The Belle Isle School of Cookery
The stereotypical image of Northern Irish cuisine often begins and ends with the Ulster fry, yet, the North of Ireland is actually blessed with a long and prestigious list of wonderful food producers. On a mission to discover what the food culture of Northern Ireland is all about, I took part in a weekend ‘Easter Treats’ course at Northern Ireland’s first residential cookery school, situated on one of the eleven islands of the distinctive Belle Isle Estate, in Co Fermanagh.
At this purpose-built, state-of-the-art cookery school Head Chef Liz Moore’s enthusiasm and passion for food, especially good quality locally sourced, fresh ingredients, are instantly contagious. She believes that the secret to Northern Irish cuisine is to keep things simple and local but to also add your own personal twist, on order to make the recipe your own.
Unique in Northern Ireland, the Belle Isle School of Cookery has a course for students of all ages, from ‘Surviving Christmas’ to ‘Spring Dreams’ to ‘Food for Friends’ to ‘Just Married’. On offer all year round, the courses can last from one day to an intensive four week diploma, for which there has been such demand they are running three of these courses next year, with guests coming from as far and wide as Japan, Australia and Italy to learn in its kitchen.
The chef and mentor of the school, Michel Roux, holds Moore and the Belle Isle in the high regard, believing the school to be: ‘A truly remarkable concept in a very warm layout, unique in its approach.’ In fact it was Michel Roux who gave the owner of Belle Isle, the Duke of Abercorn, a nudge to make use of Moore’s ability and open a cookery school on the estate. Luckily for us it wasn’t long before the Duke had Belle Isle School of Cookery up and running, and Liz Moore firmly ensconced as the Head of School.
Liz believes that cooking should be fun for everyone and not a bore, chore, or something that fills our boots with dread. The formula for communicating this to her students is to deconstruct the somewhat frightening world of recipe books with their precise measurements and instructions, by a mix of friendly instruction and cajoling.
There seemed to be a balance and rhythm to the cooking we took part in – something that few of us can manage at home. Before lunch we made delicious oil and tomato bread, a blueberry strudel and Cashel Blue Potato Gratin. Although we cooked in a professional kitchen with the capacity for up to ten students, there was not the hustle and bustle normally associated with a kitchen of this kind, but instead the welcoming, friendly and relaxing ambience of the purring Aga and the view to the hills in the distance.
Our Belle Isle handbooks were our cooking bibles during the course. Inside we found a short commentary on the history of the estate and the cookery school and beautiful pictures accompanied by easy to follow recipes, clearly divided into the days of the week.
One of the school’s students said, ‘Thanks to the course, the look on my mother-in-laws face was priceless when I produced the perfect Easter lunch – alone!’.
We were encouraged to annotate our handbooks. By personalising the recipes, we would make them our own, thereby making it easier to re-create things like Garden Goddess Dressing or Rack of Lamb with Hassleback Potatoes and Natural Sauce, when back in our own kitchens. ‘Cooking has no rules – only essential techniques,’ said Liz, adding, ‘I would encourage you to fiddle around with these recipes. Have confidence in your own likes and dislikes. Note down your thoughts or suggestions on how you might like to adapt these recipes. They are not set in stone, make them your own.’
When it was our turn to cook, she was omnipresent but not overbearing, and throwing in plenty of tips, such as the best way to slice an onion, serving food attractively on the plate and the benefits of using apple cider vinegar in just about everything. We were given great tips about using kitchen equipment that many of us didn’t even know existed – silicon baking sheets, rice grinders, microplane graters and there was a chance to purchase equipment and beautiful kitchenware from the Belle Isle Shop. Liz also emphasised that to cook great food it is not essential to use every utensil in your kitchen.
Embracing the local sourcing ethos of the school with gusto, when a tray was carried in holding a mound of lamb ribs, Liz explained the importance of having a good butcher. Wielding a nine inch knife, as if a surgeon with his scalpel, Liz proceeded to French trim a rack of lamb and told us, ‘Pat O’Doherty in Enniskillen, where all the meat for the school comes from, is an invaluable source to me. He can tell me what’s good or suggest something I might not have considered. The key to Northern Irish cuisine, like all good home cooking, is in knowing your suppliers and building a close relationship with them.’
When we ate the fruits of our labours, with some additional gourmet delights made by Liz, glass of wine in hand, we felt like we were sitting in the private dining room of a Michelin starred restaurant. During the jovial conversation that flowed during dinner most of us couldn’t believe just how simple it was to make these dishes that tasted so outstanding. We all agreed that fresh produce was the key, that Belle Isle School of Cookery is a hidden treasure, and an essential place to visit in Northern Ireland.
Belle Isle School of Cookery
Telephone +44 (0)28 6638 7231 Facsimile +44 (0)28 6638 7261