Cork County on the Rise: Local food is a livelihood as well as being the future of production

The impending threat of Brexit, the domestic beef crisis and the growing awareness of climate change have put the importance of supporting local food producers back on the menu in Co Cork, writes Ellie O’Byrne

The impending threat of Brexit, the domestic beef crisis and the growing awareness of climate change have put the importance of supporting local food producers back on the menu in Co Cork, writes Ellie O’Byrne

THERE have been countless stark warnings about the bareness of the post-Brexit UK dinner-plate, mirrored at home in Ireland with uncertainty about supply lines for imports and exports.

Wine, charcuterie, cheeses, even the British staple of the pre-made sandwich, could all find themselves off the English menu come Brexit day, it has been warned.

Threats of hunger are visceral and generate understandably emotional responses.

However, while the possibility of breaks in food supply chains are being used for political point-scoring, including Conservative MP Priti Patel’s ill-received comments that England could effectively use the threat of starvation to force a negotiation with Ireland, it has also raised questions large questions about food production and food security in a globalised economy. And not only for the UK, but for Ireland too.

Why have we become so reliant on imports for staples that we’re subject to the vagaries of the political decisions in other countries?

Ireland imports 72,000 tonnes of potatoes per year, 44,000 of these from the UK, even as less than 1% of Irish land is used to grow vegetables, according to Eurostat.

There are plenty of imported foods we can’t produce ourselves amid the €8bn worth of imports recorded by the CSO for 2017: Coffee, wine and bananas are good examples. But we also imported 13kg of apples, 10kg of onions and 7kg of carrots per person, much from England, a neighbouring region with similar climate and growing conditions. In turn, the UK soaks up 40% of our farming exports.

On top of this comes mixed messages regarding climate change: If climate change is the pressing global issue du jour, why is the EU signing trade deals to import Brazilian beef at unknown ecological cost, even as Irish farmers are protesting shrinking beef prices? Isn’t rationalising our food supply and ensuring low food miles more important now than ever before?

It seems there’s no better time to start supporting the growers and artisan food producers on our doorstep. Agri-food is still Ireland’s largest indigenous industry, according to Bord Bia, accounting for 8.4% of Irish jobs.

This autumn, Bord Fáilte’s timely Taste the Island campaign is a €1.5m effort to promote off-season domestic tourism based on the stunning array of delicious seasonally available foods produced on these shores.

Ireland’s largest county features as heavily as ever. Co Cork needs no introduction as home to countless artisan food businesses.

From those who’ve spent 40 years forging a path in homegrown industries like Irish farmhouse cheese to newcomers with recent innovations, all have adapted in times of need, perfected their delicious crafts, and now support families and provide employment by doing what they do so well.

Not only are these food businesses testament to Cork’s wonderful raw ingredients and natural resources, but also to people’s ingenuity in carving out a niche and making a living in response to changing circumstances.

Local food is not only a livelihood, it’s culture, community resilience, environmental protection: it’s the future.

Sweet deal: Exploding Tree

SHE started making chocolate when she was 12, but now Canadian-born Allison Roberts fuses her adult awareness of ethics in business with her childhood dream to produce bars that are doubly sweet: she sources cocoa for her bean-to-bar business from a Fair Trade co-operative and wraps them in biodegradable, plant-sourced packaging.

For Allison, sourcing her cocoa beans from Kuapaco-operative, in Ghana, has a two-fold advantage: Excellent flavour and the knowledge that the supply chain is free from child labour and slavery, all the way from West Africa to West Cork. Not all major producers can be sure of this.

“The beans I buy are known for their sun-baked, clay flavour and they have a warm, red, fruity taste,” she says.

“Kuapa is one of Africa’s first Fair Trade farming co-operatives. West Africa is quite a corrupt part of the world and there’s a lot of slave labour in the cocoa trade.

“A lot of wrongs are still visited there,” Allison says.

Allison converted part of her family home into a chocolate factory in 2015; the company was known as Clonakilty Chocolate, but she’s currently rebranding her range as Exploding Tree, complete with a new website.

In her home chocolate factory, she sorts, roasts, cracks, and winnows the cocoa beans to remove their husks.

The next steps in the process are grinding, adding sweeteners, and tempering and wrapping the finished chocolate.

Because she’s in charge of the whole process, Allison also opts to use Fair Trade coconut blossom sugar, instead of refined sugar, and one of her most popular bars is a milk chocolate made with goat’s milk, instead of cow’s.

Christmas is her busiest time, with chocolate Santas, gift sets, and boxed truffles added to her regular range.

As part of her rebranding to Exploding Tree Chocolate, Allison has recently redesigned all her packaging, which is now made from fully biodegradable, post-agricultural waste.

During the summer, Clonakilty Chocolate was announced as one of six West and South Cork artisan food producers to be selected for LEADER rural development funding.

