beef rendang, which is basically a Thai or possibly Indonesian or even Sri Lankan dish of beef that is slow-cooked in a coconut and lemongrass sauce. The beef becomes so meltingly tender with just a subtle hint of coconut and a lot of lovely spices. Wow – a great dish to impress guests, so I’ll be making that recipe again for sure. I also made an apple and sweet geranium vol-au-vent (French word meaning “windblown” to reflect the pastry’s lightness), which is when you take puff pastry and make it into a little case or box by making a lid with the top of the pastry, filling the pastry case up with something amazing, and then replacing the top. Voila! You have yourself a lovely little dessert. You can also make them savory as well, and fill it with lobster á la Crème, beef Bourguignon, etc., etc. Again, your guests will be impressed, and you will surely win friends and influence people (as Darina always points out), so it’s a win-win.
  • On Wednesday, we had our wine exam, which consisted of 100 multiple choice questions about wines, grapes, regions, and fermentation processes. There was even a question on the wine I presented, and it freaked me out to see my name written in the question. (I made sure to double-check my answer – how embarrassing would it be to get my own personal question wrong?) Overall, I think I did pretty well on the exam…I mean, I really hope I did well on it. Afterall, not to toot my own horn (which means I’m about to do just that), I just received my advanced certification in wines from the Wine and Spirits Education Trust a few weeks ago, and that exam included a blind tasting (I passed that part with distinction…go me!) and a very extensive essay/short answer section (which I passed with merit…she shoots, she scores!). Okay, back to modest me.
  • Also, on Wednesday, we had a sushi demonstration and learned about all different kinds of sushi (nigiri sushi, gunkan maki, temaki, scattered sushi, California rolls, and even a sun-dried tomato and mozzarella sushi). The best part of the demonstration was when Japanese student Takashi got up to show us how to properly fan the sushi rice with one of those delicate-looking Japanese fans (you know, the ones that have a geisha’s face adorning both sides). Anyway, Tak was quite knowledgeable about his homeland’s cuisine, and speaking of Tak, I have to give a shout-out to his very creative blog, which you should go and visit by clicking here: The Adventures of Mini Tak.
  • So on Thursday I made a beef consommé. I had a very, very vague notion as to what a consommé was (I always thought it was some kind of savory jelly-type thing), but it turns out to actually be a clear soup made from clarified stock that you simmer for what seems like ages. I put a tiny bit of sherry into mine when it was finished, and I was well-pleased with the result. I also made a hazelnut cake, which is tied with the walnut cake that I made a few weeks back as my favorite cake that I have made on the course. I can now make two cakes successfully. Dreams do come true.
  • Friday came, and I made timbales of smoked salmon with cucumber and fennel and some iced chocolate oranges. Since my brother is a percussionist, I know what the musical version of a timbale is, and I’m assuming the culinary version got its name because of its drum-like shape. The dish came out fine, as it was literally just about following the recipe and putting all of the components together. The creativity was in the plating and presentation part of it, which I am finally getting better at doing (mainly because I watch and take copious drawings of how Rory plates his food during demos). The iced chocolate oranges were a different story altogether. Can I just say that they are a complete pain-in-the-ass to make (scooping out the orange pulp takes forever)…not to mention they are a total throwback to the seventies (my least favorite decade) in terms of what they look like when they are plated? Okay, maybe I’m being too hard on those iced chocolate oranges, but whatever. I can be bitchy about some foods, can’t I?

Well, that’s it for now, kiddos. I need to get studying for my final exams. Besides revising all of my notes over the last twelve weeks and finishing my filing, my plans for the weekend include going to a farewell dinner with Jamie and Co. at The Herring Gull restaurant in Ballycotton on Friday night and attending a bread-making seminar on Saturday morning with Tim Allen. Here’s to a relaxing but productive weekend!

Photos for your viewing pleasure:

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Ballymaloe Days 46-50 (Week 10) – Bruschetta, Burgers, and Lobsters, Oh My!

