Ray Ryan looks back over the proud tradition of Dairymaid, a quality butter whose roots run as deep as Ireland’s oldest butter markets.
A tradition that goes back 145 years to the celebrated days of the Cork Butter Market lies behind Dairymaid, a premium dairy spread made by JDS Foods.
The company, a member of Love Irish Food, the Association set-up to promote Irish food and drink brands to consumers, is part of the heritage and fabric of Cork city.
It was founded by James Daly, who began trading as a butter merchant in Ballyduff, Co Waterford, in 1871 and moved to Cork In 1885.
Shandon Street area, home to the Cork Butter Exchange — the world’s largest and most important butter market at that time — was the company’s new home.
The market, which was opened in 1770 and continued trading for 150 years, brought great wealth to the city and became its economic foundation.
Wooden caskets called firkins, made of oak, sycamore or good hardwood, were used to bring the salted butter to the market.
It was transported on horse-drawn carts from West Cork and Kerry. Routes which were known as butter-roads were used.
The butter was exported all over the world through the Port of Cork. At its trading peak in the 1880s it was handling 500,000 casks per year valued at £1.5m.
Daly’s butter became a local and international favourite. Polar explorer Ernest Shackelton brought a supply with him on his expeditions because its parchment wrapping was deemed ideal for the harsh conditions.
The company produced its first dairy spreads at the Firkin Crane in 1905, but the family sold the business in 1989 to Irish Sugar, which became Greencore two years later after being privatised by the Government.
James Daly and Sons was acquired in 2001 by managing director Charlie Fleury who saw an opportunity to bring the business back to its roots.
The company was later rebranded as JDS Foods Ltd in 2007. Research and development programmes were expanded and new ranges created. Dairymaid was launched in 2014.
Now employing 60 people, the company has a turnover of €16m and is in production around the clock at a state of the art plant in Churchfield.
The location is only a kilometre or so from the site of the original factory in the Firkin Crane building beside Shandon Bells.
Today the company is a leading international supplier of private label dairy and specialist spreads. It also produces a wide range of products for the bakery and food services sector and produces own brands.
While the company exports numerous products, Dairymaid — which is made with fresh-cream sourced from fully traceable, free roaming, West Cork cows — is exclusively made for the Irish market.
Charlie Fleury is proud that turnover has increased every year since he took over the business in 2001 and that the workforce has more than doubled.
“Little did I think when I joined James Daly and Sons as a newly qualified accountant in 1996 that five years later I would be buying the business myself after working my way up to managing director.
“The business had lost its way in many respects and was focused on supplying bakery margarine and other related products to the bakery sector.
“All the expertise was there to produce dairy spreads and that was much more in line with its early origins of butter trading,” he said.
Mr Fleury said quality butter and spreads are important to the Irish consumer who are used to quality and expect it.
“Being Irish is not just a matter of where we come from or where we are based; it’s who we are and drives what we do.
“The Irish have great taste in food, particularly with regard to dairy. We have the best ingredients in the world thanks to all that rain. I think the Irish are much more discerning in products like ours partly due to being used to high- quality dairy ingredients but I think it’s also got a lot to do with how close we are to our rural roots.
“A large proportion of the population are only a couple of generations removed from the land so we understand where food comes from.
“It is for this reason that being a member of Love Irish Food is so important to a brand like Dairymaid.
“All our products stay true to those origins. It’s more than just a stamp to say where something is made. It is a statement that there is something special about Irish food and that’s why the Irish love it,” he said.
Turning to the challenges posed by Brexit, Mr Fleury remains confident that the long trade between Ireland and Britain will continue to be reasonably unhindered, particularly in food.
“Brexit certainly has our attention but it’s hard to predict what it will mean for food exporters,” he said.
Mr Fleury, whose company exports to Britain, said it had to implement price increases to compensate for the fall in sterling.
“We have been able to do that and maintain all our business there so we are in a good place at the moment.
“But of course we may well see further falls in sterling. There could be more challenges ahead. That is the nature of trading with the UK and always has been,” he said.
The man who first started the business, James Daly (1856-1942), was associated with the industrial and commercial life of Cork for over half a century.
In 1926, he presented to the city a Victorian wrought-iron suspension bridge to span the River Lee, linking Sunday’s Well on the northside to Fitzgerald’s Park on the south.
Named in his honour and popularly known locally as The Shaky Bridge, the iconic landmark is a reminder of the exciting era when Cork was a world renowned butter-making hub — just like the Dairymaid brand itself.
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