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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