A simple, powerful sentiment borders one of the Ballymaloe gardens; and Darina Allen shares some wisdom with her students (Photos: Supplied)

How I found food nirvana in the Irish countryside

Food entrepreneur and Dietary Requirements co-host Sophie Gilmour is living her best life at the famous Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland. In her inaugural diary, she introduces us to the inimitable Darina Allen, the school’s founder, and geeks out on all things food.

WEEK ONE

After my friend Camille and I sold our business, Bird on a Wire, earlier this year we made the decision to treat ourselves to five weeks at Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, Ireland. All we knew of Ballymaloe was what we’d seen on Instagram, but we had a feeling that living on a 100-acre organic farm in the Irish countryside while geeking out on all things food would be a bit of us.

I arrived on Sunday evening and was cheerfully greeted “you’re very welcome” by the team here. The Irish charm was already working its magic on me — what a lovely thing to say, I thought. I was escorted to my home for the next five weeks, a charming pink cottage covered in ivy and flowers, and told I could help myself to dinner in my own time. In the kitchen, a fresh pot of minestrone sat atop the stove, and on the bench next to it was a wooden board with a fresh loaf of organic sourdough and some homemade butter. I waited until I was alone to perform a victorious fist pump.

I’m living in The Pink Cottage with two others in our early 30s, and four girls in their early 20s. The five-week summer cookery course has 34 people in it, from 14 different countries, ranging in age from 21 to 71.

Week one has been a thrilling induction into Ballymaloe by its famous co-founder Darina Allen. Our first day was her 70th birthday and she generously spent the entire morning with us — introducing us to our welcome breakfast, item by item, almost entirely produced from the cows, hens and gardens here on the farm, and showing us around the property.

On our walking tour, Darina waxed lyrical about compost (liquid gold!), waste (blasphemy!) and soil nutrition (a modern tragedy). She holds strong views about the diminishing quality of modern food, and the challenging climate in which our farmers and growers are required to produce it. Darina tells us that farmers in Ireland are lucky if they get a third of the price on the supermarket shelf, and that they are happy with a crop if they harvest 45% of it because the rest gets turned back into the soil for being too big, small or imperfect for the market. Given my recent exit from the poultry game, I particularly enjoyed Darina’s chicken-related rant: “Cheap chickens are cheap for a very good reason. You can’t produce wholesome, nourishing meat for a cheap price.” Hear hear.

“Any eejit can grow tomatoes!” (Photos: Supplied)

Darina is passionate about gardening, and appears eager to teach us what she knows: “Look how important lavender is for gardens!” she shouts, pointing at the hive of bee activity on a nearby plant. She suggests that those of us who are yet to find our green thumbs should start with tomatoes — “any eejit can grow tomatoes!”

Darina is a wealth of information, and is clearly up to date with food-related research. The school appears to constantly test its recipes to ensure relevance and success — for example, in light of recent scientific findings that sugar in Ireland has become much sweeter over time, they have amended all their recipes by decreasing the sugar by 20%.

Darina is resourceful in a way that feels ironically “on trend”, suggesting that we collect food scraps in a container in the freezer and make a celebratory pot of stock only when it’s full because “you use just as much time and gas making a big pot as a small one!” She doesn’t bow to modern food trends: “Quiches are made on cream, not milk. If you’re going to make it, it may as well be delicious.” She even kept the Time magazine cover that broke the story that butter isn’t bad for us in 2014, because “it was amusing for my soul”.

Above all, Darina is grateful for the spoils of the farm — and her gratitude is contagious. She suggests that if you keep hens you might have extra eggs to take along to a dinner party “instead of a dodgy bottle of wine or something”. She has a strong connection to the land — repeating mantras like “the quality of the soil and the quality of the cow’s feed determines the quality of the milk, the butter and the cheese”, and she is passionate about food, just like us.

