It’s so easy to lose momentum when writing a blog. I need to get my brain back to Ballymaloe. I live on a houseboat and have a small yard which I am slowly turning into a permaculture garden. It’s nothing fancy. I’m not sure if I’ll produce anything edible. But the entire garden is grown from seeds, food scraps, or potted herbs bought from the grocery store and replanted. I tend to every one of those plants. I hover over them. Fret over them. Stare at them.
I’ve just spent some time in the garden this morning revving up the synapses. Even in this tiny space, there is opportunity for sensory overload: the scent of the honeysuckle which hangs over our entry gate; the squeaks and squawks of the adolescent waterfowl still dependent on their parents; the little snail hiding under the bottom leaves of the pear tree—leaves that are being attacked this year with an ugly black fungus; and most of all, the neighbors causing an awful ruckus. Well, the sort-of neighbors causing a sort-of ruckus. There are warring families of magpies in adjacent trees that seem to be challenging each other’s territories. Man, can those birds make a lot of noise.
Sense memory activated, in my mind I’m back at the cottage with my roomies and we’re headed up the street to our first day of school. It’s a short walk up the country road--forest to the left, a tiny vacation suburb to the right. Deeply embedded in Irish lore is the fantasy of the existence of fairies. I always keep an eye out for them. Maybe one is peeking out from behind a dewy, mossy, ancient stone wall--a wall I almost bash into every time I'm in a car, driving in the passenger's seat (if I nick the wall navigating that narrow road, I will blame fairy bewitchment--most likely a probable defense on the Emerald Isle). They are watching the new recruits marching toward this school out in the middle of everywhere, which is so beautiful, so vast, so isolated, and so bucolic, it immediately filled me with intense, cynical suspicion. And it got worse when I entered the school.
We walked into this school and it was a-buzz and a-blur with activity—cooks, assistants, managers, bakers, culinary students, hosts scurrying around with a welcoming cheerfulness that makes me teary. We’re not used to this level of hospitality, this sheer gratitude for your very existence, in the Netherlands. I was waiting for them all to break into harmonized song and synchronized dance. When do the houselights go down and the spotlight flip on with a satisfying “SSSHHUNK!” When does the soloist make her grand entrance?
Oh, there she is. The breakfast counter. This was the first morning where we would claim chairs at a communal table then lurch toward this breakfast buffet--a soft glow hallelujah of homemade granola, Irish cheeses and breads, homemade yogurt, kombucha, and kefir water, rhubarb, bananas in a lime syrup, raw and pasteurized milk, and a deep yellow butter made from the milk of the Jersey cows just right out back. Have you ever had truly fresh squeezed apple juice? It is so far removed from commercially produced apple juice you serve to a 2 year old, you wonder how they could possibly be called the same thing because they so very aren't.
But breakfast was just a teaser. Lunch was devastating. It was basically Thanksgiving every day, if every cook in your family was a professional chef and every member of your family was a self-important gourmand. Ballymaloe hammers on the importance of fresh, local, organic. Fresh. Local. Organic. FRESH. LOCAL. ORGANIC. The result is that an ordinary-looking salad of mixed greens tossed with a humble vinaigrette is the best damn thing you’ve ever tasted. I think at one point I might have been eating dandelions and grass and it was heaven. I wasn’t sure and I didn’t care.
The final knockout was the coffee breaks. Two per day where filtered coffee and two types of tea were served with a selection of unscrupulous cookies, cakes and pastries--little temptresses all. One can only surrender. There was just too much selection, too much delicious, too much friendliness. The only defense was a pathetic attempt at portion control. I told myself spinach, egg whites, and lemon water for two weeks when it was all over. And oh yeah, I was actually here to learn something.