Many people feel that we are becoming increasingly disconnected from the food that we eat. At worst there are those who believe that meat comes in neat little vacuum-packed plastic trays with little idea of which animal provided that meat and that salads come pre-washed in plastic bags. We are prepared to sacrifice flavour so that all our fruits and vegetables are of a uniform size rather than understand how to get the best out of the ingredients that we are presented with. Somewhat ironically, despite the tough economic climate in recent times, we still throw away thousands of tons of food each year.
Somewhere along the way something seems to have gone wrong.
With the pressures of modern life, the last thing that any of us want when we come home from work after a long and stressful day is to have to prepare a meal from scratch. It is perhaps understandable that it seems easier to order a ‘take-out’ or to pop something into the microwave for a few minutes but the truth is that many meals can be prepared quickly using fresh ingredients for a fraction of the cost of these so-called ‘convenience’ foods. Ultimately, without understanding where our food comes from and appreciating the effort that goes into producing it, it is impossible to have respect for it.
However, there appears to a shift in thinking and more and more people are now keen to grow their own fruit and vegetables and reconnect with what they eat. Cheaper cuts of meat are now regularly seen on fine dining restaurant menus and there is a resurgence in the popularity of the foods that fed our ancestors. People want to know where their food comes from and there is increased interest in back-to-basics cooking based around the seasons.
Ballymaloe Cookery School was set up in 1983 by Darina Allen and her brother Rory O’Connell with the aim of showing us all how we can cook great food using the wonderful ingredients available to us in this country. The school enjoys a world-wide reputation for excellence and has taught thousands of students since being set up.
In addition to the intensive 12-week Certificate Course, a number of shorter courses are offered throughout the year covering subjects as diverse as Butter & Cheesemaking, Cake Decoration, Seafood Cookery and Sushi Made Simple amongst many others. Whilst some of the courses are demonstrations, many are hands-on meaning that you get the chance to cook and prepare food for yourself. At all times the emphasis is on the quality of the ingredients used, many of which are grown on Ballymaloe’s 100 acre organic farm or are sourced from local organic suppliers.
One particular course that caught my eye was the one-day Home Butchery, Charcuterie & Sausage Making with Philip Dennhardt, so I booked myself a place on it and was looking forward to my day away in Ballymaloe.
The focus of this course was pig butchery and as we entered into the large cookery demonstration area we caught sight of the pig carcass that we would use during the day. It had already been split in half lengthwise but other than that, all of the butchery that took place was carried out in front of us.
Originally from Germany, Philip Dennhardt is a master butcher who has been living in Cork and teaching at Ballymaloe for a number of years. He is a mine of information about all aspects of butchery and encouraged us to ask questions throughout the course. It was fascinating to learn about the tradition of pig-slaughter and to realise that not so long ago many families living in the country would keep their own pigs which they would rear, slaughter and butcher themselves. No piece of the animal that could be used was wasted or thrown away and consequently, people were very creative in the dishes that they would make to feed their families. To illustrate this point Philip then prepared a dish of Brawn (Head Cheese) which is made from the whole head of the pig.
There are countless recipes for Brawn but we used Darina Allen’s which is included in her book Forgotten Skills of Cooking. The fresh pig’s head must be brined first in a solution of salty water before being gently simmered in a large pot of water and vegetables for a number of hours. After this time the meat, including the pig’s tongue and some of the fat, is picked from the bones and roughly chopped before being mixed with herbs, seasoning and some of the reduced cooking liquor. Packed into bowls, it is then weighted down and refrigerated to help it set. Although initially it might not sound appetising, this was one of the tastiest things I have eaten in a long while and something that I would be more than prepared to try making at home.
Philip then showed us how to make a Pancetta-style cured ‘bacon’ using the pork-belly from the pig that we had butchered. What amazed me was how relatively simple this was to achieve. In order to make it, you essentially need good quality fatty meat into which you rub a generous amount of salt and spices before hanging in a cool, dry spot. After a couple of days you can wash the cure off the meat and use it as bacon but given the right conditions you can also choose to let it ripen for at least 4 weeks and let the natural enzymes do their work in order to create Pancetta.
The difference between dry-curing and wet-curing was also explained to us and we were shown how even the fat of the animal can be cured. Coppa, Guanciale and Lardo are all made by curing fat and are considered delicacies, seen on many fine-dining restaurant menus.
During the morning, as Philip butchered the pig, he collected any off-cuts and scraps of meat together and these were minced and used later in the day to make Sausages. Interestingly we learnt that although sausages made from 100% lean meat might sound appealing, a certain amount of pork fat should be included to create sausages that are juicy and succulent to eat. Some of the students then volunteered to fill the minced meat mixture into natural sheep and hog casings using a hand-operated machine to create the sausages. This was great fun and a skill that Philip assured us was easy to acquire with a little practice.
Moving on Philip also showed us how to make Frankfurters to his own recipe which included cold-smoking the filled sausages for at least an hour. Keeping to the sausage theme, we then covered the principles behind the making of Salami and Chorizo.
Finally we stuffed the Loin of Pork with a simple herb and breadcrumb stuffing and roasted it in the oven along with its covering of skin which we scored to create the crispiest pork cracking imaginable. This was accompanied by Bramley Apple Sauce, Braised Red Cabbage, Roast Potatoes and Buttered Carrots as the centrepiece of a feast to finish the day. Also included were the cooked sausages and frankfurters we had made during the day along with samples of cured meats. All these were delicious and we left with our bellies full and smiles on our faces after a most enjoyable day.
I really enjoyed my day at Ballymaloe and would recommend this course to anyone. Philip Dennhardt is a great teacher with an easy manner who succeeds in making the subject accessible. Extensive notes and all the recipes from the day are given to all participants and I felt the price at €195 was reasonable considering all we learnt and the fact that we were fed so well during the day. The price also included a light lunch which consisted of wonderful pizzas cooked in the wood-fired ovens in the café attached to the cookery school. The pizzas were delicious as were the salads and desserts that we also ate.
Self-catering accommodation is available to those attending courses in the school with further details available when booking.
I’m simply someone who loves cooking and experimenting with food and different ingredients. From my early childhood spent in Zambia and Australia before returning home to Ireland I was fascinated with cookbooks and reading recipes. I would spend many hours reading my grandmother’s cookbooks and watching her preparing food in the kitchen.
Although I studied to become a graphic designer and spent a few years working in advertising before then becoming a civil servant, the one thing I always wanted to be was a food writer – sharing my enthusiasm for cooking with others, but I lacked the confidence to do the thing I wanted to do most in case I failed. I finally decided to take a risk and applied for MasterChef Ireland 2014 and was one of the three finalists.
For me, food and cooking is about family, friendship, sharing and conviviality. As a mother of three, I want my children to grow up with a love and appreciation of how lucky we are to live in a country like Ireland with such great produce and so many wonderful food producers. I continue to write and share my enthusiasm for food on my food and recipe blog The game bird Food Chronicles at http://thegamebird.blogspot.ie/