Belle Isle School of Cookery

Nicky Cahill cooks up a storm in Fermanagh

The stereotypical image of Northern Irish cuisine often begins and ends with the Ulster fry! Yet, the north of Ireland is blessed when it comes to producing high quality food. 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 is instantly contagious. She believes that the secret to Northern Irish cuisine is to keep things simple and local but to add the odd unexpected twist.

Unique in Northern Ireland, the Belle Isle School of Cookery has a course for everyone, 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.

The school enjoys international popularity with guests coming from as far and wide as Japan, Australia and Italy to learn in its kitchen. With such a tempting array of courses it is easy to understand why – I am already planning my next visit.

(c) Nicky CahillThe esteemed chef and mentor of the school, Michel Roux, holds Moore and Belle Isle in the highest 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 kind nudge to make use of Moore's ‘tremendous ability’ and open a cookery school on the estate.

Moore believes that cooking should be fun for everyone and not a bore, chore, or something that fills our boots with dread. The formula for her success at 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 gentle cajoling.

No one is left out or made to feel inadequate for not quite mastering a certain cooking technique. In fact it is the aroma of satisfaction that lingers among my classmates and I on Sunday afternoon as we are presented with our certificates.

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, using only the best local produce, we made delicious oil and tomato bread, a blueberry strudel and Cashel Blue Potato Gratin.

Although we worked in a professional kitchen with the capacity for up to ten students to work at specially equipped benches, or gather round a central point for demonstrations, there was not the hustle and bustle normally associated with a kitchen of this kind. Instead the welcoming, friendly relaxing ambience of the purring Aga and the view to the hills in the distance would most certainly put even the most nervous would-be-cook at their ease.

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, details of health and safety (essential in any kitchen) and glorious pictures accompanied by easy to follow recipes, clearly divided into the days of the weekend.

One of the lovely aspects of the course is its long lasting effects – it doesn’t begin and end with the time one spends at Belle Isle. Instead the course handbooks, complete with annotations, travel home with you, becoming the perfect memento of your time at Belle Isle. This will enable the lingering tastes and smells to be recreated as the recipes are reused.

One of the school's previous students said, ‘Thanks to the course, the look on my mother-in-laws face was priceless when I produced the perfect Easter lunch – alone!’

‘Knowing that I can have people over for dinner and produce amazing food, with the minimum of fuss is the most marvellous feeling – before the course boiling an egg sent me into a frenzy.’ said one young lady.

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 Joe Kelly our chef, 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.’ Soon the class was brimming with the exchange of ideas and tweaks for the recipes.

(c) Nicky CahillJoe Kelly a Fermanagh native who honed his culinary skills on both coasts of the USA, proved to be a gifted teacher with an outstanding knowledge of Northern Irish food with a twist. He also conveyed his passion for cooking through the different techniques and cookery demonstrations that are an essential part of the course.

When it was our turn to cook, he was omnipresent but not overbearing, 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.

Never making one feel embarrassed or awkward to ask questions or when he kindly corrected our mistakes, Kelly was full of praise and encouragement. He explained complex gastronomic techniques in a matter of moments through a series of stories. Kelly provided great tips about using kitchen equipment that many of us didn’t even know existed – silicon baking sheets, rice grinders, microplane graters... He 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, Joe explained the importance of having a good butcher. Wielding a nine inch knife as if a surgeon with his scalpel, Joe proceeded to French trim a rack of lamb. 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 is knowing your suppliers – building a relationship with them.’

When it was our turn to French trim the racks of lamb that were to be our dinner that evening, I pondered over his words. It occurred to me that Northern Ireland really does have in abundance the ingredients to have a superb food culture - one full of the enhanced taste and the health benefits of eating naturally produced, fresh foods. Yet it is a culture that to many is sadly hidden.

When we ate our efforts, with some gourmet delights made by Joe, glass of wine in hand, we felt like we were sitting in the private dinning 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.

Any time spent at Belle Isle will take away the many mysteries of your own kitchen, inspire you with confidence, and most importantly help you to realise that Northern Ireland does have its own food culture, even if it is a secret to many. Belle Isle is awaking both this clandestine world and people to it. I hope more people will visit this hidden treasure where one feels more like a guest than a member of a class in a school.