Week four is all about forging new friendships at the local pub, hatching feathered friends, and the joys of natural wine.
It’s our second to last week at Ballymaloe and my classmates and I have become real-life mates. We are all cooking well and with greater confidence, which is reflected in a more relaxed atmosphere in the kitchens, and even-better-than-before lunch buffets brimming with short pastry, elegant fresh pasta and sexy loaves of bread.
We’ve worked out that the best way to prepare for our Thursday ‘classroom’ day each week is by having some mighty craic on the Wednesday night, so we’re basically on a first-name basis with the owners of the local Ballycotton pub The Blackbird, and we have wined and dined our way around the good local spots. The Blackbird has folk nights each week and amid Irish hymns being enthusiastically bellowed by performers and punters alike, several times I’ve felt that wouldn’t it be great if we more fully embraced our musical roots in New Zealand? I wonder why we perform only when we’ve mastered something, rather than for the general joy of the group. If you can’t sing, it’s a story or a joke – no one gets off scot-free. Let’s work on it?
Thursdays are a day outside of our usual routine to learn about something specific. We’ve now had introductory sessions on how to butcher a lamb and a pig, to hot and cold smoke meat and fish, to master and decorate 10 essential cakes, to raise and keep hens, to plant a vegetable garden, to forage for edibles (on both land and sea), and to master fermentation (we made delicious water kefir, kombucha, sauerkraut and probiotic ketchup).
Ballymaloe is brimming with enthusiastic staff and they all have passions they’re clearly encouraged to bring to work. Pat dons a gilet and takes us foraging while waxing lyrical about edibles in nature, the larger-than-life Pam has pink hair and wears her pink apron with panache while decorating cakes with all her pink utensils. Phillip (who runs the Saturday Pizzas restaurant at Ballymaloe) is the amusing butchery expert, and has challenged a few hangovers with his lessons in curing, brining, sausage making and early morning butchery demonstrations. Penny passionately tells us about how incorporating fermented foods into her diet cured her of allergies and illnesses, and the eggs that we learned how to incubate on our first week even hatched today!
This week we were introduced to the world of winemaking, tasting and serving by Colm McCan, one-time Food & Wine magazine sommelier of the year, and the consultant sommelier at Ballymaloe House. Colm’s passion is obvious, and he’s excited to tell us the story of why Cristal has a flat bottom (to ensure that no one could smuggle explosives in it to get to the Russian tsar, who Louis Roederer originally made the champagne for). He smirks when he tells us that Jay-Z removed all reference to Cristal from his lyrics when its maker’s response to its prominence in rap lyrics was ‘“we can’t choose our customers”. He beams as he tells another wonderful story about how the late Myrtle Allen (matriarch of all things Irish food) asked Jay-Z how to spell the rest of his surname, more than once, when he and Beyoncé stayed at Ballymaloe House – she was oblivious to who he was.
I loved Colm’s wine lecture and learned loads from him, despite having worked hard to earn my ‘bon vivant’ status among close friends. He is technical in his explanations about the now-trending pétillant-naturel (the most simple method of creating frizzante; second ferment is in bottle) and orange wine (white wine made on the skins or ‘skin-contact wine’). He shares Ballymaloe’s commitment to natural and unadulterated product, expressing concern about the unlisted ingredients in industrially produced wine, and he is a proponent of natural (no intervention, made with natural yeast only) and biodynamic wine (made using ecological, spiritual and mystical principles).
Colm’s lecture follows the format of a dinner party – “aperitifs should always be dry; natural acidity makes us salivate and therefore hungry”– and as the night rolls on, he gives us practical tips and tricks that we embrace for the future of our careers in wine-serving (keeping champagne cool prevents over fizzing), drinking (generally speaking, the longer the finish, the better quality the wine) and tasting (corked wine smells musty). He takes us outside to the amphitheatre sculpture in the meadow that doubles as an outdoor classroom, and demonstrates the how/when/why of using that decanter you were given for a wedding present. “Decanting wine airs it. You are speeding up the time it takes to age so if you open something too young, double decant it! If the wine is very old, either don’t decant it or do so and enjoy it immediately – the air will affect it very quickly.”