While Allison is very grateful for the assistance, she says the scheme is not without flaws and comes with an “arduous amount of paperwork,” which means that she’s yet to draw down any funds, despite having invested €4,500 in a new winnowing machine to increase her production.

“It’s amazing to get some financial support, but we’re not big businesses with staff to do all the paperwork.

“I’ve been approved for funding, which is great, but I have to spend €10,000 and then I have to, through more paperwork, see if I can get €5,000 back.

“I’m very grateful, but it comes at a bit of a cost.”

Allison, who has a seven-year-old daughter, saysshe plans for sustainable growth into the future, in line with her ethical approach.

“We’re growing slowly, but I won’t ever want to export production, because then you don’t have control over it,” she says.

“I export a small quantity of chocolate. In another 10 years, I’d love a shop front. Right now, I’m based in my house and that’s great: I can do things that are slightly risky, because I don’t have massive overheads. I really like that,” Allison says.

The salt of the Earth: Irish Atlantic Sea Salt

MICHAEL and Aileen O’Neill took a leap into the unknown when they became the first Irish company to begin producing and selling artisan sea salt from their home in Lickbarrahan on the Beara Peninsula.

“We began in 2009 with a pilot project and in 2013 we converted some farmbuildings to food-grade premises,” says Aileen.

“Michael’s late fatherfirst came up with the idea, but Michael was doingconsultancy work inEngland: At first wedismissed it, but then we put our heads together to work out the basics.

“Michael is an engineer, but he was fishing for 15 years. When the quotas came, he got out of it and we needed to look for something else to do. The love of the sea was always with him, and the water here in Beara is pristine. It just seemed right.” Organically certified, the sea salt is harvested andrefined in a bespoke process that retains the salt’s trace elements, Aileen explains. The process involvesfiltering sea water andapplying gentle heat, which results in large, soft pure white salt flakes coveted by chefs for their uniqueflavour profile and sold as retail packs, both plain and with a variety of flavourings.

Although salt has always been a treasuredcommodity, both as aflavouring and apreservative, by the Middle Ages, salt was beingimported into Ireland. In prehistoric times, stones in coastal areas were carved into “pans” for theevaporation of seawater to produce salt crystals.

But in living memory,refined table salts, which have been subjected to high temperatures and processes that remove all traceelements and add chemical anti-caking agents became the order of the day.

There was no Irish sea salt industry until Michael and Aileen forged their path into the unknown, although now they’ve been joined by a handful of other artisanproducers.

All the hard work insetting up Atlantic Irish Sea Salt has paid off for the couple, with numerous awards and recognition for their craft, including a 2014 Golden Fork award — the “Oscars” for food in the UK and Ireland — for their dill pollen-flavoured salt.

Other flavours include lemon and pepper, whichAileen says marriesperfectly both with seafood dishes and white meats like chicken and pork, chilli and paprika to add a spicy kick to mealtimes, and an oak-smoked salt, which is sent to Ummera smokehouse inTimoleague for smoking.

Today, the businesssupports the O’Neill family as well as employing two people locally. “In a remote area like Beara, every job counts so that’s a huge bonus for us,” says Aileen.

The couple has four children ranging in ages from 22 to 15, and Aileen says they hope that at least one will choose to continue the family business.

In the meantime, Brexit has introduced an element of the unknown into the company’s plans to expand their export trade in the coming years.

“We just don’t know how things will go,” she says. “But we’ve always grown our business organically, so we’ll just keep doing what we do well into the future.”

It’s in the blood: De Róiste Puddings in Ballyvourney

WHEN Ballyvourney butcher Seánie De Róiste passed away, the fledgling artisan pudding and sausagebusiness he had started passed into the hands of his extended family.

But despite a recent contract with Aldi increasing the demand for their products, they say quality won’t suffer at the hands of quantity, and that they’ll stay true to Seánie’s recipes.

Jimmy Allen, his wife Máire, Seánie De Róiste’s sister, and their adult sons Cathal and Declan are now at the helm in the family business that verydefinitely runs in the blood.

“Seánie was a bit of a gas man,” Jimmy Allen recalled. “He travelled around Australia and Canada, and when he came home he opened the shop with his sister, my wife.

“Then the recession came and the multiples took over, and rural Ireland took a fair hammering and Seánie passed away, so we closed the shop.” A boost from the next generation came when Declan, who had often worked alongside his uncle, studied food science in UCC.

In 2012, the family opened De Róiste foods,determined to continue to use Seánie’s traditional recipes for puddings and sausages. Declan heads up production, while brother Cathal, who is studying accountancy, takes care of paperwork and the company’s social media accounts.

