- Food & Drink
The staff at Ballymaloe are annoyingly opaque about the exams, which means the students are whipped into a froth of rumour and panic by the time exam day dawns. Foamy brain melts aren’t eased when Darina answers questions like ‘exactly how much we are meant to know about the cheeses?’ with: “The gist of everything we’ve taught you…. Everything on the hand outs.”
Everything? But we’ve tried about 30 cheeses over the course, and you want us to know everything about all of them – who makes them, where they’re from, how they’re made and what they taste like? Bugger.
So I approached week 12 with a certain amount of trepidation and a lot of late night tea drinking, as I desperately tried to revise all the notes on food law, food business, food hygiene, cheeses, breads, canapés, menu planning, sushi, seasonality, petit fours, flours, herbs, spices, salad leaves, meats and fish. Inevitably, this lead to dark circles under my eyes and the constant, bitter taste of tannin in my mouth, but no actual retained knowledge.
On top of my theory exam panic, there was the practical exam fear to manage as well. A 3 course meal (with optional petit four if you’re an utterly insane egomanic) plus a bread allocated by lottery, all to be cooked in under 3 hours.
To make the exam extra fun, we were asked to give a theme and season for the meal along with a matching wine. I chose a ladies lunch, as I go on many meals with female friends and I know the format well: arrive, order a bottle of white wine, muse over the menu talking about how we definitely all fancy the soup and grilled fish, immediately order deep fried cheese when the waitress arrives and then some sort of chicken dish for the main course to make up for the cheese.
After the mains, we read the dessert menu for ages before agreeing we definitely don’t want pudding and order a round of mint teas. Get bill, go.
To fit this format, I chose gratin of beetroot and Ardsallagh goat’s cheese as my starter, pan-grilled paillarde of chicken breast with roast cherry tomatoes, boiled new potatoes, rocket salad and aioli for main and lemon tart for dessert. The season was summer and the wine was super-fashionable Riesling followed by Sauternes.
Pan-grilled paillarde of chicken breast with roast cherry tomatoes, boiled new potatoes, rocket salad and aioli
I’d chosen my menu because the recipes used a few good techniques, not too much chopping (my finger and, therefore, left hand was still a bit wonky) and nothing would take too long. In theory. Once I’d added my bread – focaccia – into my order of work I realised it would take me a minimum of 5 hours to get everything cooked.
I wasn’t too worried. I could go 15 minutes over the time limit and then lose 1/2% per 15 minutes thereafter. Except, when I reread the paperwork after the exam I realised it was 1/2% off for every 5 minutes over. I went 2 hours and 15 minutes over the time limit. Woops.
I comforted myself with the stories of previous students who’d gone 6 hours over the time limit and that plenty of my fellow students had been in the kitchen for 1-2 hours more than they should’ve been. The students who hit the deadline were the ones who’d wisely made ice cream or sorbet for dessert in the cook ahead session the day before. Doing anything that involved shortcrust pastry was, in hindsight, a massive mistake (tasted nice, though).
Never mind, the next day was theory exam day and that would take up all my powers of worrying. 3 exams, all 11/2 hours long, covering everything I’d failed to revise and some things I didn’t even have notes on. The night before, at 3am and powered by cans of coke, I hastily crammed fire prevention, oils and vinegars and compost making. With that sort of knowledge base, I’m going to make a hell of a professional chef.
The first exam had big sections on food law and business practice and was a shocker. After that, they got easier as I got more light-headed and giddy with the thought that this was it. This was the end.
12 weeks: 84 days, 59 mornings cooking, 100s of hours wriggling about in the really uncomfortable demo room chairs. I’d completed the Ballymaloe Cookery Course and when you have lumpy scars and scorch marks up and down your arms, who needs a certificate? Well, I’d prefer 1. But if a finger with no feeling in it and a series of oyster pink scars over my hands is all I get, I’ll still be happy.