Week 10 came and went, and my partner this week was Luca. Luca also happens to be my housemate, is from Italy, and is really talented in the kitchen. So I was pretty happy all week, as I learned a lot just by observing him work in the kitchen. Anyway, let’s recount what I made this week, shall we?

On Monday, I was assigned a goats cheese and rocket leaf bruschetta with a tomato and chilli jam, roasted turnips, and a lemon meringue gateau with lemon curd. I actually thought that I was going to have a relatively easy day in the kitchen, but it took me forever to do the lemon meringue gateau. In the end, my meringue discs were a little lopsided, so my dessert looked a bit on the droopy side. It still tasted nice, and to me, that is all that really matters. Unless someone is actually paying money for my food (which nobody is…and I can’t see that being the case in the near future), then I don’t mind if it looks a little “rustic.” Roasted turnips came out fine, but in my opinion, roasted turnips are one of those inconsequential side dishes to which nobody really pays much attention. The bruschetta also came out fine, but I make bruschetta a lot, so no big deal for me really.

Tuesday was a funny day in the kitchen and also one of the longest days yet. The days are usually long to begin with, but I basically went from 8 am until about 9 pm straight, as there was so much going on at the school. It started with the usual morning cooking session, which was basically  “learn how to make a burger” day in the kitchens.  I was assigned a burger called “The Great American Beef Burger.” Being American, the name made me laugh because it was supposed to be an authentic American-style way of preparing a burger, but come on, there is no right way to make a burger. In the States, nobody cares what you put on a burger, as long as it tastes good and you like it (just look at the advertising campaign for Burger King – “your way, right away” or the custom burger menu at In-and-Out). The list of so-called American ingredients in the recipe was a little silly to me, and on top of that, the recipe didn’t even call for a slice of cheese on the burger. Tragic! They did, however, have a bottle of French’s mustard in the kitchen that day, which was kind of funny, since I prefer Maille as my mustard of choice (how un-American of me!). Anyway, the interesting thing that we did with the burgers, however, was to wrap them in caul fat before grilling. Caul fat is a thin membrane that surrounds the stomach of hogs, cows, sheep, and pigs. It actually looks like lace (and is strangely very pretty considering it is just a bunch of stomach fat), but the best part is that it makes your burgers taste AMAZING. It seals in the moisture and gives the burger so much more flavor. It probably isn’t the healthiest way to prepare a burger, but if one is eating a burger in the first place, then I’m guessing one isn’t really thinking healthy food options.

On Tuesday afternoon, I had a bit of a culinary crisis when I went to feed my sourdough starter. As I put in my two ounces of strong white flour and water (a.k.a. “food” for sourdough), the Kilner jar suddenly shattered on the side, and most of my starter oozed out the side. I ran to the shop to get a new jar, but of course, they were out of stock. Luckily, I ran into one of the instructors who lent me a jar that she had, and I was able to salvage my starter. I ended up being all flustered when I went back into the afternoon demo, but then I had to laugh at myself. I mean if a shattered jar is the extent of my problems here, then I think that I have it pretty good at the moment!

On Tuesday evening, I went to a sourdough bread session with Tim before heading to The Grainstore at the Ballymaloe House for a wine tasting with a winemaker named Marinette Garnier from Maison Jaffelin, which is located in the heart of Beaune in the Burgundy region of France. We tried eight different wines from the 2009 vintage that night, and I particularly liked the Puligny-Montrachet and the Pommard. Marinette is all of 25 years old, and I chatted with her for a bit after her presentation. It was interesting to hear what it is like to be a young and female in a very male-dominated industry.

After a very long Tuesday, Wednesday came and went with a demonstration on cheddar cheeses, filo pastry, game-keeping and hunting, and a talk from a few different culinary entrepreneurs, including Simon Stenson from Cherry Blossom Bakery (who, incidentally, made the soda bread for President Obama for St. Patrick’s Day this year) and Cullen Allen from the “Cully and Sully” brand.

