Producers relishing the taste of things to come
By John Daly
In the second of a two-part series, John Daly meets food producers dedicated to delivering superb food to the table while helping Ireland out of a crippling recession
EARLIER this year, the legendary Selfridges Food Hall in London’s Oxford Street was home to 50 of Ireland’s top artisan producers showcasing their products to an international audience for three weeks.
A joint initiative organised through Bord Bia, Invest Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland, Selfridges offered the public the chance to meet dedicated producers from the length and breadth of Ireland, including bakers, cheese and butter makers, meat curers, salmon and eel smokers, jam and chutney makers.
During the promotion, cookery demonstrations featured regularly from some of Ireland’s most influential chefs, including Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe; Ross Lewis, of the Michelin-starred Dublin restaurant Chapter One who cooked for the Queen during her 2011 visit to Ireland; award-winning Catherine Fulvio of Ballyknocken House; and BBC1’s Saturday Kitchen favourite, Kevin Dundon.
“The Island of Ireland is rich in diverse ingredients, offering the finest heritage, produce and product,” said Ewan Venters, Selfridges Director of Food and Restaurants.
“The event brought all those credible qualities to London, offering our food hall customers the chance to taste, feel and see a snapshot of what Ireland has to offer.”
Bord Bia works with over 400 small food businesses with an annual turnover of €400 million. About 3,000 people were directly employed in the sector and in 2011, with 183 companies having been approved for over €1m in marketing grant aid.
“As one of Bord Bia’s strategic priorities, supporting a dynamic and growth-oriented small business sector remains central to Bord Bia’s policy for the food and drink industry” said Aidan Cotter, CEO of Bord Bia.
Meanwhile, Irish consumers are in the fortunate position of being able to enjoy the benefits of top quality dairy farming produced off natural grassland pastures, according to National Dairy Council chief executive, Zoë Kavanagh.
“It is something that so many people here take for granted. Yet the reality is that Irish dairy farmers provide one of nature’s most important foods, in one of the most natural environments in the world. Access to natural, nutritious food is the right of every consumer — and no sector is more committed to delivering on this than the Irish dairy industry.”
The abolition of quotas from 2015 heralds significant challenges for the dairy industry where the focus of growth will be on overseas markets — while maintaining the importance of a vibrant domestic market.
“The ‘Farmed in the Republic of Ireland’ trademark is now one of the most recognised and trusted ‘country of origin’ trademarks among Irish consumers, giving them an informed choice about the origin of milk and cream that they are buying.”
The Irish dairy sector has the potential to create 15,000 jobs over the next three to five years providing a major boost to the economy in terms of exports and in terms of direct and indirect employment, says economist Ciaran Fitzgerald.
“The Irish dairy sector is one of the few sectors that has shown strong growth in recent years,” he said. “It already directly and indirectly employs 34,000 people and is a huge part of our export trade with dairy exports valued at €2.6bn in 2011. With the abolition of EU milk quotas in 2015 that growth is predicted to increase substantially,” he says/
The Food Harvest 2020 Report anticipates 50% growth. “Because the dairy sector buys 85% of its inputs in the Irish economy, a €1.3bn increase in output will have a huge positive multiplier impact across the economy — and also across the regions.”
John Fanning, UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, described the dairy industry as the jewel in the crown of Ireland’s economic recovery.
“In difficult economic circumstances countries need to concentrate on market sectors where they possess a sustainable competitive advantage with value- creating potential not easily duplicated by other countries. Our uniquely temperate climate and long tradition of family farming has given us a global leadership position,” he added.
“Increasing global demand for sustainable, nutritious dairy produce means the dairy industry will be the engine of Ireland’s economic recovery.”
According to Margaret Gilsenan, planning director, Boys and Girls Advertising Co “the dairy industry is in the enviable position of having three of today’s most motivating assets at its heart — Irishness, health and naturalness — that are the envy of many.
