Developing a taste for the black stuff isn’t the only change brought about by Sophie’s stint at Ballymaloe Cookery School. She feels calm and refreshed, and, believe it or not, has even started running.
We’ve finished! It’s over! I’m devastated, but I am also thrilled. I’ll be honest, I’m feeling emotional, and I haven’t even left for our farewell party yet so it can’t be the Guinness talking. Time has flown, yet the pace here has felt slow. I came here to up my cooking game, and that I did. But I’m also leaving here feeling fantastic.
I feel refreshed and have just realised I’ve had almost zero screen time while I’ve been living at Ballymaloe. I feel calmer, and I’m drinking coffee with actual caffeine in it without getting heart palpitations! I feel nourished – I’ve eaten exclusively organic, farm-fresh and top-quality produce for five weeks straight. Bizarrely, I even feel fitter — we started running here, for fun (to be clear, I still hate running). There’s nothing like a change in lifestyle to make you realise what you’d like to change about yours, right?
As I write, a few strong themes of Ballymaloe are front of mind:
The devil is in the detail
The more meticulous you are in the preparation of a dish, the better the final product. Never cut corners or be slap-dash at the expense of presentation and flavour. Rory instructs us to “bully ourselves into chasing away every last seed” when we’re making a chargrilled red pepper salad and, when we’re peeling apples, to be careful “to do so carefully and in an orderly manner so that the end result is reminiscent of the shape of the original apple”. Much to my amusement, he could not have been clearer about the water temperature required to submerge a tomato in for 10 seconds and allow its skin to be peeled easily: “Not water that once boiled, nor water that recently boiled. Water that is boiling now.”
Take control of the situation
Master your own confidence. If something is unpredictable or doesn’t go to plan, don’t panic! We’ve been armed with solutions for all possible eff-ups. If French sauces scramble, “cool down the pan, add a few cubes of cold butter and whisk for Ireland!” If mayonnaise splits, add another egg yolk and try to bring it back. “Be brave when you’re making praline – you need to burn the sugar!” If you’re not sure whether a quiche filling is well seasoned, taste it. If you’re not sure how much chilli to use, nibble it raw to ascertain its heat. Take. Control. Of. The. Situation.
Respect your ingredients
Buy the best you can afford, grow what you can, eat seasonally, freeze produce when it’s cheap and plentiful, take time to appreciate nature’s bounty, and don’t be wasteful. I hope I never forget Darina’s thrill at the plants “singing” after the first rain shower in months, or her shrieks of excitement when the first wild mushrooms were harvested on the farm. Nor Rory selflessly crediting the ingredients themselves for his insanely delicious pistou that he’d ground by hand and marvelled as it emulsified, or him “making a wish” when the first cavolo nero of the season rolled in. I’m moved to make the most out of every single ingredient and can’t wait to turn a single organic chicken into four meals for four people, complete with chicken crisps and nourishing stock.
Use a bowl too big for the job
Make life easy for yourself in the kitchen. Cooking should be a pleasurable experience and it relies on good-quality equipment and forward thinking. Never force yourself to toss a salad or make bread in a small bowl (remember — “big, unglamorous bowl!”), never use light-bottomed saucepans, give yourself enough space in the kitchen to work comfortably and plan ahead to ensure a smooth coming together of your menu.
If some is good, more is not necessarily better
This was a revelation to me at many points! I’ve learned that refinement comes from being scant with the béchamel when making lasagne, using only enough parmesan to garnish a salad (not to turn it into a cheese salad, god forbid!), and using just enough salad dressing to make the leaves glisten – “less than you think you need!” Turns out I was mistaking generosity for gluttony. Well, I’ve been told. Rory was drizzling chocolate sauce over profiteroles yesterday and said, “Don’t make a show of it — be generous, but not revolting”.
I’ve just returned to the Pink Cottage for the last time after our leaving party in Ballycotton, and it’s warm fuzzies all around here tonight! We all danced to John’s performance of ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ and the lyrics of Christopher’s riff on a country tune he called ‘Goodbye Ballymaloe’ are circling through my head:
In the kitchen with Tiffin;
my sauce wasn’t thickenin’;
my soufflé was shallow and mean…
Rory was on demo;
Which meant big problemo;
He’ll probably say my sauce is obscene…
Hot pots are bubbling
My lunch time is coming,
The potatoes are troubling me too
So Goodbye Ballymaloe
Ballymaloe was a treat to myself after working really hard for six years. It’s been challenging and it’s been rewarding; it feels like a life-changing experience. Ballymaloe has filled me up in more ways than one, and I’ll always be grateful my husband encouraged me to come.
Best tip As long as you can hold the side of the pan with your hand, the traditional French butter-based sauces won’t split.
Best recipe Smoked fish tostadas (see below).
Feeling after week five Grateful and appreciative to Sophie for making me come. Let’s come back and do the 12 week! Anyone else keen?
Anything else? I was told the experience at Ballymaloe was life-changing — and now I can say it certainly is. Definitely a five-week highlight of my life.
Best tip Rub steak with a clove of raw garlic before you cook it — it enhances the ‘red’ flavour, and you can’t taste the garlic.
Best recipe No-churn vanilla ice cream (made on egg custard with molten sugar syrup).
Feeling after week five The more I think about it, the more “retreat-like” I realise Ballymaloe has been. We’ve lived on a bountiful organic farm for five weeks, where the air is fresh and the space is aplenty. We’ve had a singular focus. I can’t remember when I’ve last been so physically and emotionally available to a small group of people. I’m reminded that being more present feels good.
I’m writing this down so that I can be held to account… I will plant a vegetable garden when I get home. I will one day have my own hens and once again experience the fresh flavour of newly laid eggs, like that time I lived in Ireland.
Anything else? I never thought I’d say this, but Guinness is bloody delicious.
SMOKED FISH TOSTADAS
These delicious tostadas combine the smoky flavours of mackerel and chipotle, lightened with a vibrant, citrusy tomato salsa and finished with a slice of creamy avocado and a sprinkling of deep-fried shallots.
- 8 x 10cm corn tortillas
- 300g fillet of smoked mackerel or other fish
- tomato and coriander salsa (recipe below)
For the crispy shallots (optional)
- 4 shallots, finely sliced
- 100ml olive oil or vegetable oil for frying
For the tomato and coriander salsa
- 4 very ripe tomatoes, chopped
- 1 tablespoon chopped red or white onion
- 1 clove garlic, crushed
- ½-1 chilli, deseeded and finely chopped
- 1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh coriander
- squeeze of fresh lime juice
- salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar
- 1 cos lettuce, shredded
- chipotle mayonnaise, made by stirring 1 tablespoon of chopped chipotle in adobo sauce into 150ml mayonnaise
- 1 avocado, sliced
- freshly squeezed lime juice (optional)
Fry or bake the tortillas until crisp and golden.
To make the crispy shallots, pour the oil into a frying pan and heat until shimmering. Add the shallots and shall fry them until they are crisp and golden, trying not to burn them. Fish out with a slotted spoon and drain on paper towel to absorb the oil (you can keep the oil and re-use it for frying).
To make the tomato and coriander salsa, mix all the ingredients together and season with salt, freshly ground pepper and sugar. Taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary.
Flake the smoked fish with a fork and mix it into the salsa.
Spread each tostada generously with chipotle mayonnaise and top with shredded lettuce. Spoon over the fish and salsa and top with a slice of avocado. Squeeze over a little lime juice and if you like, sprinkle with crispy shallots.
This is delicious with any type of smoked fish and also with very fresh raw fish, cut as for sushi.