I have at times felt a little silly for the extra emphasis I place on food in my life, but I’m in great company here. Darina today taught us about the 25 different varieties of tomato grown on the farm and veered off into the most wonderful speech: “Look! Home-grown tomatoes so juicy you need to eat them in the bath! Look how beautiful it is! It’s so lovely! Sometimes I feel compelled to say grace, which sounds funny, but when the ingredients are so wonderful, I want to thank Mother Nature, or the gardeners — you don’t quite get that from a chicken nugget or a fish finger, do you?”

Our routine is under way — we watch a cooking demonstration each afternoon, then spend the following morning cooking what we learned. There is one teacher for every six students and we are partnered up with a new buddy each week. Darina has already taught us how to make Irish soda bread and five types of soft cheese. We’re adjusting to having a three-course meal each lunchtime (someone’s gotta do it!), washed down with water and kefir fresh from the “bubble shed”, and we’re beginning to wonder if this may just be the best five weeks of our lives.

Sophie Gilmour (left) with a new mate. The 34 students range in age from 21 to 71 and come from 14 different countries (Photos: Supplied)

WEEKLY LOWDOWN

Sophie:

Best meal Lamb and labneh toasts with pomegranate and mint.

Best tip When roasting or boiling beetroot, keep the root and the base of the stalks on to trap in the nutrients.

Best recipe Spring onion oil — genius, useful, super impressive and delicious! See recipe below.

Feeling after week one If heaven was a place on earth, it might just be Ballymaloe.

Fun fact Jerusalem artichokes are the vegetable with the greatest amount of inulin, a great promoter of healthy gut biome.

Anything else? I promise I’ll go for three runs next week!

Camille:

Best meal Lunch on the first day — too many dishes to mention!

Best tip Boil pasta for the first two minutes in water with carefully measured salt. Cover and let the pasta sit for the rest of the cooking time. Perfectly al dente every single time.

Best recipe Shrikhand (Indian yoghurt-based dessert with saffron and pistachios). See recipe below.

Feeling after week one Exhausted, exhilarated, encouraged.

Fun fact Between a quarter and a third of people come to Ballymaloe Cookery School with an intolerance (not allergy) to gluten or diary. At the end of the course, there are zero. You cannot deny the link between REAL food and how it nourishes our body. This is music to my ears! As Darina said, the more nutritionally dense food is, the less you need of it.

Anything else? Everyone asked why I was coming to Ballymaloe when I already knew so much, owned so many cookbooks and filled my whole life with food. They also all asked if we were just learning how to cook potatoes and cabbage (ha ha). Just having the privilege of listening to Darina is something I’d like everyone to experience — it would change their whole outlook on food and eating.

Potato and onion soup with spring onion oil (Photos: Supplied)

SPRING ONION OIL

200g spring onion tops (the green part)

325ml sunflower oil

Roughly chop the green tops and blend with the oil in a food processor on full speed for 4 minutes, then strain through a cheese cloth and leave to hang in the fridge.

Freeze the strained oil. Once frozen, scrape the frozen oil (gel) into a new container, leaving behind the frozen onion water/residue. This will give you perfectly clear green oil.

SHRIKHAND

Serves 8-10

2kg thick homemade yoghurt (or Greek yoghurt)

generous pinch of saffron strands

1 tablespoon warm water

¼ teaspoon roughly crushed green cardamom seeds

200g caster sugar

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped pistachio nuts

Put a square muslin in a bowl. Pour in the yoghurt, tie the ends and allow to drip overnight hanging above the bowl.

Transfer the dripped yoghurt into a clean bowl, infuse the saffron in a tablespoon of warm water in a small bowl and stir every last drop into the yoghurt.

Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods, crush lightly, add to the yoghurt with the caster sugar and mix well.

Turn into a serving dish, chill, sprinkle the top with roughly chopped pistachios and serve.

Delicious on its own, but also memorable with summer berries (when in season).

Recipes courtesy of Ballymaloe Cookery School


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