Back To School
On Saturday mornings I like to peruse FT’s How To Spend It (recently rebranded to HTSI to reflect the current cost of living crisis, and “to make everyone feel that the magazine offers something life-affirming, enriching and diverting” announced its editor). I find it affirming to know where to buy $400 cashmere socks, and that the world’s greatest food stores can ONLY be found in London, Paris, New York and Los Angeles. It is certainly enriching to learn that a well styled home fridge should contain essentials such as white truffle sea salt, bottles of Dom Perignon champagne and carefully selected water in glass bottles (preferably St. Georges, the purest there is). Occasionally I see something in HTSI that inspires, like the article from October 2021 about the world famous Ballymaloe cookery school that I had never heard of. I was surprised to know that there was such a renowned cookery school set on an organic farm in East Cork, which was only two and half hours away from me in Dublin, where I had recently decamped! I thought why not go back to school and learn to cook from professional chefs like the ones on TV and in the cookery books I’m fond of reading.
I immediately went to their website to see if there was a course I could do. There were many options ranging from a day to 12 weeks long. I went for the one week course and the next availability was at the end of July 2022. As the start date for the course got closer, I started getting nervous about what it would entail. I’d have to change my whole daily routine–when I eat, sleep, and exercise. And I’d be in a classroom environment, it’s been a while since I was in one. What if I don’t like it? Then it dawned on me that I’m in a classroom (even though it is called a studio) three times per week for JiuJitsu. So nothing to worry about. I reminded myself I’m not going to learn to chop vegetables and fruits impeccably as I’ve seen chefs do if I’m not willing to embrace some form of change and discomfort. Still, I set off to the school with tempered expectations.
I arrived a day before the course started so I had some time to explore. My first mission was to find the beach the taxi driver had mentioned. Within a short walk I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of the sea with a sizable rock in the middle and some sort of long chimney sticking out of it. I stood there mesmerised. As I headed towards the sea, the rock turned into a small island. I could see that the chimney belonged to a lighthouse. Closer to me all I could see were miles of sand, vast shimmering waves of blue, and a speck of a dog and its owner. It was a warm summer evening and I couldn’t believe I had the whole beach to myself. I chuckled out “thank you” to Mother Nature. I said to myself that even if I don’t end up liking the course, finding the beach alone had made it worthwhile. And I vowed I was going to visit that beach twice every single day I was in Shanagarry.
Day one of the program I arrived a few minutes after the first cooking demo had started, and I was struck by how many people were there. The hall was full of rows of people listening attentively to the two chefs in the front of the room. The demo kitchen had a worktop almost the length of the room, a mirror equally as long as the worktop hung above the heads of the two chefs to make the demo visible to those at the back of the room. At one end of the kitchen there was also a flat screen TV broadcasting live. I found a spot to sit where I could observe the room better. I counted 80 people there, of all ages from teenagers to septuagenarians. Later during the tea break I discovered that people had come from all over Ireland and Europe. They were doctors, lawyers, graphic designers, recent college graduates and retirees etc….
The morning demos went on till lunchtime. I and many of the other students thought we would have to cook our own lunch but it turned out that the first day the lunch was prepared for us by the chefs. I went along to the dinner hall even though I didn’t think there would be much for me to eat judging by the snacks that were provided during the morning tea break. Everything was made with wheat. I complimented the chefs how delectable the cakes looked and lamented I couldn’t eat any of them. The chefs had taken note! This time round as soon as I arrived at the serving table they guided me to dishes I could eat. I never thought I’d say these words but I binged on salad that day! This wasn’t because there wasn’t anything else I could eat—there was plenty, for example, the glazed loin of bacon was scrumptious, the deviled eggs and pickled cucumbers were the best I’ve had. The salad was made of a variety of lettuce and other leaves I can’t name, sprinkled with flowers, all of which were picked that morning from their farm. I figured I wasn’t probably going to eat salad like that for a long time so I might as well make the most of it. I had at least two big helpings of these leaves every day at lunch the week I spent there.
After the afternoon demos ended we were given a tour of the 100 acre farm and gardens by Darina Allen, the owner of the school. By then I understood why she was described in the HTSI article as ebullient. She had been working all day, first with the demos and then serving us tea and lunch, yet she was full of energy. While I, three decades her junior, was tired. Where did she get the energy from? Just a few minutes into the tour I realised where her energy came from. Every direction you looked, you were graced with images of the lushest of plants, shrubbery, and trees. The pigs on the farm reminded me of a much loved statue of a portly smiling Buddha. The chickens cruising around in their well groomed oversized fluffy coats would definitely pass the Portlandia happy chicken test. I was overwhelmed. I kept thinking if I lived here I too would be bouncy and most agreeable. You’d have to be really ungrateful to not see what a privilege and blessing it was to live and/or work in such an environment. I also understood why Darina and all the staff members I saw and interacted with that day (and the rest of the week) worked so hard to preserve it.