Thursday was an interesting day in the kitchens, as I was assigned to cook a lobster. I actually felt a little sad putting on the lid on the pot, so my lobster would “go to sleep.” My instructor Ted (and the most Irish-sounding Scandinavian I have ever met) must have seen me looking forlornly at the pot, as he came over to me and said, “It’s okay, Lisa. It’s just part of the cycle of life.” I suppose his words are true, but I still felt sad nevertheless…kind of like Homer Simpson when he accidentally kills Mr. Pinchy. I guess because I was cooking the lobster, I ended up feeling a strange kinship to the creature…but the little guy did taste delicious in the end!


Thursday was also the day that we had to turn in our menus for the practical part of the exam. After much debating and going back and forth on what to choose, I finally nailed down a three-course menu and paired each course with an appropriate wine. We are also going to be assigned a bread as well, and it remains to be seen whether I will be able to pull it all off on exam day within the three-hour time frame. Fingers crossed!

On Friday, I made a pretty tasty Moghlai lamb korma, some rhubarb and ginger jam, and  a gateau pithivier. I was especially proud of the gateau made with puff pastry because it came out exactly the way it should have, and that almost never happens with me and desserts on this course. So yay, go me.

This weekend is St. Paddy’s weekend and a bank holiday. A bunch of us are heading into Cork City to watch the Ireland/England rugby match at a local pub and then to go see a DJ called Mr. Scruff perform a set at The Pavilion. It is kind of a traditional and nontraditional way to celebrate Paddy’s Day, and I’m also hoping to fit in some rest and relaxation on the day off as well.

In the meantime, some pics…

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Ballymaloe – Weekend Nine

So this was the weekend that my mom and dad came to visit, and I am so happy that they did. They came such a long way just to visit me for an extended weekend, and I am especially grateful to them for that. The last time that I saw my parents in person was last September, and after having felt particularly homesick for the first time in my entire life this past Christmas in Dublin, it was great to spend some time with them and to show them around this place that has so consumed my life in the last few weeks.

On Friday, after bringing my parents to afternoon demo, (which, incidentally, ended up being one of the strangest ones we’ve had the entire course), we went to dinner at a restaurant called Farmgate in Midleton.  What a lovely find! I knew that I was going to like the place from the moment that I walked in. It has a gourmet food shop/bakery in the front with a quaint dining area in the back. The ambiance was cozy and welcoming, and it felt almost like you were dining in a good friend’s well-appointed home. As we were perusing the menu, a French man sitting at a neighboring table exclaimed that the clam cakes were the best he has ever had, so I didn’t have to think twice about what to order for my starter. And I have to say that it was an excellent choice (merci beaucoup, random French guy!). I followed that with a dish of tagliatelle and mussels and a slice of lemon meringue pie. Apart from the excellent food and service, the best thing was that I got to have a proper chat with my parents and fill them in on everything Ballymaloe – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Of course, talking to them was the perfect therapy for me, and my parents kept reminding me not to get caught up in the sort of strange high school-y side to Ballymaloe and focus on what I came there for in the first place: cooking. Yup, I have to hand it to them: parents really do know best. After our dinner, I took them down to The Blackbird Pub, just to show them ‘our local.’ They were pretty tired at this stage, so we briefly chatted with some of the other students on the course and ended up staying only for one.  On Saturday, I met them at The Ballymaloe House for breakfast, and afterwards, we strolled around the grounds of Ballymaloe for a bit and checked out a particularly nice walled garden (I really love walled gardens…brings me back to when I was a kid and obsessed with reading The Secret Garden.). Anyway, we soon headed into Midleton, and my parents got to stroll around the little town in the daylight and go to the Farmer’s Market. Since we used to have goats on our little farm back in Rhode Island, my dad was happy to meet the woman from Ardsallagh Goats Cheese. Later on, we took a drive to Ballycotton and did the Cliff Walk. I was so glad to be able to go back, since I’ve wanted to ever since I first strolled up there back in January.

