Sunday 2 August 2015

A Summer Feast in the Garden of Eden

We had our annual Long Table Dinner in the greenhouses a couple of weeks ago in aid of the East Cork Slow Food Educational Project. It was completely sold out with a waiting list of people eager to come if there was a cancellation, even at the last minute. Six nationalities travelled here for it: English, South African, American, Swedish, French, Swiss... as well, of course, as a large Irish contingent.

This is always a wonderful time of the year in the Cookery School gardens, with everything looking lush and luxuriant. But I love to have the added excuse of a special event to polish everything up an extra notch.

The preparation for this event starts several months ahead. After the early potato crop was harvested, Tim and the garden team planted grass seed in a couple of bays of the greenhouses. This lush lawn creates a beautiful green carpet for the Long Table Dinner. The field kitchen in the neighbouring bay was beautifully screened off with fresh beech branches and willow lattice. 

Pam was in charge of the table operation. A few students from the summer Twelve Week Course had asked to stay on to help at the dinner. 

They loved the experience, and being able to see the behind the scenes preparation, cooking and serving of a summer feast for a hundred people.

For the past couple of weeks there has been a frenzy of activity - with Rory testing and tasting dishes made with the seasonal summer produce. Here's the menu he eventually chose:
Menu illustrated by Lydia Hugh-Jones

The weather forecast was pretty grim, so we all held our breath... Guests started to arrive at 4pm and Colm McCann and his team had some cava with elderflower or rhubarb cordial and fresh mint lemonade ready for the guests. Emer and Pat grilled sourdough bread and topped it with heirloom tomatoes and basil, or scrambled organic eggs and Ballycotton lobster.

Despite our apprehension, we were fortunate with the weather. About an hour before the guests arrived there was the sort of sudden downpour that we've become accustomed to this "summer". But after that it was blue skies all the way.

We welcomed the guests and thanked them for supporting the East Cork Slow Food Educational Project - and explained we are saving up to convert a disused shipping container into a prototype teaching kitchen for local schools to teach their pupils how to cook the produce they grow in their school gardens.

After the aperitif and nibbles, the guests divided into a couple of groups for a walk through the organic farm and gardens. We explained that the Cookery School and farm are completely integrated: the School is our indoor classroom, we use the farm and gardens as an outdoor classroom. We showed them the photovoltaic system that generate electricity for the School, even on dull days, and the student beds where local children learn how to sow seeds and grow vegetables and herbs. Many were also fascinated by the dairy, where our Jersey cows are milked and the butter, buttermilk and yoghurt are made. 

We wandered down through the herb garden, the wild flower meadow, and the vegetable and fruit gardens, arriving at the glasshouse just minutes after 6pm

At this time of the year it looks like the Garden of Eden with kiwi and passionfruit overhead, and a wonderful variety of aubergines, sweetcorn, chilis, salad leaves, peppers, beans, heirloom tomatoes, beets, zucchini ... as well as peach, fig, nectarine and grapevines around the edges - so beautiful.

The Gardeners - Rupert, Sheanie and Colman - were playing trad. music as we arrived. 

People took their seats. It was all very convivial, as is the nature of Slow Food events. There was no seating plan, so people could mix and mingle and make new friends. 

And then the feast began.

We started with a Garden Leaf and Herb Flower Bouquet with Almond and Marjoram, Grape and Elderflower Mist served in little glasses, which had been assembled minutes earlier from the freshly picked leaves.

There was lots of freshly baked Ballymaloe Brown Yeast Bread and Jersey butter from the farm. The flavour of homemade butter was a trip down memory lane for many guests.

The second course was served family-style, the guests helped themselves and each other to: 

Beef Carpaccio with Horseradish and Tarragon

Sushi Rice with Smoked Ballycotton Pollock and Ruby Beetroot

Hot Smoked Wild Blackwater Salmon in Oeufs Mimosa

and Mustard Seed Pickled Cucumbers.

The main course was also sensational, in the words of the guests around me: Grilled Breast of Nora Ahern's Duck with Stonewell Tawny Cider, Roast Nectarines and Mint.

Rory had also braised the duck legs and wings with Indian spices, Llewellyn’s balsamic vinegar and tomatoes. That dish too was enthusiastically received. 

The Jersey butter and sea salt on the table embellished the floury new potatoes, a variety called Colleen, and the green beans which had been dug and picked not more than a half an hour before dinner.

Next the cheese course: Kinoith Farm Dairy Labne made with dripped natural yoghurt, served with Radishes, Savoury, Highbank Orchard Apple Syrup and Homemade Cheese Biscuits.

Then pudding, which was quite simply irresistible:

A Compote of Cherries with Kirsch

An Iced Sandwich of Peach, Raspberry and Buttermilk 

And Crème Brulee peppered with Mark Kingston’s Single Estate Coffee

Needless to say, everyone had to have a taste, or rather several, of everything.

Robin Wight, one of the guests who has been coming to Ballymaloe for almost 50 years, gave a touching speech and proposed a thank you toast to my mother-in-law Myrtle Allen (pictured below), and my late father-in-law Ivan Allen, who opened Ballymaloe House restaurant in 1964, without whom none of us would have been gathered together. 

The music played on, and then there were JR's raspberry marshmallows, candied chocolate orange peel, biscotti, and madeleines, still warm from the oven. Served with coffee and fresh herb tisanes

It was a truly memorable dinner, and a sumptuous celebration of summer produce. A big thank you to Tim and his ace team in the farm and gardens, Rory and his talented crew of Ballymaloe cooks, and each and everyone else who worked so hard to make it such a special night.