He runs us through the roots, regions and defining characteristics of Sancerre, petit fumé, Chablis, Beaujolais and Gigondas – he leaves us wanting more! Refreshingly, Colm doesn’t take the whole wine drinking thing too seriously and reassures us that “tasting is a hugely imperfect and totally subjective thing”.
Fun fact If there is dishwasher powder or liquid residue on your champagne flutes it makes the fizz go flat within minutes. If you put them through the dishwasher, rinse with hot water and properly dry before using.
Best meal Wild boar ragu with handmade fettuccine, followed by an epic lemon tart.
Best tip The drier your pasta dough is (which means the harder you have to work to knead it), the stronger and easier to work with it is, and the less water it absorbs when you cook it, making for a lighter result. Pasta machines are dual purpose — they both roll and knead the dough.
Best recipe Pam’s Tunisian orange cake (see recipe below).
Feeling after week four Gutted that it’s nearly over in a spoilt child sort of way. I’ve thought about stamping my foot and yelling “I don’t want to go home” like my 3-year-old child at a play date, but I’m sure they get that at Ballymaloe all the time.
Anything else? Wine producers can add 21 other ingredients to wine and not list them on the label (they only have to list sulphites). Join the natural wine trend, people!
Fun fact To make tarragon vinegar (for use in béarnaise sauce), put French tarragon into a bottle of good-quality white wine vinegar and leave for a month. Will keep for six months.
Best meal Our elegant zucchini and basil lasagne with perfect pasta sheets and the best béchamel known to man.
Best tip Verjuice and white wine vinegar can always be replaced with lemon juice in a recipe. There are many more good lemons in the world than there are good white wine vinegars (and readily available verjuice).
Best recipe Puff pastry! Absolutely fascinating to make, and surprisingly easy. Seven hundred and twenty nine layers are achieved by rolling a pound of butter into a pound of flour. Fold, roll, chill. Rinse and repeat three times. Very precise, yet very rewarding!
Feeling after week four How am I going to cope when I get home and the eggs haven’t been laid fresh each morning, and it’s not affordable for me to eat 100% organic? Perhaps I’ve been drinking a little too much of the Ballymaloe Kool Aid (read: organic water kefir) because all I’m dreaming about is rearing chickens, making my own bread, and what a sin food waste is. My transformation must be almost complete…
Anything else? What did I do without parchment paper at home? They absolutely love the stuff here, no time for regular baking paper. We’ve made a cartouche for sweating onions, we line cake tins and baking trays with it, we scrunch and wet it to place atop cooked rice in the oven to keep it warm, and Rory says he hands down would not make meringues without it. We are even instructed to “wipe down and reuse your parchment paper, over and over again”.
TUNISIAN ORANGE CAKE
This is cake is quite different, because it’s placed into a cold oven and baked from there. You can make this in eight mini cake tins (around 6cm) or three small loaf tins (around 15cm x 8cm). For a gluten-free version, use gluten-free white breadcrumbs and gluten-free baking powder.
For the cake:
- 1 cup slightly stale breadcrumbs
- ¾ cup caster sugar
- 1 generous cup ground almonds
- 1½ level teaspoons baking powder
- 1 scant cup neutral-flavoured oil
- 4 eggs
- finely grated zest of 1 large orange
- finely grated zest of ½ lemon
- juice of 1 orange
- juice of ½ lemon
- ¼ cup sugar
- 2 cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- crème fraîche or Greek yoghurt
Grease the tins and line with greaseproof paper.
Mix the breadcrumbs with the sugar, almonds and baking powder.
Whisk the oil with the eggs, pour into the dry ingredients and mix well. Add the orange and lemon zest. Pour the mixture into the greased and lined tins.
Put the tins a cold oven and set the heat to 180C (not fan).
Bake for 45-60 minutes or until the cake looks rich golden brown. A skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean. Cool for 5 minutes in the tin before turning out onto a plate.
Meanwhile, make the syrup. Put all the ingredients into a stainless steel saucepan and bring gently to the boil, stirring until the sugar has dissolved completely. Simmer for 3 minutes.
While it is still warm, pierce holes in the cake with a skewer and pour over the syrup. Leave to cool. Spoon excess syrup back over the cake every now and then until it is all soaked up. You can remove the cinnamon sticks or leave them on top of the cake. Serve with creme fraiche or Greek yoghurt.
Read Sophie Gilmour’s previous diary entries from Ballymaloe here.