Sharing the Culinary Soul of Ireland
We may be baking at home, but our hearts and kitchens are full of Irish inspiration. We recently made a trip to Ireland, capturing the best and brightest the island has to offer in the form baked comfort. Perhaps nothing captures the Irish culinary spirit like visiting cookery school. We take an inside look at two cookery schools—one new school in Northern Ireland, Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen and a decades-old, award-winning institution in County Cork, Ballymaloe Cookery School—that offer an immersive, intimate taste of their island. We may not be able to visit right now, but the recipes, photography, and memories we share from these cookery school’s make the wait a bit easier.
The anticipation builds, as we make our way through the beautiful countryside in Shanagarry, County Cork in Ireland’s Ancient East into the final stretch: an evergreen oak-lined road leading to the one and only Ballymaloe Cookery School. The internationally-renowned, multi-award-winning cookery school has shaped generations of Irish chefs and bakers, and the island’s culinary culture as we know it today. The best part about Ballymaloe? All are welcome. Visitors stopping through and culinary professionals alike can partake in the magic of this cookery school.
I step into the charming gravel courtyard surrounded by a beautifully restored collection of pink and gray farm cottages—Mind the hens!— and am immediately greeted by distant mooing of the small herd of Jersey cows lining up at the dairy for their morning milking. Ballymaloe is the only cookery school in the world situated on its own extensive, certified-organic farm in one of the most fertile parts of Ireland.
Full-time students clad in their chefs whites rush by, and a few of founders Darina and Tim Allen’s grandchildren smile and skip past in their farm boots. Ballymaloe has been a family affair since 1948, when Tim’s parents bought the property. It was Tim’s mother, Myrtle Allen, who Darina—Ireland’s best-known food ambassador—first came to work under in the restaurant Myrtle ran from their country home, Ballymaloe House. In 1983, Darina and Tim started the cookery school with Darina’s brother Rory O’Connell, and most of Darina and Tim’s now-grown children are involved with the school today. Along with a slew of talented on-site instructors and celebrity guest chefs, Darina, Tim, Rory, and Darina and Tim’s daughter-in-law Rachel—who also happens to be a TV chef and cookbook author—teach cooking and baking classes.
One of their sons Toby, who oversees the 100 acre organic farm, was kind enough to show us around the land and its various gardens. (If you plan to walk the farm like we did, be sure to wear sensible shoes.) We stroll the picturesque country lanes lined with elder trees, ancient beech hedges, and heirloom apple varieties, taking in all of Ballymaloe’s wonders, from The Old Pleasure Garden to the formal Celtic Maze and Herb Garden based on the formal vegetable gardens at Villandry Palace in Loire Valley, leading to the house covered in shells. In the acre of glass greenhouses, the Ballymaloe team and students farm a variety of crops, like tomatoes, cucumber, herbs, and salad greens along with exotic fruits like kiwi and nectarines. In the fields lined with organic vegetables, we spot Tim, a horticulture specialist, speaking animatedly about sea kale to a group of eager students, who are in the gardens to pick the produce for the morning’s cooking classes. The menus students will learn from are written daily around seasonal vegetables grown on the farm, and the recipes that are collaboratively cooked in each class are driven by the seasons and availability of ingredients. At Ballymaloe, the ingredients have always been of paramount importance. We run into Tim again in the Bread Shed, where he teaches students the art of sourdough and how to make their own wild yeast with Ballymaloe’s 15-year-old starter. Looking out over the vivid landscape dappled with sunlight and draped in dew, Tim tells me this bakery has the best view in the world. I can’t argue that.
We head to the main, ivy-covered building, a structure formerly used to store apples, a few yards away, as class is about to begin. At the main entrance, a copy of William Butler Yeats’s poem “Down by the Salley Gardens” hangs near a chalkboard list of a few wild foods and flowers currently in season: watercress, nettles, rosehips, dandelions, and elderberries. Another small sign reads, “Make hummus, not war.” In the classroom, surrounded by massive windows overlooking the orchards and gardens, students gather around two massive islands to learn not only to cook and bake but also how to utilize and appreciate the landscape around them, working in harmony with nature and its seasons.
Light and love pour in, and Darina, a 71-year-old with a bright silver bob and signature bright-rimmed glasses, is right in the midst. In Darina’s presence, it’s hard not to feel the magnitude of her passion and dedication to the Slow Food movement she pioneered. She introduced farmers’ markets to Ireland 30 years ago (there are more than 170 in Ireland today) and has authored 18 best-selling cookbooks, among a slew of other accolades, but in this classroom kitchen, she thrives. This is her primary passion, educating the hundreds of students who pass through the doors of Ballymaloe every year. Darina talks about food like she’s telling a grand tale that she’s sharing for the first time, a captivating secret that no one else is in on but you. She’ll share why you have to let the fairies out of your soda bread, and teach you to make scones the same way her mother taught her.
Although times may have changed and the school has doubled in size since its start, the essential spirit and magic of Ballymaloe is still just as alive as it was from the beginning. Don’t leave Ireland without experiencing it for yourself.
