The quality of Irish food is celebrated the world over. In day one of a two-part series, Marjorie Brennan meets some of the local food heroes who have turned their passion, vision, and sense of community into successful businesses.
Maggie’s Homemade Jam.
Biography: A one-woman business in the heart of West Cork that now supplies jams and marmalades to retail outlets throughout Cork.
It started with one roadside stall and some gooseberry bushes in her garden; now former accountant Margaret McCarthy supplies almost 40 shops and stores with her award-winning jam.
“I was working in an office and I was bored to bits. I had some gooseberries growing at home and I asked Noreen Hegarty, who had a stall going out the Rosscarbery road every summer, if she would take some jam.
“I was surprised how fast it went, it was the summer and the tourists were mad for homemade jam. It developed from there. I started trying out different varieties, I got into a few shops and I’ve been building it up very since.”
Margaret, who is based in Timoleague, found that her move into food production also worked better with her home life.
“I had young children and it was a nightmare trying to manage, especially if they were sick or something. I was wondering what I could do from home — I was always an entrepreneur, trying different things.
“I started in the kitchen but I was thrown out because the smell was getting at them. I then had a portable building and went from that to a purpose-built unit at the back of the house. I walk about 14 steps to work. That is what I wanted.”
Margaret says the personal touch has helped greatly in building her business. “We go around to all the shops — a friend of mine, Angela Coakley, helps me. It started out the two of us going around to all the shops in the van. But it got to the stage where I had to stay and make the jam — Angela now goes out for deliveries. All the shopkeepers know us personally.”
Margaret says she gets a great sense of reward from her jam-making and loves to hear from people who have enjoyed the fruits of her labour. “I get a lot of mails from people, from as far afield as England and America, saying how much they love the jam. I love to go into a shop and see my jam for sale. I won’t become a millionaire out of it but it has become a way of life.”
Johnny Fall Down
Biography: Business bringing its own sophisticated take to craft cider, wines and aperitifs from its own orchards planted in the grounds of a former estate house outside Cork city.
Plant it and it will grow would be a good motto for Johnny Fall Down, which brought its first batch of cider to the market this year, winning a gold award at Blas na hÉireannfor its rare apple bittersweet cider.
Barry Walsh has become something of an expert in trees since entering into partnership with his cousin Dave Watson in the business based in Killahora House, Glounthaune.
“We planted our first apple and pear trees in 2010. Between then and now, we have been learning more about orcharding, pruning, all of that. We are affectionately known as the booze geek and the tree geek.
“I am the booze geek, and we have begrudgingly been learning each other’s primary passions. I am happy when I’m mixing around batches and tasting and blending and coming up with experiments on how to get more flavour, depth and complexity. This week, Dave has managed to secure six different very rare Austrian and German pear branches. I’m like ‘whatever’ come back to me in 10 years when I can make schnapps.”
Watson and Walsh aim to bring a different perspective to the market. “There is still the perception that it is a sugary drink that you have in the summer with a load of ice. We are serving like it is served in France — in a tulip glass with food. You don’t want 10 bottles of the stuff, just a few glasses and to appreciate it.”
The cousins have ambitious plans for Killahora House and its produce. “We’ve gone from making five litres in plastic bottles to this year when we will probably be up around 10,000 litres. We are moving more towards us being like a vineyard, it’s a beautiful location and I think in future it could be a good destination for tourists.”
They are also looking beyond cider. “We are doing a pommeau, which is an aperitif. We are also going to do about a thousand bottles of a champagne perry, which will be the first real true Irish fruit champagne.”
Biography: An artisan producer of puddings, relishes, pickles, and sauces based in Nenagh, Co Tipperary. Its award-winning products are available nationally and internationally.
For Florrie Purcell, working with food was a calling rather than a career move. Her passion and positivity is infectious. “I don’t see this as work, that’s my problem, I’m like the Energiser Bunny, I have a love affair with food — putting one ingredient with another and watching something magical happen.”
Purcell’s puddings, pickles, relishes, and sauces under The Scullery brand have won countless awards and prizes. “Blas na hÉireann has been in existence for ten years, and I’ve won there for nine years,” she says.
Florrie’s love for food was nourished in the family home.
“My mother was a fabulous cook, entertainer, and hostess. I was always at her apron strings. We had a scullery in our home, where the name came from. The plum pudding I started with was my grandmother’s recipe. It was a ritual thing.
“My dad was in Purcell’s Exports, he would be away in England selling or buying cattle. The pudding would be planned and the process took weeks. When Dad came home, all the dried ingredients would be added and the wishing done.”
After a career in hotel catering and management, Purcell started The Scullery in 2004 and mainly catered for hotels, restaurants and coffee shops. However, she had to change tack when the economic crisis hit her business hard.
