My impression of Irish cooking has always been of relatively overcooked, barely seasoned, and heavy on the potatoes. In fact, when I worked in Northern Ireland at a camp founded to bring Catholic and Protestant children together in play, the family I stayed with served two or three different types of potatoes in a single meal. They ordered Chinese carryout from a place that served it on fat French fries, not rice. After suggesting we make a salad one night, I realized why she usually didn’t serve it. The only dressing in the store was called “Salad Dressing,” and it tasted worse than Miracle Whip. The wonderful woman who hosted me packed my lunches, which included two sandwiches, a bag of crisps, and at least one chocolate bar. I gained 10 pounds in a month.
So when my mother-in-law invited the women of our family to a week of cooking classes at the Ballymaloe Cooking School on the southwest coast of Ireland, I was excited, but dubious.
Thrilled for an opportunity to go to Ireland, of course. But learning to cook in Ireland? I could see learning to sing, do a jig, knit, speak Gaelic, play soccer, herd sheep, but cook?
Well, silly me! It turns out that one of the best cooking schools in the world is located in the coastal town of Shanagarry, along with renowned potter Stephen Pearce.
The Ballymaloe Cooking School provides multi-week intensive courses, delivered by the wonderfully entertaining and industrious Allen family. Siblings not famed for their culinary skills, run the nearby country manor, the organic farm that supplies the school and restaurant, and have even built a gorgeous event and concert hall to draw talent and audiences to their small village.
Unusual today to see several generations of one family working a business together so successfully. But that was only part of the joy of visiting this place.
The manor oozes comfort meshed with old landed gentry. The grounds and gardens are gorgeous, including a shell house that is wall to ceiling (and chandelier) made of seashells. The weather in June is warm and sunny with scattered showers in the afternoon. So we were able to take long cliff walks in nearby Ballycotton, and visit with the resident horses, peacocks and pigs. We even ventured on our half-days off from cooking school to quaint and prosperous Kinsale and the Jameson whiskey factory.
In school, we learned to cook everything from pizza and gourmet burgers to Spanish tapas and delicious soups and curries. At the end of every demonstration, we had the honor of a taste-test buffet that could not be topped by chefs at the nicest restaurants. We identified various kinds of lettuce and spice. We watched how octopus tentacles curl up the second they are immersed in boiling water.
Like our teacher, we began to whisper the looked-down-upon word “ketchup” and spell out the evil “m-i-c-r-o”, which is only to be used in the rarest of circumstances. A pesto lover, I learned that it is “rancid” all but a couple of months of the year. Gladly, I forgot which ones. So I continue to eat it year-round.
But what a unique gift and special treat!
Now, when I think of cooking in Ireland, I think of the women I traveled there with and the fun we had. I think of the best oatmeal I’ve ever had and the brown bread. Succulent meats and the freshest vegetable cooked to perfection. Delicious sweet cakes!
And I think of that regrettable 10 pounds – this time gained in only a week! Victim once again to the legendary cooking of Ireland!