Saturday evening turned out a lot differently than I expected. Let me explain: fellow student (and also fellow Southern New Englander, as it happens) Kait had organized a BBQ for all of the students on the course. She had expertly coordinated with one of the instructors Ted, who happens to run his own catering company, and had come up with an incredible menu and evening for all of us. My original plans were to take my parents to said BBQ, but I soon realized in the midst of a particularly competitive round of Flippy Cup with some of my fellow students that the BBQ might not be so ‘parent-friendly.’ A quick decision was made to take Mom and Dad for dinner instead at Sage – yet another great spot in Midleton. Luckily, the restaurant was able to fit us in on such short notice, and we again had a lovely dinner together. Truth be told, I’m glad I was able to have a quiet dinner with them, since it was their last night down in Ballymaloe before heading up Dublin in the morning. Once dinner was finished, a part of me didn’t want to leave my parents. I know it might seem silly for me, at 32 years of age, to not want to be on my own without my parents, but that’s exactly how I felt in that moment. I knew that the BBQ would be in full force back at the school, and I suddenly contemplated staying the night with my parents at the hotel. However, I also knew that my parents would just be going to sleep anyway, so I thought better of it and decided to spend some quality bonding time with the others. In the end, despite missing my mom and dad as if I were some kid about to reluctantly embark on his first day of school, I ended up having a great time at the BBQ. Culinary students sure know how to knock ‘em back and let loose! Everyone was in good form that night, and there were some unexpectedly fun moments in the evening. To name but one example, Takashi, a fellow student from Japan and definitely the most well-mannered student in the group, ended up busting out some of the best dance moves I’ve seen in a long, long time. Forget about Jagger, I want moves like Takashi!

On Sunday evening, I did a one-night stage at The Ballymaloe House. At first, I was dreading having to go, but like everything else in life, it ended up being a highlight for me. There is a full buffet-style dinner for the guests on Sunday evenings, and there was a lot of prep work to be done in the kitchen. As the head chef, Jason, was the only one on duty that night, I basically got to work as his sous chef all evening. It was such a great experience, and he gave me a lot of good advice about cooking and about life in general. After the dinner service was finished, I sat down and had some dinner myself, which turned out to be a sampling of everything that was on the buffet tables. I definitely didn’t go hungry that night! Then over a glass of wine for me and a pint for Jason, we had a great chat about working in a restaurant kitchen, the psychology behind working with other chefs, and random anecdotes that Jason had experienced since he started working at The Ballymaloe House. Ultimately, it was a really interesting night, and it shed some new perspective on the life of a chef.

Next week is Week 10 – I can’t believe we are almost finished. I’m just going to heed my parents’ advice and enjoy it as much as I can.

Here are some photos to get you through until my next post…

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Ballymaloe Days 41-45 (Week 9) – Re-cap Re-shmap

I’ll admit it. I’m falling behind with these blog posts. I was so good at the beginning of the course with my daily posts, and I had every intention of keeping it going, but you know what they say about good intentions and the road to hell. Just kidding…sort of. Anyway, it’s mainly because Ballymaloe is intense. It is full-on everyday, which is great because I’m learning and getting to do so much here. On the other side of the coin, I almost never have any time to just chill out, and I’m feeling a little sleep-deprived at the moment…full days in the kitchens plus some long nights in the pub equals a perpetually tired Lisa. Although maybe they are also just preparing us for life as a chef…chefs all seem to be a very nocturnal bunch, don’t they?

Well, let’s see if I can remember what I did this week. On Monday, I was assigned to make chargrilled squid with chilli and parsley oil. I wasn’t too excited about having to stick my hand up the squid to take out squid guts/ink sacks/general goo, but it wasn’t too bad in the end. Squids are called the ‘scribes of the sea’ because there is a clear, plastic-like  ‘bone’ inside them that when you take it out, it looks exactly like a perfectly formed quill. It’s funny how nature works. I also made what is probably my favorite dessert that we’ve been taught on the course: passionfruit mousse with sugared strawberries. It was also my first time using gelatin (we used the gelatin leaves for this recipe), and the resulting mousse was gorgeous, smooth, and delicious. Since I prefer fruit-based desserts to chocolate-based ones (I think I might be the only woman on this planet who doesn’t have a thing for chocolate), I was a huge fan. Lastly, I rounded out my morning by baking some Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread. I may never buy bread again when I finish the course. It’s actually much more fun to make your own.