“I catered for food service until 2009 and was not in retail as such. That all changed with the recession. I had to diversify or else I would have gone out of business. Pubs, restaurants, and hotels were suffering, then I suffered.”
However, it wasn’t long before her products were being stocked by Tesco, quickly followed by Lidl. It was a steep learning curve for Purcell.
“It’s another monster, retail. There was a lot I needed to learn and learn pretty quickly but it has been a fabulous journey. I have met wonderful people. I have been very fortunate, whether it is a customer, buyer, taster, or critic, I have learned from them. I am lucky.”
Despite the fact she is now producing for retail multiples, Florrie says the methods and ingredients she uses have never changed.
“I make everything in small batches, I won’t batch up. That helps with the quality, texture, colour, flavour, everything. It’s all about sourcing my ingredients and getting the best.”
Free Birds Bakery
Biography: A Cork-based business producing sweet treats with high-quality ingredients.
When Kirsty Sweetnam’s plans for a career in architecture didn’t work out, she decided to follow her heart and indulge her passion for baking instead.
“I did architecture for a year and I hated it. Then I did the course at Ballymaloe and worked as a chef and baker in small artisan cafés in London and Dublin for a while.”
Kirsty returned home to Cork where she started selling her home-baked brownies at the Farmer’s Market in Douglas, where she is from. She has received several awards for her brownies and bars. She says the quality of the ingredients she uses makes her products stand out.
“I use very high-quality ingredients. A lot of people wouldn’t use Belgian chocolate to make brownies. I always use free-range eggs. I also try to find a balance of flavour and not to make it completely sweet.”
She has noticed that while many people are cutting back on sugar, if they treat themselves they will buy one brownie or bar rather than scoffing a pack of biscuits.
“If people want a sugar hit, they’ll go for something good. A lot of people who are very into their fitness will come to me when they want a treat as they want something high-quality that they really enjoy.”
Kirsty also has a stall in the Mahon Farmer’s Market and stocks shops and cafés in Cork, including Three Fools, the Rocket Man, Nectar, Joup, O’Driscoll’s and The Spitjack.
She has found setting up a business a steep learning curve, working long hours six days a week, but has received valuable assistance from initiatives such as the Supervalu Food Academy. Now she is considering taking the next step by scaling up production beyond the small kitchen to the side of her parents’ house where she is based now.
“Now it’s about deciding whether I want to go into more commercial production. That is what I’m in the process of doing, working out the sums, the fun part of it,” she laughs.
“It’s trying to achieve a balance between having a life and what will make money. That’s the way it is when you’re working for yourself.”
Biography: One-person artisan chocolate operation, based in Valentia Island, Kerry.
Barbara Linnane decided to turn her hobby into a full-time job when her role in childcare became redundant due to the economic downturn and the declining population on Valentia Island, where she is based. “I decided to forge on with the business and it seems to be working out so far,” she says.
Barbara works from a small workshop near her home. The pace of life suits her and she enjoys the therapeutic nature of making chocolate.
“I’ve always had a passion for chocolate and flavours, and marrying the two together. Chocolate is something you can leave for a few hours, and come back when it’s set.
“You need a lot of patience for the job, it can be tedious and repetitive, so you need that kind of mind. It’s lovely, I put a good programme on the radio and settle into it.”
Barbara gets single-origin chocolate from England and all her dairy produce from Ireland. She makes different flavours depending on the time of the year.
“It’s all natural, there are no additives. I try to keep it fresh, natural and pure. I do a lot of innovative flavours, including a gin and tonic one which I’m working on for the new year. I do lollipops and hot chocolate for kids — you name it and I give it a go.”
Barbara says consumers have become a lot more discerning about chocolate, especially the sugar content. “People are becoming more educated about what they’re eating, a lot of them look for dark chocolate now and they are interested in percentages and all that. People say to me ‘after two or three of your chocolates I don’t need more’ and I say that’s because it’s not full of additives, with other chocolates you’re never satisfied.”
Barbara has only been producing chocolate full-time since earlier this year and at the moment is concentrating on farmers’ markets. This year she is hoping to expand into more shops further afield. “For the last month or two, coming up to Christmas, I’ve been working all day. It’s going well, people are now ringing up looking for chocolates.”
Happy Days Artisan Ice Cream
Biography: The Cork-based firm has been producing 100% natural ice cream since 2010.
It’s no surprise that Irish people love ice cream, especially when the raw material required is among the world’s best.
However, that hasn’t always meant that the ice cream we eat has been made from top-quality ingredients. Dan Byrne of Happy Days artisan ice cream says this was something they wanted to address.
“The business almost started itself, really. My father has the Little Italy cafe in Wilton Shopping Centre and when his ice cream supplier ceased trading, we started making ice cream solely for the coffee shop.
