The Final Countdown
And, poof, just like that, it was over. Twelve weeks, done.
The past two weeks have been a blur. Ever since we got back from our brief respite up in Galway to celebrate Kincaid’s birthday and Thanksgiving, sort of, we were in week 11. There was so much yet to do and finish and our menus for our final exams had already been turned in so people were committed and practicing every chance they got. Which made for fun combinations of food at the Coach House.
Late in that week, we heard a rumor that in addition to everything else we needed to know for our exam, we'd also need to know all of the cuts of meat we’ve used and know recipes for them. WHAT?! I confirmed this with Emer, my teacher that week and she said, “You’ll have to know 10 cuts of meat and two recipes for each.” 😳 Holy Hell.
If there was one thing I didn’t feel too strong on, it was all the cuts of pork/bacon (the difference between the two is only a matter of salt) and lamb. Pretty sure I’d know a cow part… I mentioned this to several of my friends and they looked as I had, shell shocked, by the news. Whatever. I just added it to the already impossible list of things to learn.
When week 12 came, we had our last day in the kitchen on Monday and as I walked to the school that morning, it felt terribly bittersweet. Why is it when you’re at home, you long for adventure and when you’re on your adventure, you wish for home? 👠👠 I just couldn’t believe 12 weeks were almost over; all the days I made this same, early morning walk to the school in my chef whites had led me to this, last, day.
Well, a great day it was too, I had Pam for my teacher. I have grown so attached to her that I couldn’t look at her without choking up, even over questions about oven temperature. At the end of the morning, I was delighted with her comments and my marks for the morning, all 10s and one with a star. Irony is that in the first week, she said, “Don’t expect a 10! No one ever gets a 10.” Softie.
My day to cook was Thursday at 8:00 am and I felt oddly calm about it. The bread lottery had awarded me white yeast bread plaits which I felt good about, thanks to having spent 4 ½ hours in the bread shed with Timmy on Saturday, going over that very bread. Timmy Allen is one lovely man who gives of his time so selflessly to those who want to learn about anything-bread.
I spent a similar Saturday with him three weeks ago, ticking off certain things I hadn’t done yet. There were eventually 15 other people who turned up, needing similar help from him and it was remarkable to watch him go from person to person and know exactly where they were in their process and offer his expertise in that moment. I told him he reminded me of a mama dog with an enormous litter of puppies who had her paw on each one’s pulse. He is a real calming influence and never seems to get ruffled himself and I was so moved at how he genuinely cared about us all. And now, because of Tim, I am a fledgling bread baker who can knead, bench rest, knock back, roll out and plait with just enough confidence to fool any onlooker.
Thursday morning went well for me, though, in the end, I went a solid hour over the three hours allotted to us in which to cook. I was shocked by that too, thinking what I had chosen to do would be a snap. I’d done my cook-ahead the day before because my dessert has “gelatine” in it and needed to set up overnight. The prep for which only cost me 12 minutes of my three hours.
Before we did anything during our cook-time, we were to do our bread first. That, in total, cost me 30-35 minutes, dealing with it during the course of the morning. My menu was a starter of mushroom soup and the main course was pan-grilled sirloin steak with Béarnaise sauce, pan-roasted potatoes with garlic, romanesco and rocket leaves and watercress on top of the steak. My dessert was yogurt cardamom cream with pomegranate seeds and a tiny splash of rosewater, served in a delicate version of a martini glass. That was what I’d spent 12 minutes the day before putting together.
Before my time had begun that morning, I arrived 30 minutes early to choose my starter soup bowl, I had a particular style in mind, and main course plate and the vessels for serving all the food that didn’t wind up on my test plate. A warming oven was turned on and in my selections went. About 10 minutes after I gave my 15-minute notice that I was ready, I went to retrieve my plates and bowl from the oven and they were, gone. I froze and am sure I looked like a deer in the headlights because if there’s one thing that’s been ingrained in us, it’s, “don’t serve your food on cold plates.” And, I’d had them warming for this whole time so they were warm through and through.
I told Emer, the head teacher in our kitchen and who’d been there when I chose those pieces and put them in the oven for me, and she said, “Don’t worry. I’ll get you more,” and took off running. She came back with a bowl and a plate and put them in a really hot oven and told me, “One minute and they’ll be good.” Thank God for her.
At that point, I was in autopilot-mode. I’d meant to take a photo of my plate and ensure everything was just as I wanted it. I remember vaguely arranging the descending shapes of the four romanesco florets I was using on my plate, in the shape of an inverted comma, echoing the inner curve of the plate and acting as a green border to my culinary composition. I’d put in my menu that I intended to make my steak medium rare and I recall they were exactly that. Upon later reflection, I don't think I salted them. 😖
The bowl Emer had grabbed to replace my erstwhile starter bowl was a much bigger bowl. One I’d have used for a main course-something. Anyway, it was hot. And with the tiny bits of mushroom in it, I didn’t want to add to that confetti-like visual with chopped parsley, so I put one single parsley leaf in the center of the bowl, as Tracie, the teacher who’d gotten my examiners, Darina and Rachel Allen, no less, to come taste my food, stood by watching. Once the parsley hit the soup she said, “Now, GO!”
As I walked out of the room, I looked up at the clock and it was exactly 48 minutes past my three hours. Add to that the 12 minutes I’d taken to make the cardamom cream the day before and I was over one solid hour. Well, hell. What I’d thought was a simple, straightforward menu, was not. Everything needed to be done and ready at the same time, except for the soup but there was the matter of keeping a milk-based soup hot without scorching it and then the Béarnaise needed to be kept hot and yet kept from curdling. Steaks cooked last minute, along with the romanesco and the potatoes took the last 20 minutes and had to be kept warm if finished even a few minutes early.
As I stood there in the hallway while they tasted, I felt like one of those Iron Chef contestants. I’d done my best and it was what it was. Later, when my plaits had risen to the point that they could be baked, I brought them back to Tracie to show the tasting team and she said, “Them is some fine looking plaits!” So, at least there was that.
The next day, Friday, was exams, full stop. From 8:30-3:30. One of the hardest exams I ever took. Despite studying for two solid weeks, some things I knew, some things I didn’t. A lot of creative writing happened. #Bullshit
In summary of the spirit of the exam, on our WhatsApp group chat, one of our classmates wrote, “A friend calls and asks to come ‘round for dinner. You have four potatoes, two oranges, a spatula and a pasta machine. Calculate the mass of the sun.” 😜
That evening, the school hosted a farewell dinner where Rory and all of our teachers cooked for us. Like in the pop-up dinner, they’d transformed the Garden Café into a magical Christmas dining hall and our hearts were warmed by their efforts on our behalf. There was Champagne, whose bubbles innoculated everything. There was the pervading sense of a job well done, merriment, good cheer galore, speeches were made and the inevitable laughter and tears while we all absorbed the reality that this intense experience that had changed us all was fast coming to a close.
We did more than survive the Ballymaloe Concentration Camp; we took on that metaphorical mountain, knowing that old mountain climbers’ axiom, “Success is not counted by how high you have climbed but by how many people you brought with you.”
And, those people are now a part of us, forever.