On Tuesday, we were all assigned dishes that are typically prepared at Ballymaloe House for their Sunday buffet. My first dish was a roast Kassler, which was a dish that was completely foreign to me. It turns out that Kassler is a German name given to a salted and slightly smoked cut of pork (usually neck or loin). It was pretty easy to prepare, since I just popped the meat into an oven on a roasting tray for the allotted amount of time. Then I was able to work on my other assigned dishes, which included a green pea soup with fresh mint cream, a cauliflower salad, and a leek vinaigrette. I was excited about the soup, since I love all kinds of soups. The color was such a bright green, and the flavor was amazing – sharp and intense. I was surprised because we used frozen peas. (don’t judge – they are just as good as fresh ones in the off season). The soup could be served hot or cold. I think it would be perfect to served it chilled in the summertime with a nice glass of Vinho Verde or a Sauvignon Blanc. Mmmm…My other two dishes were nice as well, but I’m more proud of my plating of them, as I was finally complemented for how I arranged my dishes (it only took 9 weeks of being here!). When the leek vinaigrette was finished, I arranged the leeks horizontally by size on a long oval plate and framed the plate with sprigs of chervil. With the cauliflower salad, I ended up placing the cauliflower florets back into the original shape of the head of cauliflower and set it center stage on a large round decorative plate. It was sort of like playing Tetris with a bunch of cauliflower florets, but in the end, the presentation looked great.

Wednesday was another full day of demonstrations, and the morning session was all about cheese (including a bunch of French ones: Saint Maure, Valençay, Chabis, Crottin de Chavignol, Morbier, Rocamadour, Selles sur Cher, Lingot du Quercy, Brique de Brebis, and Fleur de Maquis) and how to make homemade liqueurs (limoncello, rhubard gin, and orange brandy). Then we had a great demonstartion on canapés, hors d’œuvres, and other finger foods, which included smoked salmon spirals, thai curry bites, mini cottage pies, quail eggs, etc., etc., etc. My stomach was growling in hunger the entire time!

After the demos were over, we were taken on a tour of the Ballymaloe House, which is the country home and hotel owned by the Allen family. The house was actually built in 1450 (as in 42 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue!), which gives you an an idea of the amount of history surrounding the place. We also toured the kitchen and wine cellar of the acclaimed restaurant in the Ballymaloe House. Incidentally, the sommelier told us that Jay Z came to Ballymaloe House a few years ago, and the sommelier was impressed with how much Jay Z knew about wines. Comtes Lafon Meursault Clos de la Barre was his wine of choice at the restaurant. You gotta give it to him – the man has taste!

Thursday was a hectic day both in and out of the kitchen. With my cooking, I was set for poached pears in a saffron syrup, which was a lovely dessert. My instructor told me that my syrup should have been more colored from the saffron, but then Darina told us later on that the syrup should not be a dark color, so I don’t know whose instructions to follow. I guess I’m just happy that I didn’t burn my pears and that the dessert was actually edible.  Then I was assigned a madras curry with poori bread. I had fun deep-frying the poori dough to make it all bubbly and ugly-looking (but delicious-tasting). I had to skip out halfway through afternoon demo, as my parents were flying in for the weekend. I told them that I would meet them in Cork and drive down to Ballymaloe together. There wasn’t a chance in hell that they would be able to find their way here on their own, based mainly on the following: (1) their having driving on the other side of the road (despite my father’s claims that he once drove around Bermuda just fine); (2) darkness would be setting in by the time they were on the road; and (3) the state of the country roads around here – narrow, windy, littered with potholes, blind spots galore, and ridiculously dangerous speed limits of upwards of 80 kilometres/hour on roads that look like dirt paths. Fortunately, another student graciously offered to drive me up to Cork and lead the way back to Shanagarry where the school and hotel are located. On a funny note, when we got into Cork City, an old man randomly walked up to me and said in a heavy Cork accent, “Can I tell you something?” I wasn’t sure what to make of him, so I cautiously responded, “Ahh, okay?” He then looked at me intently and said, “You are a fine woman indeed!” And then he just walked away! I’m pretty sure that he was drunk, but I’ll take the compliment! In the end, we collected my parents and all drove back to Shanagarry safe and sound.