Many fans of black pudding won’t be aware that the delicacy is now often made from dried blood, due to the practicalities of collecting, transporting and storing fresh blood. And most of the dried blood, Jimmy says, isn’t Irish in origin.

De Róiste is currently the only pudding widely available in supermarkets like Dunnes and Supervalu and, most recently, Aldi, with whom they’ve signed a year-long contract, made with fresh pig’s blood. The blood used in De Róiste black pudding comes from an abattoir in Mitchelstown that only handles pigs.

“Some people are using powdered onions as well,” Jimmy says. “We get our onions from Bandon. Long ago, it was always pig’s blood, not beef, so that’s what we use.

“We went back to the old ways; Seánie’s grandmother showed him how to make the pudding. When the pig would get killed, it was the woman of the house who’d collect the blood and make the pudding. Seánie built up a big clientele and all we’re doing is continuing his work.” With a growing trendtowards veganism, is Jimmy worried that an emerging generation will be too squeamish for blood sausage?

“We’re not seeing an impact at the moment,” he says. “I imagine we will, going down the road. But the whole world isn’t going vegan overnight. We feel there’s a market there for the next 15 years anyway. We’re also going to look at developing other products and expanding our range beyond black and white pudding and sausages and the like.” As well as their classic black pudding, the company, which now employs seven additional staff as well as the family, also produces white pudding, which picked up a gold prize at last year’s Blas na hÉireann awards, and sausages that are 85% meat content.

Aid from Údarás na Gaeltachta has been invaluable in growing a business with a strong sense of pride of place, Jimmy said.

“We’re all gaeilgeoirí, and that’s very important to us. That’s part of why we keep everything as local as we can. We have to buy Irish; we don’t want to be seen buying things in when there’s perfectly good products here.”

An apple a day: Longueville House Beverages

AN ORCHARD planted 35 years ago in Mallow still produces Ireland’s only apple brandy, but the Co Cork micro-distillery has also found a market for its distinctive cider as the Irish palette veers away from sugary drinks and towards more sophisticated and drier ciders.

William O’Callaghan Sr — Longueville House is now owned and managed by his son, also William — had a unique vision for his country home; having developed a business bottling and selling casked wine, he became the first person to grow grapes in Ireland, joking that eventually the impacts of global warming would permit him to produce Irish wines.

Rupert Atkinson started working at Longueville House seven years ago, and now heads up the sales and dispatch for the historic country home’s cider and brandy production; he says the family history behind Ireland’s first micro-distillery is one that still fascinates him.

“William grew grapes for years, but he only got about two good commercial yields out of every 10 years,” says Rupert.

“But the same time as he planted the vineyards, he planted the orchards. His goal was brandy, but you have to make a cider to double-distil to make brandy. At the time, in the ‘80s, he didn’t think the Irish palette was ready for such a dry cider, so he used all of it for double-distilling.” William Sr’s 30-acre orchard of cider apples in two varieties, Dabinett apples from Somerset and Michelin apples from Normandy, are still what produces Longueville House’s beverages today.

Following his death in 2010, his son William decided to try bottling and selling the cider, reckoning that the Irish palette was becoming more sophisticated and that there may be an emerging market for a dry cider, which is more akin to a Normandy cider than the sweet ciders sold in industrial quantities in Ireland.

Rupert said their biggest challenges come from the competitive Irish drinks market and regulations that seem to favour big business over small producers.

“There are cider producers tankering in cider from Poland or England, bottling it here and they’reallowed to label it as a product of Ireland,” he said.

“And I think it’s shocking that it’s still optional in 2019 whether you want to list the ingredients on the bottle. The big commercial brands have a stranglehold on duty free.

“Cork Airport, 20 miles up the road from us, doesn’t stock our brandy even though we get asked by customers all the time if they can pick up a bottle on the way home.” Last year, 5,000 bottles of brandy and 50,000 litres of cider were produced. Longueville House employs four full-time staff in cider and brandy, but come harvest time, gardeners whose own workload has tailed off for the season are drafted in for an intensive round of picking and pressing.

This seasonal work starts in Octoberand lasts throughout November.

“Cider apples are last to come into blossom in the spring, and the last to be harvested,” says Rupert.

“We only use two natural ingredients: the juice from the apples, and the wild yeasts that occur naturally on the apples. There are no chemicals or preservatives or additives at all; we do sweeten the finished cider with fresh apple juice to lift it from a bone-dry cider to something the Irish palette responds to.”

Cream of the crop: Gloun Cross Dairy

FOR fourth-generation dairy farmer Kevin O’Donovan and his wife Liz, the key to overcoming the struggle to survive on low milk prices was to step back in time.

Rather than continue to sell their milk to a co-op, the O’Donovans decided to start afresh and do dairy in a time-honoured fashion: a local supply network of their own top-quality non-homogenised milk, sold in glass bottles that are proving a big win amid mounting interest from consumers in reducing packaging.

