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 29-30 – Exam Day (Gasp!)

Thursday was our last day cooking in the kitchen before our exams commenced on Friday. I prepared caramel salumbos (French cream puffs made with choux pastry and dipped in caramelized sugar) and made a plaited white yeast bread. I was happy with how both items came out, but I did take forever in the kitchen, which is a little disconcerting considering that I was only making two things. Granted, it did take forever for my white yeast bread dough to rise and choux pastry is a bit of a pain (but not as bad as flaky pastry, so I hear). I think everyone assumes a certain personality in the kitchen. Some people are massively efficient and quick, but I think my personality is slow and steady. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, as I like to focus on each dish that I am preparing and really make an effort to get it right. Yet, I am beginning to think that I might have a hard time in a professional kitchen or in a restaurant kitchen setting with all of the time pressures that chefs face daily. However, I am okay with this, since my interests lie more with wine, and there isn’t much speedy multitasking when it comes to wine pairing, opening a bottle of wine, or pouring a glass…at least I don’t think there is.

Thursday evening was spent revising for the exams. The first part of the exam is a herb and salad leaf identification with two recipes listed for each herb, and the second part of the exam is the techniques portion where you are tested on four techniques – two that are mandatory (chop and sweat an onion and make a paper piping bag) and two that are picked at random out of a list of 33 possible techniques. I decided to make a list of all the herbs, draw pictures of them, and then fill in two recipes for each herb. This sounds a lot easier than it actually turned out to be, as I wanted to do a really thorough job and go through my three binders of recipes that I have to determine the herbs that went into all of our dishes that we had made up until this point in the course. Well, I soon realized how time-consuming that study method was turning out, so I then decided to just focus on the first two recipes that I came across for each herb and memorize them. I then went downstairs to practice some of the more trickier techniques. I had already practiced jointing the chicken on Sunday and had filleted two round fish during the week, so I felt somewhat confident there (I even secretly hoped that I got filleting round fish as one of my techniques, as I felt that I could do a pretty decent job.). In any event, I segmented two oranges and then moved on to making French omelettes. Luca gave me some pointers, and by my third try, my omelette-making skills were pretty solid…or at least respectable. The rest of the evening was spent with Matthew who had made herb and recipe flashcards (yes, herb and recipe flashcards), and we tested each other for a good while on those. Afterwards, I laid out my clean chef whites for the next day, and despite my night owl tendencies, I managed to go to bed at a decent hour for the first time since I can remember.

On Friday morning, I awoke with a feeling of nervous anticipation. Despite the fact that I have taken countless exams in my life, I still had that same butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling. I guess when the word “test” or “exam” is attached to anything, it will always cause that same unshakeable reaction in me.  I tried to alleviate the nerves by listening to some music that normally motivates me, but no matter how many times that I listened to “Seven Nation Army” by The White Stripes that morning, it didn’t seem to have any effect (Thanks for nothing, Jack White.). During the morning, we had a lovely demonstration on pizza-making with Rory, but I couldn’t get myself to concentrate fully on it. I kept reviewing my herbs and salad leaves in my head and felt panicky thinking about the techniques that  would be assigned to me.

After a lunch that I just picked at (I can never eat when I am nervous, and what a shame too, since there was such an amazing spread of delicious foods.), I had some time to spare before my exam time. I reviewed everything again and tried to relax. Once my scheduled exam time came around, I felt as ready as I was ever going to be. The herb and salad leaf recognition part of the exam went okay, although I think I might have mixed a couple of them up. I was then asked to lay a formal place setting and present a bottle of wine and pour a glass for a customer. I did both perfectly and thankfully so, since if I can’t do either of those things, then I would be in real trouble with my aspirations of becoming a sommelier. So I got a little boost of confidence there..which was only short-lived.

I waited to be called into Kitchen 2 where the technique exam was taking place. All of the doors and windows had been covered up in newspaper, so you couldn’t see what was going on in the rooms. The exam times were backed up slightly, so I didn’t up going in for the techniques until well-after my originally allotted time. When I got to my assigned station, I was told that my techniques would be to chop and sweat an onion, make a paper piping bag, make caramel sauce, and make a French omelette. I was initially happy with my assigned techniques, as I had practiced them, and they didn’t seem too complicated. Well, my initial happiness soon turned to outright panic because guess who my judge turned out to be? Only THE Rachel Allen! As soon as I realized this, I nearly died. Don’t get me wrong. I absolutely adore Rachel, but having someone who is one of the most recognizable faces in the culinary sphere in Ireland and the UK is more than a bit intimidating – no matter how down-to-earth and sweet she actually is in real life. Anyway, I ended up getting really shaky, which is a strange reaction for me since I always have steady hands. Yet, I couldn’t stop my hands from trembling the entire time I was in the kitchen, which is bad because in case you were wondering, you do need your hands a lot when cooking (Oh, that was sarcastic, wasn’t it? Sorry.). In the end, I managed to perform all of the techniques without any major catastrophes, but suffice it to say that I didn’t feel that my performance was indicative of my actual abilities in the kitchen. Oh well. I’m pretty sure that I passed…but not with flying colors. Passed with minimal competency is probably more like it.

After the exam, I was ready to pass out, so I took a quick nap to recharge my brain. Jamie and I then drove into Ballycotton to pick up my order from the local green grocer’s for the Mexican lunch we were having on Sunday with Jenn, Kait, Oisin, Zoe, Matthew, and Cat. Then we had a lovely supper at Jamie’s of green salad with goat’s cheese and a chorizo risotto. This all sounds so incredibly civilized…I forgot to mention that we also drank copious amounts of wine and cocktails to de-stress…and ended up in the Blackbird later on in the evening with the majority of the other Ballymaloe students. We deserved a night free from worry and anxiety, and we made damn sure that that’s what we got!

A few pics, including my the progress of my practice attempts at making French omelettes and my caramel salumbos and plaited white yeast bread: