Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food & Wine
As I stumble through figuring out how to use the new features after the site upgrade, I’ve got a backlog of posts and pictures that I’ve been anxious to share. It also has taken me a week to recover from my weekend in Cork, Ireland, as a guest at the Kerrygold Ballymaloe Litfest, where I was a speaker in this year’s line-up. I’d only been to Ireland once before and was immediately taken with the country; the terrain is beautiful, the drizzly weather means large expanses of green grass and you’ll find cows grazing just off the side of winding roads. I learned how to make a real Irish Coffee, and best of all, I ate remarkably well with most foods coming from local farms and producers who had just pulled their vegetables from their gardens, which appeared on their dinner tables just a few hours later. When you mention you like a “brand” of something in the area, such as Gubbeen sausage, people will invariably respond – “Oh, yes – Fingal (Ferguson)…he does make a fine sausage, doesn’t he?”
Ballymaloe is the famed cookery school started by Darina Allen in 1983, who wanted to showcase the bounty of Ireland to the world. And what a bounty it is! I arrived a day before the festival started to get settled in, and even before I sat down for the first meal, food started showing up everywhere, including platters of foods yanked from their gardens for visitors to nibble on. I think during the weekend I ate at least three dozen radishes. Come to think of it, make that about three dozen per day.
I couldn’t help but take a gazillion photos and as I mentioned before, it’s impossible to take a bad picture in Cork. The fruits and vegetables are stellar, the people are super generous about letting you come in and show you around (and to let you take photos!), and they’re happy to lop off a piece of cheese for you to taste just because they’re proud of what they make and want to share.
When I’d arrived on the short flight from Paris, Eamon, a volunteer from the community, met me at the airport and offered to take me anywhere I wanted to go for the entire weekend, along with a small team of other locals who’d volunteered their time for the weekend to make sure we were well taken care of. One thing I forgot about Ireland is how friendly everybody is. Hmm, I could get used to this!
The festival is a community effort and I went thinking there would be a few hundred people coming. When they told me they expected up to 8000 people, I then envisioned myself hiding for most of the weekend in my room, as I’m not fond of large crowds. (Especially when there is food offered as that can bring out something in people who I’m not happy to be a part of.)
But that wasn’t the case at the festival and this cheesemaker calmly fashioned a makeshift table out of a cutting board, and his chest, then sliced cheese for people who patiently waited for a taste while bantering with them. A far cry from the sample stations at Costco.
Although I didn’t catch the names of his cheeses, I brought back some Kerrygold cheddar that had been made with a bit o’ Irish whiskey in it, thinking it’d be a fun novelty to take back to Paris for some French friends to try. (You can sometimes find good English cheddar and Stilton in cheese shops in Paris, but I’ve not seen Irish cheese.) I am not really a fan of cheese with “things” in it. I like gouda with cumin, and once had a cheese with nettles in it that I liked a lot, but I tend to avoid novelty cheeses. Yet the whiskey blended in was just enough to provide a smooth, barely perceptible smoky background flavor, and it got eaten faster than the Neufchâtel from Normandy that I’d served alongside. Touché!
The first time I visited Ireland, on Day #1 I was handed me a pair of Wellies (tall green rubber boots) for walking through the fields, which at first I didn’t quite get. Then I learned rather quickly while walking through farms and fields that you need to step carefully to avoid piles of cow patties. I’ve gotten pretty good at that living in Paris (along they’re much smaller), but those boots are essential as no matter how experienced of a pile-jumper you are. (I may start wearing them in Paris.) The reward for all that doody-dodging is the stellar milk the Jersey cows produce and at Ballymaloe, there are raw milk dispensers set up in a couple of places. The one above was in the kitchen of the cookery school, filled with ice-cold raw milk, ready for cooking and drinking.
I was put up in a room at Ballymaloe House, the hotel that is a short Eamon-ride from the actual school, which is a mile or so away. They have bikes to use, but Irish roads are really narrow and the idea of dodging cars driving on the reverse side of the road made me nervous. So I took the safe route. Ballymaloe House is old stone building transformed into guest rooms with a restaurant and a shop next to it and I was happy to call it home for a few days.
Most of the ingredients served in their dining room are either grown there, fished from the waters nearby, or culled from local farms and producers. The food is basic, yet wholesome and good. Well-prepared without a lot of fuss. If you’re looking for scribbles of balsamic vinegar or plates whose edges are dusted with powder of some sort, you won’t find it there.
I am famous, or infamous, for being grumpy in the morning. I’m a people-person…but only after I’ve had my morning coffee, preferably alone. (Romain knows the drill, although I’ve learned to accept someone talking to me in the morning even though it’s not my preferred way to start the day.) However Irish breakfasts are legendary and even the crankiest morning person/me would bloom into a happy lad when faced with freshly baked soda bread, Irish scones, just-churned butter with big chunks of sea salt in it, fruit jams made from berries picked from the gardens, and free-range eggs laid in their hen-houses, which are also sold in their shop. They cost €2,75 for a half-dozen and when I posted a picture of them on social media, someone was shocked and remarked at how expensive they were.
True, 45¢ per egg might seem pricey to some people. But when you taste how good they are, and you know the chickens are well-treated, I don’t think 90¢ for a couple of great eggs that change a crabby fellow into a happy lad is such a bad price. Last time I was near the hen-house at the cookery school, the tiny chicks were running all over the place, including through the offices of the school and Darina said to us, “I know, I know, they shouldn’t be here. But I can’t help it. They’re so cute!” Cute always comes at a cost, and if you want me cute, not cranky at 8am, feed me a couple of good farm eggs – and Irish bacon.
Anyone who has known her knows that Darina is a hard person to argue with. In fact, I don’t think she knows the word “no” and every time I’ve seen her, she was always doing something. When she jumped into the kitchen to help serve lunch to festival participants and I snapped that shot, I jokingly said after I took it, “Wow. A rare picture of Darina serving food.” The rest of the staff, not used to my humor (or attempt at humor), were momentarily stunned. Then got the joke after I’d explained it.
After fortifying myself with coffee, it was hard not to give my full attention to the food served at the full Irish breakfast at Ballymaloe House, which more than one person has described as “legendary.” In addition to the breads baked that morning, and the eggs, jam, and butter, there was fresh-squeezed orange juice, an array of fruit compotes, porridge, and everything from blood sausage to Irish bacon, which I made sure to have every morning. My very first morning, I also fell in love with the pottery serving pieces that were on the tables, especially the little half-glazed pots filled with various jams.
No sooner than right after I mentioned how much I loved them, the legendary server, Anne Mack, who’s been serving breakfast at Ballymaloe House for decades, said in her Irish voice, “Oh, they’re just down the road there a bit. You can go right after breakfast.” I asked how far was “a bit” was, and others in the dining room joined in and said it was just a few miles. But like everything in Cork, it was pas de problème and I was happy to get a lift with a new pal, natural wine expert Alice Feiring, to visit Stephen Pearce pottery.
Mr. Pearce was walking around the shop that was set in a little wooded area, and was the kind of person if he heard me call him “Mr.” would tell me to stop. The large, rough workshop was filled with shelves of beautiful Irish pottery, glazed simply, with gentle, pleasing forms and useful shapes.
I didn’t see my name on a mug, which was probably a good thing, but I saw a lot of other things I wanted and picked up several of the small jam/butter pots that I have no idea what I’m going to do with, but I couldn’t resist. I also spent more than a few moments rifling through the seconds room, too, and got some small bowls that had glaze flaws, which I find charming.
I’m not on commission, and your wallet might not thank me, but they do sell mail-order, and I was happy to be able to stop in personally and add a few pieces to my pottery collection, which is starting to grow at and alarming rate. I’m not kidding – piled up in my office right where I’m typing are five various stacks of plates, bowls, gratin dishes, and whatever else you can think of, cluttered up on the shelves. I think it’s a sickness and someday I’ll stop.
Just not right now.
Although my stomach was, oddly, rumbling for more of those Irish scones that I remembered from that morning, when we got back to Ballymaloe it was – yup…almost time for lunch.
But since it wasn’t quite time, Alice and I stopped into the café where we had cups of the excellent coffee roasted just next door to the café at The Golden Bean, and pondered over – yup, a scone with butter and jam, or something else to eat.
We tried some of the cookies made from Irish oatmeal…
…until, finally, it was lunchtime. (There was actually only a 25 minute gap between when we returned and when lunch was served. But that was enough time for a treat, right? And I had to spend a little extra time taking that young fellow’s picture a few times over and over again because his hair was so high, my lens couldn’t get it all in!) Lunch featured heaps of green salads – just the thing I love to eat, then me and Rebecca, another pal that I made that weekend, hit the kitchen to make bread with Darina’s husband, Tim. (Which I’m still testing in my home kitchen…I’ll post as soon as I get it right, I promise.) After he mixed up the brown bread, he grabbed a few jars of starter and effortlessly started mixing the dough for a few loaves of sourdough bread for the evening’s dinner.