At their greenhouse full of all sorts of vegetables, I got to see a cucumber plant for the first time. I also got to taste a cucumber for the first time too! This was odd since I love cucumbers and eat them at least four times per week, and I always buy organic ones because I believe they taste better. But the cucumber from Ballymaloe farm tasted very different, theirs was crunchy with a hint of sweetness. No wonder the pickled cucumbers I had at lunch that day were so delicious. The biggest surprise for me from the glasshouse garden was the asparagus plant. The cucumber plant wasn’t too far off from what I had imagined it would look like but the asparagus plant was way off! It had long stalks, grouped together like bamboo trees but much smaller and thinner with fine fern leaves on top. When I googled later I found that there is actually a type of a fern called asparagus fern. I left the greenhouse struck by how little I know about how the food I eat is produced.
In the kitchen
The next morning and the rest of the week were spent cooking. We got to pick and cook dishes we had liked the most from the previous day’s demos. Whatever we cooked was eaten by us and the entire staff for lunch. The kitchens we were to cook from reminded me of the Master Chef TV show ones, except that there was no shiny new gadgets bar—the ovens and all the other equipment were rustic. There were also stock and compost buckets dotted around to capture food for the chickens and spare ingredients for fish, meat and vegetable stocks. For the first day I chose to make recipes that would enable me to learn knife skills. I started with mushroom a la creme with classic french omelette, carrot cumin soup and traditional Greek salad. The first thing I learnt was that my knives were terribly blunt. We had to bring our own knives to use since any serious chef must be in possession of good knives. It turned out that I had been sharpening my knives incorrectly. Next, I learnt how to quickly peel an onion. I couldn’t believe I had wasted so much time over the years. I chopped so many onions that week that onions no longer made my eyes water! The next day I took my newly acquired skill to the next level by finely chopping a mountain of mushrooms to make a soup. It took me close to an hour to get it acceptably fine for the recipe. A food processor would have done it in a minute but how else was I going to learn? Unexpectedly I also learnt how to fillet two types of fish–mackerel and hake—and to debone a whole chicken. I discovered that the fish you fillet yourself taste better!
By day four I was no longer fazed by cooking for three hours straight or sitting for hours after lunch watching demos. Just as I was starting to become a more amiable version of myself, the program ended. I was sad to bid farewell to the gardens, my new tree friends, the binge-worthy salads and my twice daily walk to the beach. But my sadness was short lived as I realised that the week I spent at Shanagarry will stay with me for a long time. I have since reconfirmed several times over that the fish I fillet myself does indeed taste better. I now know what to do with the left-over fish heads and bones, I save and use them to make fish stock. Another inspiration from the Ballymaloe no-food-wastage concept was that I used the skin taken off the glazed loin of bacon to make pork scratchings. They turned out way better than any of my previous attempts. Unexpectedly, I look at the produce in shops differently. Seeing how hard the staff at Ballymaloe farm worked made me realise how much effort goes into farming. I no longer scoff at the farmers’ market vegetables that can cost thrice the price I would pay at a big chain supermarket.
Perhaps, the biggest discovery from my time at Ballymaloe cookery is goat’s milk butter. I was familiar with goat cheese and used goat’s milk to make kefir for years. But for some reason butter made from goat’s milk had escaped me until one day browsing at the Ballymaloe’s farm shop. My first reaction was “how weird” and I was shocked it was selling at €6 a packet, more than double the cost of butter made from cow’s milk. But I said to myself since the week was all about change and new experiences why not try it? The first time I tasted it I felt so sorry that I had been missing out all these years on the GOAT of all butters. Not only did I put it on jacket sweet potatoes as I had initially intended but I also added it on any food I could think of–eggs, rice, stir fried and steamed vegetables. As soon as I got back home I rushed to my local supermarket to see if they had any goat butter. They did and it was the same brand I had bought at Ballymaloe. I bought the two packets they had left! At the cashier I gushed to the shop assistant about my new discovery. He replied: “you’ve just discovered it! Really?!” Without hiding his disappointment.
I’ve found that going back to school is less about acquiring new skills, and more about a shift in perspective. You have to take on the mindset of a novice, and this opens up many opportunities. The first time I tried to hold an onion and chop it the way the chef/trainer at Ballymaloe showed me, it felt like it was my first time ever holding one. It forced me to examine it to see new possibilities–that I too could produce immaculately diced and julienned onions and turn them into deliciousness. It’s been over a month since I returned from Ballymaloe, the remarkable thing is that I still feel like this every time I pick up an onion or any other vegetables.