WebPurity Admin - Saturday, August 28, 2010
Ballymaloe Cookery School …I imagine it helped their reputation when one of their recent graduates (from a proper 12 week course) went on to win Masterchef. The cookery school in itself is impressive, set amongst 100 acres of organic farm and gardens but there is another string to the Allens' bow (the dynasty of a family that have nurtured and grown the business over the past 40 odd years), Ballymaloe House. This, Irish Country House Hotel (distinctly different from the English definition of the same name) has a wonderful comforting historic/ family home/ lived in sort of a feel to it. Again impressive in it’s own 400 acres and with a hint of an aristocratic (again only Irish) feel to it. We arrived for the buffet on Sunday evening, tired and sadly not so hungry (having filled up on some very more-ish ‘fresh from the oven’, brown Irish soda bread and homemade strawberry jam which was thoughtfully (or not in our case!) left in the kitchen of the cottage we were staying in. I know I hark on about it but there is something very unpretentious and sociable about the Irish, even in a fine dining restaurant like Ballymaloe. We were greeted and offered a drink in the main drawing room and I commented on the fact that I was a bit chilly (bear in mind it was a lovely August evening!). Before we knew it the lovely Myrtle Allen, the grand old dame of Irish Country House cooking and owner of the restaurant and hotel since 1948, fed a few logs into the marble fireplace and put a match to it, chatting all the time. Lovely. We enjoyed our buffet…even with a hint of a comfortable retro feel as the dessert trolley was wheeled in to tempt us, but we would have enjoyed it more if it hadn’t been post brown bread and jam! Monday was a full day of cookery demonstrations, 26 recipes in all. 18 in the morning all prepared by Darina Allen, with the help of the lovely assistant, Sorcha in whose shoes I would not like to have been has I mixed up the spinach and the sorrel. Anyway we worked our way down the list, from jointing a chicken to the making of Alison’s brown bread and a Lemon posset and then tasted it all. I thought Darina was really engaging, continuously emphasising the philosophy of the whole Ballymaloe thing ; cook with really good, strong, seasonal and well sourced ingredients and you are already at a very fair vantage point. She was also full of funny slightly self deprecating stories which kept us all gently amused as well as mesmerised at the speed of her juggling act! Rory (brother to Darina) was the up in the afternoon, slightly more relaxed post lunch but lots to learn. What is it about a celebrated chef (he has cooked with Raymond Blanc at La Manoir in Oxford and with Nico Ladenis at Chez Nico in London not to mention a 10 year stint as Head chef at Ballymaloe) with a distinctive Irish brogue, we could have all sat still for an evening demonstration as well?! We choose from the menu what we wanted to cook the next day ourselves (3 or 4 recipes rather than 20!) and then did on the Tuesday. The first morning of filleting knives at dawn when we assembled at our station in the kitchen felt a bit like a Masterchef final but a relaxed and satisfying couple of hours cooking and being taught followed. I figured early on, the trick was to pick the brains of the extremely competent teaching staff assigned to the kitchens so that every time I went to chop a mushroom or sweat the onions, I made sure I had ticked the Ballymaloe technical box. That way when John and Greg challenge me in the finals (of Masterchef ) I can show them how it is done! We then sat down to eat our wares and talked food and technicalities. I am sure cookery school courses are much akin to a Star Trek convention except we are more likely to be discussing pigs ears than Mr Spock's! Wandering back to our cottage in the evenings from school we had to pass through the gardens and organic farm. If you love gardens and happened to be meandering through Cork then please visit. The Allen family have recently had a family wedding (in the gardens, obviously…I wonder who did the catering!?) so I suspect we saw them at their very best but the seven meticulously tended areas including water, fruit, herb and my favourite the Herbaceous Border, full to the brim with perennials, grasses and shrubs and where they go for the ingredients to furnish the little (and sometimes larger) posies of flowers scattered throughout the House, School and cottages. The perennial grassy path pointed to the Shell house, which is what it says on the tin, a shell house. I think I would like to dine in the Shell House some summer evening with my husband and be served 3 courses from Darina’s menu. Roll on next Christmas!
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