My jaw kind of dropped when we walked through the kitchen because I can’t imagine a better place to cook, overlooking the gardens and the farm, with bundles of fresh herbs, crates of vegetables, and yes – flats of free-range eggs – ready for crackin’.
They were making a very green, young garlic pesto to jar up for the shop that smelled like exactly the kind of thing I’d want to have on hand in my pantry at all times, as well as bottling up sweet red chile sauce. Alas, neither would pass muster at the airport, as I was going carry-on only. (Nope. I wasn’t trusting my pottery to baggage handlers.)
But lest you think it was all eating (it was Ireland, so I can let you use your imagination about the drinking – but since I wanted to blend in, so I thought it only polite if I occasionally took part), I was there primarily for the Litfest, which was just about to begin. So I headed back to the room to shower and shave before the guests arrived. All 8000 of them, give or take a few.
The good news is that they didn’t all come at once. Since the festival takes place over the weekend and there are lots of activities – talks, discussions, cooking demonstrations, and meals – it never felt crowded, frantic, and I wasn’t traumatized. In fact, it was great.
People were happy to stand and chat, drink a beer (or two), and all that gorgeous produce was put to very good use over the weekend. Stands set up by local businesses prepared ribs, falafels, blackcurrant cordials, grain salads, wood-fired pizzas, smoked salmon sandwiches, smeared Kerrygold Irish butter on scones (the one they gave me had a ratio of 2:1 butter to scone – and yes, the “2” was the butter), and crusty loaves of artisan bread.
The young people worked hard all weekend, setting up their stands and serving everyone, never getting flustered, even when the power went out in the whole “Big Shed” that held all the food stands, musicians, and bartenders, who in addition to pouring endless glasses of beer, poured a mean gin & tonic, too. All the twenty-somethings preparing food told me they were proud to serve local, fresh foods, and even the older folks said they like to get as much as they can from their neighbors, which is a sharp contrast to people who think that fresh, local foods are out-of-reach or upscale. (My copious falafel made to order by Jack of Rocket Man Food Co, above, cost about the same as a fast-food burger and fries, and was a heckuva lot better.) It can be done. And if you don’t believe me, move to Cork – like I am.
There were a number of interesting panels at the festival, from foraging in the nearby sea for edible seaweed, which I missed because I didn’t bring my Wellie’s, a talk broaching the subject “Is wine going out of fashion?”, coffee cupping with Norwegian barista Nick Wendelboe, an amazing slide show about Chinese cuisine by Fuchsia Dunlop (my new dream is to go to China with her), to discussions on more serious topics, such as what’s happening to our soil and how do we feed our most vulnerable.
I went to a lively cocktail talk and tasting with Nick Strangeway and Oisin Davis, and one on Irish whiskey that was interesting but went a little over (and to) my head as I don’t have that much background in whiskies (although I do love them, which is what counts), as well as a tasting from master gin distiller Desmond Payne, where we learned about how gin is made. Some have all their flavors added during distillation, and others add them afterward, for example. And the only flavoring that gin has to have to be called “gin” is juniper.
I like gin but never really knew all that much how it’s made. But the most important thing about any drink is how it tastes. And taste we did! The gins we tried had everything from tea, elderflowers, hibiscus, and lemon verbena added. I loved discerning all the different nuances and flavors in the gins we tried, although wondered how pronounced they’d be in mixed into drinks since gin is rarely drunk straight Clearly more experimentation was needed when I got home. Note to self: Stock up on gin for the summer.
My talk at the literary festival covered a lot of things. It was listed as a “fireside chat” so I chatted about how I began doing what I do, to what I’m doing now, with a few people asking about my future which I couldn’t answer. (Hey, if I could predict the future, I’d be buying lottery tickets.) As I usually do, I got teary-eyed twice during my talk – normally I only cry once, as I tend to get emotional when I speak in public, but I loved answering questions and talking to everyone at not just my talk, but during the entire event. So many conferences are about “getting” something. This one was different, and was about sharing and participating rather than bringing something tangible home. A suitcase full of pottery, notwithstanding.