On Friday, my parents were coming for lunch, so I was able to plate up two dishes of goujons of monkfish, chips, and some white chocolate mousse for them. I even was able to fillet another monkfish, and I have to say that those ugly fish are really growing on me…plus, they taste delicious! This weekend will be spent showing my parents around Ballymaloe and the local towns. We have made a booking for dinner at Farm Gate in Midleton, which I’ve heard great things about. Then there is going to be a BBQ on Saturday night that Kait organized and that Instructor Ted will be catering. On Sunday, I am doing a one-night stage in the restaurant at Ballymaloe House, so it will be a busy weekend. To be continued…

In the meantime, enjoy some photos, won’t you?

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Ballymaloe – Weekend Eight

What a weekend! I could modify that previous statement with a myriad of adjectives (fun, crazy, bittersweet, wacky, amazing, etc., etc.), but let’s just leave it simple and let the descriptions speak for themselves. Six of us went down to a place called Baltimore in West Cork, and unlike its more grungy counterpart in the U.S., this Baltimore is a picturesque coastal village on the southern tip of Ireland. It is also a popular holiday destination for both locals and tourists, and I can see why, as it has that quaint hole-in-the-wall appeal. Incidentally, Baltimore is an anglicization of the Irish name Baile an Tí Mhóir, meaning “town of the big house.” We were very fortunate that a friend of one of the students on the course generously allowed us to stay in his gorgeous cottage for the weekend. It wasn’t the big house for which Baltimore was named, but the house had such character and was perfect for our little getaway.

We drove down right after afternoon demonstration on Friday. Since it takes a couple of hours to drive to Baltimore from Shanagarry, we were hoping to be on the road before it got dark. Plus, the six of us were split into two cars, and with none of us being familiar with the area, we wanted to make sure that we didn’t get split up. I was nominated to be the navigator in the car that I was in and had to alternate between reading the map and paying attention to the road signs along the way, which, unfortunately, were either badly placed or counter-intuitive. Luckily, we only had to pull over twice on the way there to figure out where we were going! The trip down was amusing to say the least (with an eclectic soundtrack of Snoop Dogg, The Strokes, The Chemical Brothers, and Bill Withers tunes, amongst others), but we eventually made it to our home away from home for the weekend in one piece!

Our little cottage was christened “Creagh Halt,” as it was only a stone’s throw from the Creagh Burial Grounds and where a well-known clergyman and former professor of Irish at Trinity College named Canon Goodman is buried. Now I know that this all sounds a bit morbid, but I ended up strolling down to the cemetery on Saturday morning. There is an old church that overlooks a gorgeous lake dotted with swaying trees, and the graveyard is filled with old headstones and Celtic crosses – a beautiful and reverent final resting place indeed. Call me creepy, but strolling through the churchyard on that Saturday morning was an incredibly peaceful experience. Yet I digress…and should get back to telling you about Friday.

So we eventually arrived at the house on Friday evening. It was pretty late at this stage, and we were all famished. We decided to quickly throw our bags in the house, return to the cars to check out the area, and most importantly get something to eat. We had heard of a local place that served good pizza called La Jolie Brise, so we went off to find it. Since “downtown” Baltimore is about the size of a postage stamp, we came upon it in no time. We each devoured our own individual pizzas (mine had cheese, chorizo, and a fried egg on it – how could I say no?). We got back to the house, drank a ton of wine, played some random drinking games, plotted a fake horror movie plot (which included scaring the bejesus out of a certain someone by jumping out at them from behind a bush but failing to scare the bejesus out of another certain someone by leaning over their bedside with a huge cleaver…I am forbidden from mentioning any names here.), and read some shitty ghost stories out of a book that we found in the house. All in all, a great night.