The O’Donovans went it alone only in 2016, and it’s been a whirlwind three years, with a high demand for their dairy products, produced from their herd of Friesians and Jersey Crosses.

As well as milk, Gloun Cross produces butter, buttermilk, and single and double cream; their double cream has picked up the Gold prize at the Blas na hÉireann awards two years running.

Recently, West Cork celebrity Graham Norton was snapped picking up a glass bottle of their milk in the SuperValu near his holiday home.

The popularity of the glass bottles, whichoperate on a deposit scheme and which Gloun Cross collects from stores for re-use, is a particular success story, says Kevin.

“Our aim was to convert people to glass,” he says. “Now it’s starting to swing to it more and more. We put both glass and plastic into some shops and there’s a lot more glass selling than plastic now.

“Glass is a niche; when we started with milk in plastic, people would go into the shops and they’d be saying, ‘that’s just another type of milk’, and they couldn’t see the difference. We had to have something special.” As well as supplying supermarkets and small independent grocers, Gloun Cross is doing a brisk trade in supplying high-end cafés, where the fat and protein content of their milk makes it a dream to steam for drinks like cappuccinos.

The O’Donovans employ three to four part-time staff as well as supporting their family; they have two children, aged 16 and 13.

“You’d be hoping the kids would want to follow you into it, but it depends on the road they want to take,” said Kevin. “There’s an awful lot of work in it to keep it going; a lot of manual work and a lot of hours. But everyone can improve on what the person before did; just because we did it doesn’t mean there isn’t more to be done.” For Kevin, whose business revolves around a perishable product, small and local are the future — and the key to a business that’s both sustainable and capable of maintaining the high quality with which the Gloun Cross name is already associated.

“Cork county is big enough for us,” he says. “We don’t want to export; people ring us for advertising in Dublin and things like that, but that’s no good to us. There’s a lot of people in Cork and if we can supply a patch of that, that’s plenty.

“We never advertised our product. Our philosophy is that if the product is good enough it should sell itself, and that’s what it’s doing.”

Blessed are the cheesemakers:Durrus Cheese

DURRUS Cheese is a venerableinstitution, developed in the first wave of Irish farmhouse cheeses in the late ‘70s, but a second generation is moving in to keep thetradition alive.

Founded by Jeffa Gill from her West Cork smallholding, the farmhouse cheese which has picked up innumerable prestigious awards probably needs no introduction to Irish chefs and foodies.

The most recent gong affordedDurrus’s small range of artisan cheeses was for Best Semi Soft Cheese at this year’s UK andIreland Artisan Cheese Awards.

Jeffa’s daughter, Sarah Hennessy, who now works full-time for the family business, saysDurrus Cheesecame about through trial and error,and through her mother’s extraordinary hard work.

“My mother had a couple of cows and she was growing vegetables and selling milk to the local dairy and keeping some back for the family; she started making cheese for the family in 1979.

“She was friends with Veronica Steele who had just started similar experiments with what wouldbecome Milleens cheese in Beara. Mum just started making the cheese, and eventually it started going out to the shops she was supplying with vegetables and into restaurants and it’s just grown little by little over the years.” A single mother, Jeffa eventually began buying in her milk from a farmer because as her cheese became more popular, she couldno longer keep up milking her own little herd of eight cows on top of making the cheese, but the business issupplied by just two farms, and for purposes of traceability, the milk is never mixed.

Jeffa, along with her neighbour Ann McGrath, who is Sarah’s godmother, still make the cheeses. Two local assistants are alsofemale. Did Durrus deliberately set out to build a matrilineal cheese empire?

Sarah laughs: “No, definitely not. Loads of people have come and go. But Mum does always say it’s a cheese a woman can make: she never developed anything big like a cheddar or a comté, because it was more difficult to lift and carry them. Everything came about because of the person making it and the environment it was being made in.” Having made anindelible mark on the Irish food scene with their trademark washed-rind cheese, Durrus expanded their range in 2009to include the easy-melting Durrus Óg and Dunmanus, a hard cheese made from raw cow’s milk, which is matured for a minimum of six months. All have won coveted prizesat Irish andinternationalfood awards.

Sarah moved back to Durrus four years ago, having managed outlets of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers in Dublin and Galway and married a Galwegian. The couple have two boys, seven and four, and Sarah says raising the children in idyllic West Cork is adefinite plus.

“As time went on, I could see a choice needed to be made about the family business and whether it would continue,” she says.

“The idea that it wouldn’t was against everything in me, so we moved back to West Cork.

“Sourcing locally and selling locally is wonderful and we’re so lucky to be able to do that. The rawmaterials we havein Ireland are of a fantastic quality,and in Cork there’sa great loyalty to Irish products.”

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