“It is only in truly understanding today’s customer that the dairy industry will be able to optimise its assets to the best commercial advantage.”
Company: Nolan’s Of Kilcullen
Products: Speciality meats
Last year, turned out to be a year of awards for Nolan’s of Kilcullen, and especially with their recent winning of the Trophy for the Best Traditional Pork Sausage at the European Championships hosted by the commanderie des fins gousteriers du Duche d’Alencon, near Paris.
James Nolan was honoured to accept the trophy, but he was quick to point out that his father Andy Nolan deserves much of the credit as he started making sausages 40 years ago.
James was made a knight in the Commandérie des Fins Goustiers du Duché d’Alençon in a traditional ceremony — an award that finished off a phenomenal 2012 for Nolan’s Butchers as they won six gold medals at the Great Taste Awards, three All-Ireland titles, as well as being crowned the best butcher shop in the UK and Ireland in London at the Countryside Alliance Annual Awards in London.
Beating over 3,000 entries James and Emma Nolan received the top award at a prize giving ceremony at the House of Lords earlier this year.
“Winning that award in London gave us a platform which brought a hugely increased profile in things like The Late Late Show and being on RTÉ’s news programmes,” said James.
“The combination created massive awareness of the uniqueness of what we have here, and gave us a huge momentum to push the retail side of our business forward in 2013,” he said.
The Countryside Alliance Awards, nicknamed the Rural Oscars, celebrate the characters, skills, traditions and enterprise of the countryside. James Nolan is the fourth generation to own the shop, while his father, now in his 80s, still works in the shop.
James, who understudied his father, took over as head of the business in 2002 and has continued the family ethos that ‘good meat comes not just from what happens behind the counter’. In June 2006, Nolan’s undertook a massive expansion — the doors were closed and the entire shop was demolished.
Every brick was taken down except for the front façade which is under a preservation order. This shop has now become an institution — dubbed the ‘social centre of Kilcullen’ by the locals.
“Our plans for 2013 include building further as a supplier to other food retail outlets, which is on a small level to places like Avoca at present,” James explained of the company plans for the 2013.
“Also, we are developing a low-fat sausage — an initiative that came from us being approached by a local weight watchers group. I really believe that the healthy eating market is something with enormous potential both inside Ireland and beyond.”
James also notes the growing demand for dry cured, traditional bacon products: “We have our own 28,000sq ft abattoir, boning hall, processing and curing — so we offer complete farm to fork traceability. It gives us total control of everything we do, something that will be increasingly important to consumers into the future,” he added.
Company: Genovese Foods
Product: Fresh pesto
It created quite a stir last year when a previously little known Irish pesto outsold its Italian counterparts by a margin of ten to one at Selfridges in London.
The folk of Genoa, where the sauce originated, would have been further alarmed to learn that its Dublin producers, Genovese Foods, believe it is their fresh ingredients that are helping them to beat the Italians at their own game.
The company’s Fresh Irish Basil Pesto is made using Irish-grown basil and regato, an Irish hard cheese, plus a Spanish extra virgin olive oil, ochi Bianca.
Selfridges said it was the oaky taste of the parmesan-style regato, as well as the larger-leafed Irish basil, which made for an enhanced flavour.
The store, which sells nine types of Italian pesto, noted that customers who tried the Irish fresh pesto out of curiosity kept returning for more.
“We were obviously pleased with the reaction in Selfridges, but we always knew our pesto was very special,” owner David McDonald said.
Already in SuperValu, Superquinn and a number of other high-end outlets around the country, the UK market is very much on the company’s radar for 2013.
“It is a natural progression for us, especially in view of that excellent reception we received at Selfridges.
“We are a family owned business that takes pride in knowing that we deliver on our promises to a host of discerning restauranteurs, head chefs, caterers, and delicatessens across Ireland,” Mr McDonald said.
“What sets us apart is that not only do we know your business but that we take the time to listen to you. Our clients challenge us everyday to find new and exciting flavours to delight the taste buds of those they serve.”