VISIT BALLYMALOE FARMHOUSE KITCHEN
WHERE TO STAY:
The Ballymaloe House Hotel is just two miles from the school. Open year-round, the family-run country house hotel and restaurant on 300 acres of farmland offers the very best of Irish food and hospitality with simple and elegant accommodations in a range of rooms in the main house and some beautifully converted farm buildings. There are also multiple lovely hotels and AirBnB accommodations nearby in Cork.
Join the full-time Ballymaloe students for an Afternoon Cookery Demonstration, held every weekday from 1:45–5:30 p.m. Learn to cook an entire menu created by the Ballymaloe team that morning, enjoy the fresh meal, and take home the recipes. If you’re looking for a more hands-on experience, Ballymaloe Cookery School has a diverse range of specialized short courses that vary from half-day to 2½ days. Ideal for visitors with limited time, classes range from everything from bread-baking to Afternoon Tea and Cakes to Garden Workshop and butter and cheese-making. You must book ahead for any Ballymaloe class or demonstration.
The school is easy to access from the Cork, Dublin, or Shannon airports. It’s a 40-minute drive from Cork City, not far from the busy East Cork town of Midleton.
Visit cookingisfun.ie for more information on classes, where to stay, and travel information.
Sweet White Scones
If I could teach you how to make one thing, if you had never baked or cooked anything, this dough is where I’d start. Our Sweet White Scones are made with our soda bread dough. You don’t have to stamp them out using a cutter; you can cut them into whatever shape you like using a knife. Brush the top with buttermilk or egg wash and dip it into grated cheese or put some scallions or chopped seaweed, curry powder, raisins, or rosemary into the mix. This recipe is an incredibly versatile thing.
- ¼ cup (50 grams) demerara or other coarse sugar
- 1½ large eggs (75 grams)
- 1 cup (240 grams) whole milk
- 3½ cups plus 2 tablespoons (454 grams) all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons (24 grams) castor sugar
- 4 teaspoons (20 grams) baking powder
- Pinch salt
- 6 tablespoons (85 grams) cold salted butter, grated
- Jam and whipped cream or jam and butter, for serving
- Preheat oven to 475°F (250°C).
- In a small bowl, place demerara sugar; set aside.
- In a 2-cup liquid-measuring cup, whisk together eggs. Add enough milk to measure 1¼ cups. Whisk well to combine. Reserve 2½ tablespoons (37 grams) egg mixture for egg wash.
- In a large bowl, sift together flour, castor sugar, baking powder, and salt. Add cold butter, and toss lightly to coat with flour. Using fingertips, rub butter into mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in center. Add remaining egg mixture. Using a fork, stir together until a soft dough forms.
- Turn out dough onto a lightly floured surface. (Do not knead.) Shape dough into a round, and roll to 1-inch thickness. Using a floured 3-inch round cutter, cut dough, rerolling scraps once. Brush tops with reserved egg wash. Dip tops in demerara sugar. Place on a baking sheet.
- Bake until tops are golden brown, 9 to 11 minutes. Remove from pan, and let cool completely on a wire rack. Serve with jam and whipped cream or jam and butter.
Cut the dough with as little waste as possible, as the lightest scones will come from the first rolling.
A 17th-century thatched cottage on the shores of the Celtic Sea surrounded by the Mourne Mountains, there are few places more scenic to learn to make the breads of Northern Ireland than at Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen. After a quick thirty minute journey from Belfast, we pull up to a cream-colored cottage with potted flowers—and a frying skillet—adorning the exterior walls. Tracey Jeffery emerges to greet me with open arms and a hearty Irish welcome.
Tracey may offer a relaxed (no weighing or measuring!), convivial baking setting and “less exact” style of bread-baking, but don’t let that fool you. She takes her bread seriously. For her, it’s personal, not only because she’s hosting you in her home, but because she’s sharing one of the most beloved, centuries-old crafts of her people. Soda farls, potato farls, and wheaten bread are quintessential parts of her culture. “People across Northern Ireland make these griddle breads every day, and I’m very proud of these breads because they are totally ours,” Tracey says. “You can’t find them anywhere else in the world, not even in Dublin. Ireland is a small island, yet outside of Northern Ireland, you can’t even find the flour needed to make these breads.”
In Tracey’s Traditional Bread Making class, you’ll bake in the very kitchen that Tracey enjoys meals with her two sons and husband, who lovingly restored and converted the farmhouse into a family home that now doubles as a cookery school. As Tracey fires up the griddle, it quickly becomes apparent that this teacher is particularly sharp—she’s memorized and is effortlessly referring to everyone in the class by name within the first few minutes—and has an inherently deep understanding of the region. We learn the compelling history of the land and its people. “The breads were traditionally cooked over an open fire on a cast-iron griddle and brought to us by the Scottish, which means they are an Ulster Scots’, who migrated to Northern Island in the 1600s, tradition,” Tracey says. She walks us through traditional Ulster Scot baking terms, like what it means to “harn” the bread and why we call it a “farl” (meaning “four parts”).