Part of my discussion was what brought me to where I am today, to Paris, and how I went from dishwasher, to cooking in restaurants, to being a pastry chef, to writing cookbooks and my blog. I noted how things have changed in the last decade in the world of cookbooks, as well as in blogging – and what the differences are and how I respond to each. I’ve written about it before, but the summation is that cookbooks these days need to be more than recipes since most of those can be found online. People are responding to books with a story behind it, or books that feature a single-subject and do a good job covering them.
Blogging has changed a lot since a lot of us started, especially in the last few years where things like social media, photography, some tech know-how, and new blogging platforms for publishing have made things better, but take up a lot more time and energy. It’s like telephones: We used to pick up the phone when someone called. We’d talk, then hang up when we were done. It was easy. Then we got message machines so that we wouldn’t miss a call. Then we got smartphones, which let us take our phones with us, customize ringtones, allow us to edit and send photos, send a text, listen to music, check our email, order a car, book a trip, find a place to have dinner, and basically always be connected. So while the telephone has been vastly improved, we’re all spending a lot more time doing things other than having a simple chat with a friend with what was once a simple device. And just getting the device to do all those things correctly can be a part-time job.
We’re all constantly shifting and adapting to new ideas and technology, and the challenge is to find a way to balance it all and still have time for that simple chat with a friend. It’s gotten harder to stop and “smell the flowers” – to go for a walk or set up a picnic, read a book, have a nice (and phone-free) meal with others, and not try to “get” anything out of every experience, but just to be present and enjoy it. That’s something I’m working on myself these days.
Speaking of friends and family, finishing up the Litfest was a panel with Alice Waters, David Tanis, April Bloomfield, and me, about our experiences cooking at Chez Panisse. David was the café chef when I arrived, way back around 1983, and is now a popular New York Times columnist. April worked at the restaurant for several months before going on to open her own highly successful restaurants in New York and San Francisco. And Alice, of course, started Chez Panisse back in 1971 with the idea of having a local hangout where friends could gather for a simple meal and a glass of wine, and ended up changing the way America eats. (When I started cooking at the restaurant, few people in the U.S. knew what blood oranges, goat cheese, or arugula was.) You don’t often hear people say what an honor it is to use the ingredients we had access to, or to work in a restaurant kitchen, and it’s hard to sum up the experience in a few lines here. But we all expressed in our own way how working at Chez Panisse changed us, and the most interesting question posed by the moderator was – “What did you take away from working at Chez Panisse?”
Mine was that I taste things, which seems simple, but it drives me bonkers when I go out to eat and get presented with a plate of food that no one in the kitchen has tasted or thought about what it would be like to sit down and actually eat it. Sometimes it’s a mish-mash of flavors and ingredients that may have sounded interesting in someone’s head, but on the plate, makes no sense. I also learned that only very rarely is something complicated actually better. (Hmmm, like our smartphones – are we actually better off?) It’s of zero interest to me when I get a plate of overwrought, tortured food. That’s not what eating is about.
While cooking professionally is, indeed, work. The whole idea is cooking or baking up something that you, or someone else, will like to eat should be of utmost importance. I’m happiest with a plate of sticky ribs, a fried egg on buttered toast with black pepper and salt, vegetables sauteed in butter, a scoop of very good, dark chocolate ice cream (sometimes, with sprinkles…), or just an heaped up bowl of salad greens dressed with a garlic vinaigrette. In fact, I think I got my job at the restaurant when during my job interview with Alice, she asked what I liked to eat and a little flustered, I answered, “A big green salad.” And she said, “So do I.”
A lot more was discussed and laughed about (and yup, I got a little teary during one of my responses here, too), but when I left Chez Panisse, I remember saying to Alice that after thirteen years of working with her, that I was still afraid of her, and she replied – “Good.” So every time I make something, or put out a plate of food, I taste it carefully, remembering how she would come by and taste with us at the restaurant, insisting that we let the ingredients shine and not to overcomplicate things. The focus should be on flavor and taste.
Even though I had a few nice pieces of pottery, some streaky bacon, and plenty of great memories packed up to bring home with me, I made one last stop in the Ballymaloe gift shop as I couldn’t resist picking up a few pieces of Falcon bakeware, which cost more than a half-dozen eggs, but less than a falafel. I like the simple lines, the lack of pretension, and the sturdy utilitarianism of them. A lot of the young cooks manning the food stands were using them, as well as bowls of the locally made Stephen Pearce pottery, for mixing and serving food to the guests at the festival, and it was nice to take home a little reminder of what a great weekend it was in Ireland.