Monday, June 10, 2013


O-dark-thirty on Exam Day

            When was the last time I studied for a test? Driver’s License and Food Handler’s do not count.

            At the six week, half-way point here we are all tested on what we have learned. But it’s not multiple choice or wax-eloquently essay questions. No, this would be a …. “practical test” (ominous music swelling in the background).

For the first test, we were give a list of some 25 possible kitchen skills, two of which everyone would do, and two would be from the master list which included: fileting a round fish, mayonnaise, short crust pastry, yeast rolls, scones, various incarnations of eggs, knife skills on a myriad of vegetative victims… you get the idea.

The second test would be going in to one of the large kitchens and identifying any of a number of herbs and lettuces. Now, herbs I know. But honestly… some of the lettuces here do not show up in our local Safeway: Cos, Lollo Rosso, Mizuma, Mizuna, sorrels, mustards, rocket, land cress, and the like (and unlike).

For two weeks I would walk through the acre “glass house” (aka green house to us), taking pictures, picking leaves, tasting leaves, drawing pictures. It seemed like resistant information. At lunchtime, we students would pick at our salads, holding up specimens to see who could identify the particular green culprit.

Identifying two-day old, wilted leaves, removed from their Mother-plant

For every Wednesday I’ve been here, I’ve shown up at      7:45 am for a walking class through the grounds on organic gardening. The week of the exam, I decided to give myself the gift of the extra hour of sleep. Wouldn’t you know … that Wednesday (two days before the exam), they went to the herb garden and glass house to give a bonus talk on the herbs and lettuces that the test would include.

The Friday of the exam I was up before dawn cramming any last-minute stuff that might make a difference: making a batch of “Mummy’s Sweet Scones,” sacrificing an entire dozen eggs for French omelets, slicing/dicing shrooms, cukes, and onions. 

Mummy's Sweet Scones practice ...

Ronco has nothing on me!

That morning at school, the agony would be prolonged as we first sat through a three-hour lecture/demonstration on pizzas. I have to admit, it was a good stress reliever. Nevertheless, I surreptitiously flipped through my iPhoto files on lettuce leaves.

Darina just keeps turning our pizza variations for three hours --
that woman is absolutely the Energizer Bunny!

After lunch, all the students changed into their uniforms and waited for their assigned times to enter each of the two testing kitchens. One more time I walked down to the glass house. The fresh air and walking was a good tonic for the mounting angst.

I almost expect them to sport Disney-esque faces and start singing to me
a clever ditty designed to help me memorize all of their names!

My turn came for Kitchen No. 1.  I was assigned a station where there were 10 glass jars of herbs, and 10 glass jars of lettuce leaves… all numbered. I had to write down a name for each one of those. And for the herbs, we also had to give two specific recipes, which use that particular herb. My eyes blurred as I hyper-focused. I also seemed to be on hyper-drive. When I finished the identification, I went to another spot where there was a description of a multi-coursed meal – and an assortment of “cutlery,” dishes and glasses. I had to “set the table” for that meal. Next I was to properly offer, serve and pour a wine selection.

The Waiting Room where we make each other more nervous.

Kitchen No. 2 would be where we would all slice and sweat an onion, and make a parchment piping bag – and be given two tasks at random. We would have 20 minutes… and everything from remembering to sharpen our knives (not over the cutting board and wiping the blades before you used them), to what side of the cutting board you used for what task , to time management would be observed by a proctoring instructor. Personally I was hoping for mayonnaise and segmenting an orange, and dreading filleting a round fish (I’d already botched a cod and was looking up numbers in the phone book through the resulting fillet) – or choux pastry.

"The Secret Cart" that has product plates with our names attached. 

As I walked in the kitchen I was given my station and an instructor who had never worked with me. She didn’t smile one bit. She brought me my plates: an onion, a triangle of parchment paper, some 10 mushrooms, 2 eggs, whole butter and clarified butter. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted! My two random tasks were to sauté mushrooms and fry two eggs.