As she shows us how to make each bread, Tracey shares the origin of the key ingredients. Just about every one needed, and there are very few, is made or grown within a 10 mile radius of the farm, from the self-rising soda bread flour milled locally to the award-winning, hand-churned butter she gets from a neighboring farm and the iconic Northern Irish potatoes that are grown just five miles up the road. “Like Champagne and Parmesan, our potatoes have gained Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status,” Tracey says. “We love our spuds.” As a local food tour guide, Tracey has unprecedented insight into the area’s top culinary producers, who yield everything from butter and beef to cheese to whiskey. If you hang around the farmhouse long enough, you may even get to meet one.
Then, it’s our turn. We start with the farls, soda then potato, and finish with the wheaten bread. In Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen, it’s okay to get a little messy—that’s where all the fun is, after all. Prepare to roll up your sleeves, sling a little flour, and sink your hands into some dough. I learn how the potato bread mixture should feel between my hands just before it’s ready to go on the griddle and when to add more flour or more buttermilk to the soda bread dough. “It’s all about the texture,” Tracey says, as she tilts her bowl over to show us.
Once our bread is done, we gather around the farmhouse table to feast on our golden, warm-off-the-griddle creations with an added bonus of Tracey’s buttermilk fruit soda bannock loaf. We slather slices with her sweet jams made with fruit—such as blackcurrants, blackberries, and damsons—picked from the hedges on the property. Abernathy Butter’s dulse butter brimming with dried dulse seaweed gathered from nearby shores packs a delicious saltiness, taking the potato bread to the next level.
Once you’ve had your fill, meander just outside the house to meet the working and hunting dogs, lambs, pigs, and Dexter cows, Berry and Delilah, on the farm. “The cows are beautiful but feisty little buggers, mind you,” Tracey says. “They don’t take any nonsense, probably a lot like the Irish.”
Northern Ireland’s breads may seem simple and humble in appearance, but their pure, soul-warming flavors will stick with you forever. Tracey, who was born and raised in Northern Ireland, is living proof of this sentiment. After graduating from an Irish university, Tracey went to France, where she studied pastry, working in boulangeries and pâtisseries. Maybe it was family and friends that eventually drew her back home, but I like to think it was the farls.
The most important thing Tracey wants you to do at her cookery school is make yourself at home. “My kitchen may not be the tidiest or the fanciest, but it is certainly lived in and loved,” says Tracey. “My boys and I spend most of our time in the kitchen, and I love to welcome visitors here for an authentic Irish bread-baking experience of a lifetime.”
VISIT TRACEY’S FARMHOUSE KITCHEN
WHERE TO STAY:
Stay on-site at Tracey’s farm in the Horseshoe Cottage, a cozy 18th-century converted stable block with exposed beams, wood-burning stove, and open kitchen/living area. Book at horseshoecottage.co.uk . Or try the nearby Ballymoran Cottages, the self-catering holiday cottages two miles from Killinchy on the Ulster Way. The cottages offer spacious holiday accommodations with all amenities provided (ballymorran-cottages.co.uk). There are also lots of lovely hotel options in Belfast.
Tracey takes up to 30 people for her demos and a maximum of 12 people for the hands-on classes. The 2½-hour Traditional Irish Bread Making Experience comes with morning or afternoon tea and coffee with homemade treats and a bread-making session. For a Farm Visit & Traditional Bread Baking, Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen works closely with tour operators to offer an immersive and truly authentic experience that can be tailored to fit within your time schedule.
Just 30 minutes from Belfast, Killinchy in County Down is just 1½ hours from Dublin.
Irish Potato Farls
We love our spuds, and this bread is exclusive to Northern Ireland. Comber potatoes are a Protected Geographical Indicator in our area of Northern Ireland, and I season mine with lots of pepper, a bit of salt, and a big dose of milk. This is the classic version, delicious when smeared with some Irish butter, but even more so with some chopped bacon or scallions mixed into the dough.
Irish Potato Farls
- 1½ pounds (680 grams) russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1- to 1¼-inch cubes
- 2 tablespoons (28 grams) unsalted butter
- 1 teaspoon (3 grams) kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon ground black pepper
- ¾ cup (94 grams) all-purpose flour, divided
- In a small saucepan, combine potatoes and water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium-high, and cook until potatoes are tender, 12 to 15 minutes. Drain potatoes, and return to saucepan. Add butter, salt, and pepper, and mash potatoes until smooth. Let cool slightly.
- Place 2 cups (446 grams) mashed potatoes on a heavily floured surface, reserving remaining mashed potatoes for another use. Add ½ cup (63 grams) flour, and knead until a stiff, pliable dough forms. Add up to remaining ¼ cup (31 grams) flour, if necessary. Divide dough in half. Flour work surface again, and roll or pat each dough portion to ⅓-inch thickness. Using a knife, cut each portion into 6 pieces (12 total).
- Lightly butter a cast-iron griddle or skillet, and heat over medium heat.
- Shake or brush any excess flour off dough pieces. Working in batches, cook farls until golden brown, slightly puffed, and crisp, 3 to 4 minutes per side. (The farls should have patchy brown spots when nearly done.)
For extra flavor and deep golden color, spread butter onto cooked side of farls after turning and then again before removing from griddle or skillet.