The staff at 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.”

My exam dishes

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.

Gratin of beetroot and Ardsallagh goat's cheese

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).

Lemon tart

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.

12 Responses to The Exams, Ballymaloe Cookery School

  1. Lizzie says:

    OOOF. What a slog. Well done you! When do you get the results?

  2. Rahul says:

    Darina (I imagine yr Darina) was described as the Delia Smith of Ireland by a book reviewer.

  3. Helen says:

    Massive, massive congratulations! You did it and you’ve got the scars to prove you ACTUALLY COOKED STUFF.

  4. Well done. I’m sure you did really well and I’m looking forard to watching all your post-Ballymaloe plans blossom.

    I can’t believe someone went six hours over time. That must have been one stressed chef by the end.

  5. Claudia says:

    The cook ahead time for my zabaglione semi freddo counted as well – I managed to do the semi freddo in 15 minutes. All in all the 3 course meal took me 15 minutes more than I calculated. I think it was impossible to stay within the time limit, especially if you had a white yeast bread or foccacia to bake.

  6. Laura Mercier says:

    Jassy, your food looks amazing for the exam – I’m sure you passed with flying colours!!

  7. ginandcrumpets says:

    @Lizzie We get out results/certificate and commemorative picture within 2 months of leaving the course. Seems a long time, but then my hand writing is extremely hard to read so marking m papers may take a while.

    @Rahul Yep, that’s how people explained her to me to try and convey just how famous she is in Ireland.

    @Helen I cooked stuff and I cooked it good (I hope).

    @klausandheidi The student in questions was described as a ‘perfectionist’. I think 9 hours for a 3 course meal goes beyond perfection, but hell, she still passed.

    @Claudia 15 minutes off your time from the cook ahead session versus the hour it took me to make the pastry, tart filling and crystallised lemon zest plus resting and cooking times is definitely the better option. Well done for straying just 15 minutes over. Even with a soda bread, I bet I’d have gone miles over!

    @Laura Aw, thanks Laura. It’s the soft focus and vaseline I rubbed over my camera lens that makes it look good!

  8. Brilliant! Well done… scarred and triumphant. I have so loved reading about this – now I shall look forward to reading about you being a professional chef!

  9. […] the tart with a ring of piped cream roses and strips of crystallised peel I had left over from my exam, but you might want to be a bit more grown up and less 1972 when serving […]

  10. […] Ballymaloe moment of the month: The 12 weeks at Ballymaloe whizzed by and before I was even a bit prepared, the exams were upon me. There was the wine exam, in which I confused pouilly fumé and pouilly fuissé (the social embarrassment); the written exams, where I had to list types of potato, demonstrate a thorough knowledge of HACCP and fire extinguishers and come up with an emergency menu for dinner with Rory O’Connell; and then there was the practical. […]

  11. tara says:

    Hey there gin,
    We are in week twelve as we speak… And freaking out! Any tips for the exam? They are so veg here, please help!!!!

    • ginandcrumpets says:

      Hi Tara, Sorry – not been checking in to the blog recently. Hope the exams went well and you enjoyed your time at Ballymaloe. bets of luck for the future.

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