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Irish get cooking, naturally

Email|Print| Text size + By Elizabeth Field
Globe Correspondent / May 21, 2006

SHANAGARRY, Ireland -- This country's traditional culinary heritage may be going the way of donkey carts and Sunday Mass.

A new generation of chefs, home cooks, and producers, buoyed by a vibrant economy, is recognizing the superiority of Ireland's farmhouse cheeses, grass-raised beef, home-smoked fish, and other natural ingredients. A new food culture is emerging. Ireland is now not only a hot foodie destination, but also an excellent place for learning to cook.

That new reality comes into focus at the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry where I recently arrived in time for lunch.

White-jacketed student chefs were laying out their morning's work. There were miniature twice-baked cheese souffles, lamb and spinach pate, purple onion marmalade, crunchy fennel and carrot salad, soda bread with farm butter, and lightly dressed organic greens. Not to mention fresh-squeezed lemonade and warm orange crepes with big balls of just-churned vanilla ice cream.

''This is not so much a cookery course as a whole organic experience," said Jenny Brocklebank, 33, a Londoner and former BBC producer, who was midway through the school's rigorous 12-week certificate course. Explaining that Ballymaloe raises most of its own food on 100 acres (and purchases the rest from local fishermen and farmers), she said, ''We're even tested on the names of the fresh herbs in the greenhouse."

A typical day in the residential course (some 60 students live in converted farm buildings at the school or find their own lodgings) begins with gathering greens and herbs for lunch, preparing stocks, and baking bread and desserts. Some 15 recipes will be prepared from the previous afternoon's lecture and demonstration.

During the course, students learn classic French and modern Irish cookery techniques, menu planning, wine service and storage, food preservation, food hygiene, and restaurant management. Successful completion of the course almost assures a job in any number of food-industry settings. Such training does not come cheap -- the course costs over $10,000 -- but graduates, including Bing Broderick, director of the bakery at the nonprofit Haley House Bakery Cafe in Roxbury, who was visiting his alma mater recently, swear it's worth the money.

The school was opened in 1983 by Darina Allen, the daughter-in-law of Ireland's pioneering food advocate, Myrtle Allen, who had opened the fabled Ballymaloe House restaurant in the 1960s. Located just a few miles from the school, Ballymaloe House offers the ultimate in Irish country house hospitality and cuisine. Darina Allen, 57, is an Irish cookery star, known for her cookbooks, TV series, and campaigns for sustainable agriculture.

In addition to the certificate course, Ballymaloe offers a variety of half-day to five-day courses on topics such as ''Afternoon Tea," ''Sushi Made Simple," ''Summer Entertaining," and ''Christmas Cooking." A new series of courses focusing on ''forgotten skills" includes ''How to Grow Organic Vegetables" and ''How to Make Traditional Ciders and Fruit Wines." For more information, go to www.cookingisfun.ie.

Several country house hotels offer cooking classes. Located on the magnificent 400-acre grounds of the Duke of Abercorn's 17th-century Belle Isle Castle on Upper Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, the Belle Isle School of Cookery offers daylong to weeklong courses including ''Summer Entertaining," ''Wine and Canapes," ''Game Cookery," ''One-Pot Dinners," ''Bread and Breakfast," and ''Just Married."

The courses are priced from $130 to $1,250. An intensive four-week diploma course costs nearly $3,500. All include accommodations in tastefully furnished courtyard apartments and meals. If you want to stay in the castle, you have to bring a group of eight to 14 to reserve the entire building. Prices vary according to time of year. For more information, go to www.irishcookeryschool.com.

Other country house/cookery schools that combine great opportunities for outdoor recreation include Ballyknocken House, a comfortably restored farmhouse in Ashford, County Wicklow, in the heart of prime hill-walking country, which offers Saturday classes on baking, entertaining, and Italian cookery. For more information, go to www.ballyknocken.com/class06.htm.

John Desmond, with his wife, Ellmary Fenton, runs the unique, seasonal Island Cottage restaurant and cookery school in a one-room farmhouse on tiny Heir Island off Skibbereen in West Cork. ''Our cookery school is probably the smallest in the world," Desmond said. It's accessible only by boat.

Their delightfully iconoclastic, 24-seat restaurant serves three-course set dinners with no substitutions. Desmond's cooking style emphasizes fresh local ingredients prepared simply. A typical menu might include marinated wild salmon served with homemade brown bread, followed by breast of duck with a red wine sauce, potato and carrot puree, and a tossed green salad and Gubbeen cheese. Dessert is a hot lemon crepe souffle with strawberry coulis.

In keeping with the minimalist approach, the school offers two options. A two-day course for two people features a morning workshop, perhaps on fish filleting or pasta making, followed by lunch, an afternoon beach walk with Fenton, an evening class, dinner, and an overnight stay. The second day includes another technical class and a three-course lunch. Students can invite six guests to join them for this lunch at a reasonable charge. Departure is in the afternoon. The course costs $300 per person.

A four-day intensive course for one person puts the student essentially in the driver's seat, helping Desmond prepare the restaurant's meals. With no prior experience needed, the student leaves the course with the skills and confidence to produce an elaborate meal for 24. The cost is $780, including accommodations. For more information, go to www.islandcottage.com.

You need not be an adult to attend cooking school in Ireland. Former hotelier Yvonne Rosenkranz opened Junior Chef Cookery School (www.juniorchef.ie) in Blackrock, just outside Dublin, five years ago, because she wanted to encourage children to eat in a fun and healthy way. The school offers day- and weeklong classes. Students prepare and eat simple family-friendly meals.

Contact Elizabeth Field, a freelance writer in Providence, at ezjfield@cox.net.

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