Today the Ballymaloe course officially began. My housemates and I went down to the main building to start our day with a lovely breakfast of homemade scones and breads, butter made from the milk of the Jersey cows on the farm, porridge, and freshly squeezed orange juice. Afterwards, Darina Allen, who owns the Ballymaloe Cookery School and is Ireland’s answer to Alice Waters, gave a welcome talk to the students in the demo kitchen. She garnered a hearty laugh from her audience when she picked up one of the most common and well-recognized tools in the kitchen and said “ahem…this is a wooden spoon.” After the laughter died down, she touched on a variety of interesting topics and made a number of inspiring points including appreciating the practical but often under-valued skill of cooking, the importance of knowing and buying from local food producers, and the consequences of relying on large-scale catering companies – whereby chefs are losing integral cooking skills such as filleting and pastry-making and the secondary result of restaurants having a similarity and overlap in the size, portion, and price of dishes served.
One especially noteworthy point that she made was that all good food comes from good earth. She stressed that there was only 5-6 inches of top soil that separates us from starvation (!) and that the health of the soil, plants, animals, and humans are all one and indivisible. She lamented the fact that most people today know more about the lives of celebrities than they do about the food we eat. Darina spoke to us about how nothing on the farm and at the school goes to waste – almost everything can be recycled, reused, or composted, and evidence of this is in plain sight in every element of Ballymaloe life. That philosophy really is so amazingly simple. It made me think about issues of sustainability, the food cycle, and reducing waste – issues that I sheepishly admit I had never really pondered in any depth.
Darina’s talk was not all “doom and gloom” however. She said that we were fortunate at Ballymaloe to have access to both “indoor and outdoor kitchens,” meaning the state-of-the-art kitchens at the school and the surrounding gardens and farm. She told us that by the end of our twelve weeks of culinary learning and “intensive eating,” every single one of us on the course would have a precious skill that would last us a lifetime – one that would provide us with an ability to work anywhere and to “win friends and influence people” – the ability to cook.
On that inspiring note, Darina then led us on a tour of the Ballymaloe grounds. It was a beautiful Irish winter day – partly cloudy at a pleasantly brisk 11° Celsius (a.k.a. 51° Fahrenheit – tropical compared to Chicago winters!) that eventually gave way to a light misty rain. On a sartorial side note, despite owning my purple Wellies for nearly two years and only occasionally taking them out to trudge through a snowy day in Chicago, I finally got to put them to proper use here as I sauntered over the mud and leaves. Even in the middle of January the grounds are gorgeous, and due to the mild Irish winter, many plants are still flourishing including a Jerusalem artichoke growing on one of the vines, which particularly impressed Darina. I was equally impressed when she told us that because of the quality of the fertile soil at Ballymaloe, they were able to grow more exotic produce such as peaches, passion fruit, and olives. We also toured the beautiful herb and vegetable gardens, the compost pile (I had no idea of the things you can use to make compost!), the chicken coop, and the milking station. I think my favorite part was when we walked through the glasshouse (“greenhouse” in ‘Merican), which was one-acre in size! We even got to plant our own sweet geranium (smells exactly like citronella) and lettuce cuttings, which we will tend to over the duration of the course. This would give us just an inkling of the labor and effort it takes to producing something edible (and, as Darina pointed out, we will never again complain about the price of locally grown food). After the tour, we had a hearty lunch of tomato and basil soup, a tasting plate made from food from local producers (chicken live pate, smoked mussels, prawns on the shell, homemade mayonnaise, chorizo, grilled eggplant, deviled egg, smoked salmon, and smoked mackerel). To finish, there was a praline ice cream and meringue with chocolate and rum cream and bananas in a lime syrup. I also had a few slices of cheese – don’t ask me how! We then ended the day with a three-hour cooking demonstration given by Darina herself, and tomorrow, we will have to replicate some of the dishes she demonstrated (gulp!). The menu for tomorrow includes carrot and mint soup, penne with mushroom a la Crème, winter green salad, classic rice pudding, and basic brown soda bread. I ended the long day by signing up for shifts in the local Midleton Farmers Market, Ballymaloe House, making pizzas for the Ballymaloe cafe, and milking a cow.
By the end of today, I was absolutely exhausted, and after a quick cup of tea in one of the other cottages, I came back to my room to relax and prepare for our first day in the kitchens tomorrow. Gotta get my chef whites ready!
Here are a few photos I took on the tour today: