The Good Things Cafe - The 2 Day Kitchen Miracle Programme

I spent last weekend on a fabulous 2-day cookery course down in deep West Cork in The Good Things Cafe in Durrus. I honestly won’t be able to come up with enough superlatives to describe the fantastic programme that Carmel Somers put together. It is now Tuesday and I’m still buzzed and still full.

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It’s not too bad a drive from Bandon - about an hour on the crappy but scenic Dunmanway Road. Durrus seems to have attracted a cluster of foodies to live there and the wonderful views may explain why. The Cafe is about a mile out of the village on the Akahista road.

I arrived to discover that I was the only bloke along with five women. They were a great bunch and consisted of Eileen from Thurles and her two daughters Mary and Catriona who were giving Eileen a birthday treat, Mairead from Cork and Lucy from Bantry (by way of Zimbabwe). Carmel was assisted by Rebecca from Spain and Helen. They were verrrrrryy patient with us as we stumbled over everything in a commercial kitchen.

The two days consisted of Carmel giving some demonstrations and then us trying to replicate her food or even do things from scratch using her recipes. Some of it was solo but mainly we did it in pairs which was much better fun and we permanently got in each others way. Apologies to Mary for eating all the smoked salmon.

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Carmel seems to know everyone involved in food in Ireland (and good chunks of England too) and had a story behind every ingredient that she used. There was not a dull or quiet moment in the two days and her patience was endless.

Our first recipe was a pork chop with thyme and garlic. It turns out that, like us, she uses Martin Carey in Bandon for her meat and his thick chops were awesome. This was a simple simple recipe but [a] I forgot how to hold a knife I was so intimidated by a commercial kitchen and [b] when I finally managed to cook it, it was bloody gorgeous. We also did a spud thing whose name fails me (and whose recipe I managed to lose). We sliced spuds in a mandolin and then layered them up in a tiny frying pan, cooked it, flipped it and drizzled some butter on it. Kinda like a sliced version of rosti.

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We made a bunch of soups, all of which were fab and also got on to one thing I have always founds “challenging” - bread making. As I explained to her, all of my previous attempts would break windows. After I came back from a few months in Silicon Valley in 1996, I spent weeks growing a sourdough starter in the hot-press. The first loaf I made could have been used to start a garden rockery.

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So to say I approached this task with trepidation is putting it mildly. Carmel explained that she can nearly always tell which loaves have been made by the men because we knead it like we are trying to kill it. It wasn’t the first time she had to tell me to relax over the weekend (I also attempted to beat some eggs into a parallel universe). And ye know, it is far less stressful if you knead the thing gently. We left the dough to rise, split it in two, re-kneaded and then put them in the oven. And they all turned out perfectly!

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Carmel then did some dough, rolled it out really thinkly, covered it in swiss chard and durrus cheese and popped it in the oven. For lunch we had that as the best pizza I have had in years, the pork chop, the spuds, some salad and some wine. Yum!

Then on to the recipes for dinner. Myself and Mary did a spiced lamb and aubergine stew which I made nice n spicy with some extra cayenne. I’ve become addicted to Frank’s Red Hot Sauce and add heat whenever I can. We also did a roast chicken with some tarragon butter under the skin. The way Carmel does roast chicken is so smart I will never do it any other way. The others another chicken and also a pot roast one.

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We also did some desserts - banana in a stock syrup and lime juice, raspberries in syrup and rhubarb with ginger. I’m salivating writing about them. We also did a raw rhubarb, cucumber and mint salad which turned out to be really tasty.

All of the above made up the evening meal to which all of us could bring guests. Carmel was an absolute star and offered to let me bring a bunch of the food home to share with Catherine, so I headed off with food in car just as the meal began. Everything was totally eat-a-licious, nothing was left!

We had arranged to meet at the Schull Farmer’s Market at 10am on Sunday. I awoke to torrential rain. The one extra I got on my car when I bought it 5 years ago was ESP. It stops you spinning when you drive like a cretin on slippy roads. Anyhoo, the ESP light flashed all the way to Schull as I hit sheet after sheet of surface water. I genuinely expected neither vendors nor buyers to turn up. I drove past the market to discover a few brave souls setting up stalls and a few minutes later, the other students arrived, as did Carmel with kids in tow.

We sheltered in under the Gubbeen stall and the women interrogated Fingal and we all bought a ton of stuff off him: rashers of every sort, sausages, chorizo, you name it. A really friendly guy, hugely knowledgeable but in a very infectious and enthusiastic way. He also gave us big discounts for turning up in the brutal weather so I’m now his biggest fan. Mimi was selling some awsome looking cooked burgers but I was stuffed from brekkie. One guy was setting up sushi and a wok too. Looked interesting! I bought some herbs and carrots from the lovely German woman from Peppermint Farm. She had a very unusual set of herb plants, many of them medicinal. We all then booted it back to Durrus.

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Carmel kicked off with a fish stock and then got us all to make a banana and chocolate cake. Mairead and her then started on the seafood risotto. I challenged them to make it in the advertised 20 mins as I have never made one in less than 35. The wenches did it in 19.5 mins. I still don’t know how. The rest of us prepped a pile of tiny squid. As father of four pooh factories, I was not as grossed out as some of the younger students. We all then had a go at the Alioli which was energetic to put it mildly. It was from a different world than Hellmann’s and I’ll be making it again (but using a machine!). We cooked up the squid with just parsley, garlic and lemon. Gorgeous. And all of the above made up our lunch along with some pan fried hake. We sat for ages and sipped wine and then coffee. I could not physically move.

It all wrapped up about 4pm and we all bought various bits n pieces from the shop and headed off on our separate ways, full to the brim and full of confidence.

As I said at the start, this is a fabulous course by a great lady. And you’ll be shocked to hear the price. €300! A steal. Think of the food and drink alone! Run to the phone and book a course. +353-27-61426, info@thegoodthingscafe.com.

And finally, I hope Carmel does not mind, but here is a short video of her in action jointing a chicken.

[tags]The Good Things Cafe, Durrus, Carmel Somers[/tags]

Conor O'Neill

Tech guy who likes running slowly

Bandon, Cork, Ireland http://conoroneill.com