“But then people asked him to make the ice cream for them and it snowballed from there,” says Dan.
“One of the main reasons we wanted to make our own ice cream was because the quality of milk and cream in Ireland is so good, it makes sense. We get all our milk and cream from Clona Dairies. It makes the product taste great.”
Happy Days is now moving into different products such as frozen yoghurts and sorbets and is also aiming to cater for increasingly health-conscious consumers.
“We now have a range of no added sugar ice creams and vegan ice creams, and the same categories in sorbets and frozen yoghurts. There are a handful of vegan ice creams on the market but these ones are really good.
People can be turned off by the term vegan — these taste just as good, getting people to try it is the thing. Tasting has been going well, the feedback has been great. The ranges took nearly three years to develop but now they are ready to go for the next season.”
They have also recently kitted out a demonstration room at their production facility in Little Island, where they hope to do short courses in ice-cream making.
Dan says while the summer is their busiest time, Irish people still like their ice cream whatever the weather.
“An ice cream is a treat and people like to treat themselves. It is still massively seasonal, which is to be expected, but Irish people eat ice cream in the rain and snow, I’m the same myself.”
Biography: Limerick-based company producing retro-style butter in partnership with Arrabawn Co-Op.
When they were developing a new butter, Glenstal Foods decided to go back to basics. The result was Glenstal Irish Creamery Butter, a prize-winning product harking back to the days when butter was hand-churned and came in parchment paper.
“Most of the butters on the market were in gold or silver foil. We did some research down at the Cork Butter Museum and discovered that not that long ago, only 25 or 30 years, butter was marketed in Ireland in parchment,” says commercial director Gareth Coleman.
However, while the retro packaging and shape proved to be a big draw for consumers, the taste is what keeps them coming back for more.
“The parchment effect and retro feel resonated with the consumer, but then when they brought the product home, the quality shone through. You can do so much with the packaging but it has to deliver on the table and it has done that,” says Gareth.
“We partnered with Arrabawn Co-Op to develop this product and one of the key attributes is that the butter is only produced from milk the cows produce between April and September.
“The farmers would euphemistically refer to that as summer milk because the cows are generally out overnight and 90% of their diet is grass. The grass contributes to the lovely yellow hue you see on the butter. The cows are out enjoying the fresh air, they are more relaxed, and the quality of the milk improves, and that comes through in the butter.”
The butter took the supreme champion prize at the most recent Blas na hÉireann awards, which was a huge validation of the product, says Gareth.
“With the blind tasting at the Blas awards, it’s testament to the quality of milk coming from Arrabawn and the Golden Vale.”
The fact that people are moving away from processed products is also helping to drive sales, says Gareth.
“People have gone back to butter, the spreads have fallen out of favour. Consumers now don’t like a long ingredients list — basically butter is just one ingredient, or two if it is salted.”
Meere’s Pork Products
Biography: A family-run firm in Co Clare, supplying shops throughout Munster with its prize-winning puddings and sausage rolls.
Orlaigh Meere is laughing as she recalls how the family firm’s distinctive square pudding came about by complete accident one busy Christmas in her father and uncle’s butchers in Quin, Co Clare.
“It was so busy, they didn’t have time to be fiddling with skins and all that but they had ham presses; they put the pudding into the ham press, boiled it, and put it out on the counter.
“It was in the shape of a ham and people would come in and just cut lumps off it, that’s how it was sold. It was suggested that they make it a better shape to make it more commercial and that’s what they did. We still make it in 5lb tins and chop it into 300g blocks.”
Orlaigh’s father Patrick eventually left the butcher’s shop to develop the pudding business and Orlaigh was literally born into it.
“He converted our garage into a self-contained unit. I was born the year after; I presumed it was normal for people to make sausages and puddings at the back of their house. I worked there every evening when I came home from school.”
Orlaigh hasn’t moved far from the family home, or the business.
“The unit is still behind my parents’ house and I converted an old cottage at the back of that. We’re like a commune.”
Her products are sold in more than 80 shops in Clare and they are also available in Dunnes and Tesco outlets throughout Munster.
They are now branching out into gourmet sausage rolls, for which they won a silver and gold at this year’s Blas na hÉireann awards.
“There are no good-quality gourmet sausage rolls in the supermarkets, they are all pre-cooked. You get ours in a four-pack and bake them from fresh in the oven.”
Orlaigh’s dad Patrick is still involved in the business and the younger generation is also pitching in.
“He retires every winter but he’s still there looking at you in spring. He will never retire. I’ll be retired before he is. The next generation is coming up behind — my kids do the market with me.
“The butcher’s shop is still run by my uncle and cousins. It’s all family-orientated, whenever someone needs help, we help each other out. It will be all hands on deck.”