As to the growing success of the Genovese pesto, he says it’s all down to quality ingredients: “Most of the pesto sold commercially will not hold up to a pesto lover’s standards because of cost cutting measures. Pine nuts are very expensive; so many producers use the cheaper, and less flavourful, cashews. Some use soybean or canola oil instead of olive oil and nearly all of them contain added salt and other so called flavourings. Like so many things in life, you need to look that little bit further to get the best.”
Company: Goatsbridge Trout & Caviar
Products: Live trout and trout caviar
Goatsbridge Trout Farm is a family run business is located in the shadows of one of Ireland’s well-known historical landmarks, at Jerpoint Abbey near Thomastown.
They are leading providers of live trout for the restocking of lakes, rivers and fisheries and their daily catch is also supplied to hotels, supermarkets and fish wholesalers around the country. They also launched Ireland’s first trout caviar this year.
The best-known form of caviar comes from the sturgeon, but trout caviar has steadily increased in global popularity in recent years. Mags and Ger Kirwan have been running Goatsbridge Trout farm for over two decades years and originally got the idea to develop caviar following a visit to Sunburst Trout farm in North Carolina in 2010.
Goatsbridge was started 50 years ago by Ger Kirwan’s parents, Rita and Padraig Kirwan, and is today one of the few commercial, independent trout farms in Ireland.
“Trout caviar is good enough to eat off the spoon,” said Mags. “We are thrilled at the response to it, and to us it represents the kind of innovation that has now become so necessary in the food industry here.”
A major endorsement for their new product came from Russian buyers at a Bord Bia food showcase last year who voted it excellent.
“That was the ultimate accolade for us. Given they were Russian and from the home of caviar, it was a serious test of our product and happily it appeared to have passed with flying colours,” she said.
“Our plans for 2013 certainly include focusing more on the export market with this product. We have already had inquiries from Hong Kong and Japan, and we feel this has the potential to be something very significant for our company.”
Having taken on an extra 12 employees over the past few weeks, bringing the total workforce to 22, the Kirwans have also just opened a visitor centre, another aspect of the business Mags Kirwan believes will help to give their products a wider recognition.
“We will be showcasing a form of aquaphonics — a method of using water to grow plants which has already been extremely popular with schools and tour groups,” she added.
Company: Wild Irish Sea Veg
Products: Dillisk, Carrageen, Atlantic Wakame and Sea Kelp
Founded in 2009, Wild Irish Sea Veg is a family run seaweed harvesting enterprise located in West Clare at Caherush, between Loop Head and The Cliffs of Moher.
Established by Gerard and Eileen Tally, the family have experience in the industry with Gerard’s father having been a buyer for Irish Marine products from in the 1960s. Daughters Orla, Emma, and Allisha along with son Evan, are fully involved.
All seaweeds used by the company are 100% natural, hand harvested, air and sun dried. Having begun three years ago with just two products, Dillisk and Carrageen, today there are over 15 in the range.
“Our products have become an established presence in retail outlets, and we are constantly expanding our range and the outlets they are available in,” Evan said.
2013 brings the prospect of greater expansion outside of Ireland into global markets:
“We have just begun supplying a number of distributors in the UK and America, and even though it is early days, the reaction has been extremely positive. Our association with The Cliffs of Moher and Ireland generally has been a very good calling card in terms of overseas recognition with an iconic Irish location,” he added.
The well-established Dillisk is now part of a wide range that includes Atlantic Wakame, Sugar Kelp, Kombu and Sea Spaghetti. The range is now stocked nationwide and the Talty family are still to be found manning the tent at many farmers’ markets, fairs and shows.
Their products have also been used at the Rude Health show in the RDS by seaweed expert and author of The Irish Seaweed Kitchen, Dr Prannie Rhattigan.
