Irish food isn’t all corned beef and cabbage. That’s what today’s guest columnist, Emma Rudolph, discovered when she decided to spend three months cooking at Ballymaloe Cookery School in Ireland’s County Cork last year. Keep reading for all of her Irish food revelations (and for a traditional Irish recipe).
“Cooking school in Ireland?” This was the response I got from nearly everyone when I told them I would be leaving for 3 months to attend Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School. Friends were confused. Of all the culinary destinations in the world, why on earth had I picked Ireland? All I knew about Irish food was soda bread, incredible butter, corned beef, potatoes, and, of course, Guinness and whiskey. As a cookbook editor with no formal training, I wanted to learn classic culinary techniques. I also wanted an adventure and the idea of living and cooking on a farm in the Irish countryside seemed pretty idyllic.
When I arrived at Ballymaloe in April of 2016 I was overwhelmed in the best way possible. The “campus” spanned 100 acres of farmland, and included organic vegetable, herb, and flower gardens, fruit orchards, cows, chickens, and pigs, a dairy, a greenhouse, 4 full-service kitchens within the school, and the most charming ivy-covered country-style student housing. It was a cook’s paradise. And I had 72 food-obsessed soon-to-be-friends, hailing from 16 different countries, to share it with.
Farm-to-table took on a whole new meaning here. On our first day touring the gardens, the school’s founder, Darina, took great pride in showing how nearly everything we would cook with over the next 12 weeks would come from this very “backyard”: dairy from the cows, eggs from the chickens, meat from the pigs, vegetables and herbs from the gardens; even horseradish would be pulled fresh from the ground, and desserts were to be decorated with wild foraged flowers, like jasmine and marigolds. Each day a student would be tasked with making a green salad from the 10 plus varieties of lettuces in the greenhouse, and making butter from the fresh cows’ milk.
Over the course of 12 weeks I went from a sweaty-palmed cook who (according to the British and the Irish) mispronounced ingredients like oregano and tomato to one who could deftly butcher a side of lamb and turn the subsequent meat into a delicious Sunday roast. I learned that the best-tasting vegetables are always the ones picked in the morning, and that the true test of a chef is how they handle leafy greens (delicately). I learned that Irish soda bread, while incredibly simple to make, requires a gentle touch and a sense of Irish humor to truly perfect (at Ballymaloe, scoring the bread is referred to “as letting out the fairies.”) I learned how to ferment, in the forms of sourdough bread, kefir, kimchi, and kombucha. I shucked oysters, rolled sushi, crystallized flowers, baked flatbreads from India, Turkey, and Italy, deboned whole fish, and made puff pastry, jam, and fresh pasta.
There was in fact a profusion of potatoes and butter in almost every meal, but there was a bigger common thread throughout the recipes taught at the school. Returning back to my kitchen in San Francisco and attempting to bring home the spirit of Ballymaloe, I realized the biggest lesson I had learned was a foolproof formula for universally appealing food: cook only what’s in season, use the best locally-grown ingredients, add plenty of salt, and don’t make it too fussy. This is really what I came to know Irish cuisine as being all about.
White Soda Bread
Recipe care of Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe Cookery School
4 cups (1 lb./450 g) all-purpose flour, preferably unbleached
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 1/2 to 1 3/4 cups (12 to 14 fl. oz./350 to 400 ml) sour milk or buttermilk, as needed
Preheat an oven to 450ºF (230ºC).
Sift the flour, salt and baking soda into a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture and pour most of the milk in at once. Using one hand, mix in the flour from the sides of the bowl, adding more milk if necessary to create a dough that is softish, but not too wet and sticky. When the dough comes together, turn it out onto a well-floured work surface.
Wash and dry your hands, then use your hands to tidy up the dough and flip it over gently. Place the dough in the center of a well-floured baking sheet. Pat the dough into a round about 1 1/2 inches (4 cm) thick, then use a sharp knife to slash a cross in the dough to let the fairies out! Allow the cuts go over the sides of the bread to make sure of this.
Transfer the loaf to a baking sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, then turn down the oven to 400ºF (200ºF) until cooked through, about 30 minutes. To test for doneness, tap the bottom of the bread: if it is cooked it will sound hollow. Makes 1 loaf.