I sharpened my knives, wiped them, mentally made my order of work. I knew what she (my proctor) would be looking for: sweat onions to ‘soft’ without color, use the butter wrapper for a second layer of insulation… put plenty of color in the sautéed mushrooms. For the eggs she would want to see me basting them and not getting them too done.

It happened. And then it was over. My wonderful husband met me outside with a picnic we would share as we sped off for the three-day weekend to the Dingle Peninsula.

The entire weekend, I didn’t order one salad.

Three beautiful days unwinding on the Dingle Peninsula.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

(to read Brian’s take on the day, go to:

Pig in a Day!

Mom and offspring separated by a fence. "House" in the background.
            Close to the source… close to the ground .. close to the bone. We learn, we experience, we taste, we get our hands less than pristine. We channel our grandparents and great grandparents in their everydayness of making life work – of getting by – of giving and getting from the land.

yep... this was the size that was our subject for the day.

            So that’s what we do here. The learning curve is different for each of us on this Saturday, as folks from other parts of Ireland (including several now raising pigs), two American college students (who literally flew in for this class), a French ex-pat, two cookery students (I’m one), and Brian all assemble to see the process of parting out (“fabricating”, though they don’t use that term here) the animal and then preparing it.
Darina Allen orientating our group to raising organic pig farming.

            First Darina (the progenitor of all things Ballymaloe and the Irish food movement), leads us out to the pig field (for lack of a more correct term). Years ago they started out with three heritage varieties (no notes here, so can’t elucidate you). However, with the disease that swept through here a few years back, they could not bring in any more pigs, so decided to inbreed what they had. They feed their pigs a wide variety of things. But there is Irish law that prohibits pigs who will be fed to the public from getting “scraps.” Silly law, as pigs and humans should live in a symbiotic relationship of one using the other’s leftovers very efficiently. Evidently the pigs are fed and adore comfrey and seaweed which are really good for them.

Look carefully. See that squared-off section of dirt? The pigs did that... very neatly and intuitively. Smart piggies!

            The pig we would be “appreciating” throughout the day had been slaughtered 5 days before, and was probably 4-5 months old. Normally, they would want a pig a few months older and hung for up to two weeks. Adult pigs and their progeny were really friendly. They have “houses” … and root in the grass very neatly (actually a straight square)! Imagine! Brilliant! As Darina says, these pigs have a wonderful life: they live outdoors, root to their hearts’ content, would put the local vet out of business if he only had them to rely on as they never get sick, and they enjoy each other!  Then they have a lovely ride to town, have a sleep over with other pigs to relax, and then it's piggy heaven.

Phillip Dennhardt readies the piggie on the board.

            Our instructor for the day would be Darina’s son-in-law Philip Dennhardt, who is originally from Germany. He met Darina’s daughter in New York where he was working as a butcher (he’s 5th generation butcher, who completed his 3-year butchery apprenticeship in Germany and then returned to do his masters which is very difficult). He is a great teacher and obviously loves what he does -- as well as a great believer in following the natural lines of separation in the pig and only used the saw to go through the ribs (interesting that a butcher’s saw has the teeth going forwards instead of backwards). His knife of choice was a 6-inch semi-rigid filleting knife.

The piggie now parted out.

            Philip talked about growing up around his father’s business - nothing was wasted. At age 10, his father would have him scrape the meat between the bones, telling him, “It’s the little bits that determine at the end of the year what car you buy!”  Men who brought their animal to the abattoir (kill area), would actually follow their animal down the line to make sure they got their animal in the end. A big thing here in Ireland is “black pudding” made from all sorts of things including blood. However, there is Irish law against using the actual fresh blood, so they have to use “dried blood” instead (now really… which is worse?). Again.. several in the class were interested in being able to get their own fresh pig’s blood to make their own puddings!

Stuffing sausage!

          During the class time (9:30am – 5pm), Phillip used every part of the animal, except the ear (yes, he knows there are folks who love deep-fried ears), the tail, the adrenal glands, and the “squeal” as my American chef-instructor used to say!  

            In the process, there were six receptacles: scrap for the  chickens, stock, fat for lard, offals, skin for chitlins (there is probably an Irish term), and meat for sausage. And of course all the pieces to be cooked were laid out.  The variety of dishes he prepared with an assistant was amazing: head cheese, terrine, roast and stuffed pork, chops, 4 kinds of sausage, chitlins.