“Our aim is now to establish ourselves as the number one seaweed company in the world,” said Evan. “After attending our first Speciality Fine Food Show in London early in 2012, we were extremely pleased with the level of interest from companies like Pret A Manger and Holland & Barrett.”
Having doubled turnover year-on-year since 2009, the company now operates from a purpose built factory.
“We are in transition at the moment from an artisan operation to a mainstream company, and we would see extra employment and increased markets as now becoming a reality,” Evan said. “We would see ourselves going from our present 10 products to 30 or 40 within the next few years.”
Company: Killowen Yogurt
Killowen Farm is run by three generations of the Dunne family, with Nicholas and his wife Judith, along with sisters Pauline, Mary and Michelle all helping produce the product.
“Even the grandparents, Tom and Mary, still play an active role on the farm, keeping the machines running,” said Nicholas.
The yoghurt is made using live active cultures, a natural source of protein and calcium. “We have 170 cattle on our farm, the classic black and white friesians, a breed renowned for its wonderful milk-producing qualities,” he added.
Killowen Yogurts was born 25 years ago, and were the first artisan yoghurts to be made in Ireland. Nicholas’s family have been farming land at the foot of the Blackstairs Mountains for two centuries. “The yoghurts contain only the finest ingredients, with nothing added or taken away, and absolutely no compromises on quality or taste. As we face into 2013, we look forward to growing our business by bringing locally-produced food to Irish households.
“Our market research shows that consumers are genuinely trying to support local Irish businesses, and are looking for food that is free from artificial additives and is made as naturally as possible.”
Two months ago, the Dunnes embarked on a project to utilise as many locally-sourced and natural ingredients as possible.
An obvious choice was Wexford fruit, specifically fellow farmer Des Jeffares’s blackcurrant crop.
Classified as a “superfruit”, rich Vitamin C and other nutrients, it made a perfect fit for the family business.
Company: Paddy’s O’Granola
Product: Granola varieties
Patrick O’Connell started selling his Paddy’s O’Granola at farmers’ markets while studying in Dublin, a source of student pocket money that eventually became a viable company in 2008.
Paddy’s O’Granola is a toasted granola made with Irish oats with no added sugar or salt, and is now available in a range of multiple and independent retail outlets throughout Ireland.
There are three new products in development including a gluten free granola, and Patrick is looking at expanding into the UK market. With his original interest in granola having resulted from periods travelling in Hawaii and South Africa, he began selling granola during his student days at the Stillorgan farmers’ market.
After a brief career in the property industry, Patrick returned to granola with a catchy name and a well designed packet. Ingredients are sourced from health food suppliers in Kerry and Kilkenny, with honey from Helen Gee in his home county — Laois.
“The product is in Dunnes Stores, Tesco, SuperValu, and Superquinn, and we are currently working with Musgraves to develop that avenue,” said Patrick.
“What I’m really working on for 2013 is developing a relationship with a large multiple in the UK, and am well down that road at present. I would be reasonably confident of this deal coming through over the next few months — an event that would obviously completely transform the company.”
The company profile got a major boost last year in winning advertising company Bravo Outdoor’s ‘Make Me Famous’ competition of €150,000 worth of free billboard promotion.
“I was always struck by the fact that while Ireland is one of the biggest consumers of breakfast cereals in the world, granola was relatively unknown,” he said.
“I remember turning up at the Stillorgan farmers’ market with 60 bags the first day and selling all of them in a few hours — I knew there was something there at that point.”
The early days of the business were about promoting the product at public tastings, while producing the product in the upstairs kitchen of the family pub at Cullahill.
One of his big breaks came after taking part in the Bord Bia Bloom Festival in the Phoenix Park two years ago.
“A few months later I got a call from Tesco asking me to come in and present, it was a major watershed for me.”
After a redesign of the packaging, Paddy’s O’Granola began to get serious traction on Irish retail shelves.
“We keep doubling in size each year since starting, and that pretty much encapsulates how well things are going. I would look to 2013 as another good year, definitely,” Patrick said.