Despite our hijinks the night before, we all awoke at a relatively decent hour on Saturday morning. Our plan was to head down to the farmer’s market in Skibbereen and pick up some items for dinner. We quickly showered and gave up on a bunch of ill-fated brioche bread that we had intended to make for breakfast. It was absolutely beautiful outside, so I ended up scabbing some leftover pizza and taking that stroll down to the graveyard that I mentioned earlier in my post. Then we hopped into our respective cars and went to the farmer’s market. We decided to do a tapas dinner that evening, so we purchased hummus and a feta cheese spread, various breads and cheeses, some salami and pâtés, and a butter bean salad. We even sourced some huge goose eggs to make omelettes for breakfast on Sunday. Afterwards, we had some lunch at a lovely spot aptly named The Church Restaurant, and as you can guess, it was inside an old church. Later on in the day, we decided to take a drive around Lough Hyne. I cannot even describe the beauty of this place, and with the weather being absolutely stunning, we were all quite taken with our surroundings. We then made a pit stop back into Baltimore for a drink at the well-known Bushes Bar. Over our drinks, we discussed heading up to a place called The Beacon, as we were told it was a ‘can’t-miss’ kind of a place. Once we got there, we immediately knew why. Nothing could have prepared us for it. Arising out of the rugged coastline and surrounded on all sides by cliffs is a shockingly white stone beacon, and we were completely surrounded by the most perfect landscape and ocean views that I have ever seen. The view with the sun setting in the distance was nothing short of breathtaking. It is the kind of place that renders even a poet speechless, and as a result, we all wandered around The Beacon in a collective pensive state. It was just that beautiful. It is difficult for me to even type this description now without getting a bit weepy-eyed at the incredible wonder of that place, and in my opinion, it was definitely the highlight of the trip for everyone.  Suffice it to say and for fear of sounding overly sentimental, I will never forget experiencing that view or being in that particular moment for the rest of my life.

I cannot explain why, but for me, the consequences of experiencing such a moving moment that afternoon meant that everything that followed on Saturday evening was a bit of a let-down. Notwithstanding our delightful dinner of the tapas items that we had purchased at the farmer’s market and the copious amount of drinks that we imbibed, Saturday night in the local pub was totally inconsequential compared to earlier in the day. However, we tried to make the most of it but soon found ourselves wanting to spend our last evening in Baltimore back at the cottage sitting by the fire.

On Sunday, I’m not sure how everyone else felt, but I awoke feeling a bit groggy and hazy from the previous night. However, we were all quickly motivated by the thought of having mimosas and making goose egg omelettes for breakfast. Both were delicious and gave us the energy we needed to clean up the cottage in record time, and before we knew it, we were on the road heading back to Ballymaloe (this time with a soundtrack of tunes by The Beatles and some old school Radiohead). We decided to stop in Clonakilty to watch the the Six Nations rugby match. It was Ireland versus Wales, so you can imagine we were all rooting for the boys in green (and I was particularly rooting for one Rob Kearney, who just happens to be my favorite Irish rugby player…oh, and incredibly good-looking). Sadly, despite it being a very exciting match to watch, Wales prevailed in the end. Anyway, we got back on the road after the match and made it back to the school safe and sound.

Ultimately, I had a wonderful weekend, and I’ll forever look back on our trip to Baltimore with a particular fondness. In a way the trip was bittersweet as we round the corner of our final days here at Ballymaloe. I’m glad that I took a lot of photographs to capture the sheer beauty of where we were. I sometimes have a tendency to be incredibly nostalgic, and these pictures will be a reminder of that weekend and the people on this course to whom I have grown the closest…

A sampling of said photographs:

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