            Here they call “pork” pig meat that is uncured, and “bacon” is anything cured. “Bacon” as WE know it is called “streaky bacon.” So confusing!! Interesting that sea salt has a level of natural nitrites in it…. So that when meat is cured with it, there will be a slight pink ring.

That's head cheese in the foreground and chitlins in the background.

            The recipes that were made for us were: Brawn (head cheese) -- Pork, Spinach and Herb Terrine -– Ballymaloe Homemade Sausages -- Beerfest Sausage -- Philip Dennhardt’s Homemade Frankfurters – Salami – Chorizo -- Roast Stuffed Loin of Pork with Crackling & Brambly Apple Sauce. It was an inspiring day.

            Brian thinks he’s up to getting a half pig and cutting it up when we return home. I told him as soon as the garage is organized.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Time Lapse


            Today I was finally in the zone.  Today also marks four weeks in Ireland. 

            Really?  The days fly by. Nights are too short.

The calm before the storm in our kitchen.

and it barely begins...

in the thick of it!



The routine has settled in:
  • Daily:              Make sure I have my Order of Work filled out for the instructor to see how I have planned my morning hours of multi-tasking cooking. Leave our house at 7:45-7:50 to arrive at school 10-ish minutes later. Go to my assigned kitchen and station. Begin prepping for the morning. Partner and I will have divvied up the 4-6 recipes, which need to be completed (and our station cleaned) by noon, at which point the instructor will come and grade my creations based on accuracy, taste and presentation. We also must be accomplishing skills on the Skills list which our instructor signs off on. So.. not only must I joint a chicken (and about 50 other such skills), but do it three times to show I really do know it. Each day I have a different assigned chore. We eat a lunch of our morning’s prepared foods. The afternoon session of the next day’s recipe demonstration goes from 1:45 to 5:15-ish, after which we taste test everything. Also daily I should be filing all of my recipes and organizing my notes. Hasn’t happened yet, and am a bit panicked.
  • Mondays:       Begin cooking with a new partner in a new station with a new kitchen instructor.
  • Tuesdays:       Ditto of morning cooking and afternoon demonstration.
  • Wednesdays: A no-cooking day (yeah! Street clothes!). It is also the 7:45 am morning organic garden(ing) walk and talk by the head gardener. Then we are in lecture from morning until late afternoon. We have a “biscuit” of the week (that’s “cookies” to us yanks), a cheese presentation, sometimes a wine presentation, and in the afternoon cooking demos.
  • Thursdays:     Bring our bed sheets in to be exchanged for new clean (and ironed) ones. Ditto of Monday and Tuesday.  
  • Fridays:          Ditto Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday. This afternoon we get our next week’s new partner and kitchen/station assignments. We also get our packets full of information, notes and recipes for the coming week.

From this...

to this...


            Between different kitchens, partners, station set-ups, constantly attacking new recipes, I have felt like I was constantly a beat behind. But today, it flowed and, well, I was in the zone.

            Here is a “taste” of what today in the kitchen was like: My assigned dishes were: 2nd day finishing of rhubarb jam, Moroccan spiced lentil soup, shortbread cookies with cream and strawberries. I was somewhat sad that I didn’t get to make the assigned Irish Stew, but will have to do that on my own I guess.

We are judged down to separate veggies being cut exactly the same size.

            In just two weeks from today (Friday), we will have midterms that will last 4 hours and test us on our knowledge of what we have learned thus far, both practically (joint a chicken, sharpen your knife), head knowledge, and  identifying spices, herbs in the garden, and foraged greens. By that point we will be half way through the course. 

Tout Sweet!

            Tomorrow Brian and I take off for 36 hours. First we’ll go to the larger town of Middleton to the great Farmer’s Market ( 

           Then we will drive half an hour to Cork to visit the English Market ( 

           From there we will drive to 90 minutes to County Kildare to ferret out St. Brigid’s  Well, and Monastery.

            I hope soon, I can file four weeks of amazing.