Fruit juice is big business

WHAT have apple trees, the Celtic Tiger, James Joyce, and innovative food products got in common?

A lot, if you happen to be Maurice Gilbert, a former builder from Martinstown, Co Limerick.

Along with prominent businessman Gerry Murphy, he is the co-owner of Ballyhoura Apple Farm at Clashganniff, near Churchtown in North Cork, which produces a large range of unique and award-winning apple products.

Mr Gilbert spent 10 years working in the construction industry in England and another year in New York before returning to Ireland in 1993. He continued in construction, mainly in Churchtown, where he did a lot of work with Mr Murphy, who inspired the renewal of the area with various developments.

The men started a joint venture with mentoring from Con Traas of the Apple Farm, Cahir, Co Tipperary.

They planted 1,000 trees on a site beside the village in 2006. By 2008, the size of the orchard had increased to 4,500 trees.

But then, the building industry had collapsed, and Mr Gilbert, who had employed up to 20 people at one stage, found the apple-growing sideline had suddenly become his full-time occupation.

Mr Gilbert, who always had an interest in cooking, blends the apple juice with other fruit and local root vegetables to produce a range of “Froot Juices”.

Securing space at Mahon Point Farmers’ Market in Cork, held every Thursday from 10am to 3pm, was an important breakthrough for Maurice, who went in there “with a couple of bottles of juice and a fist of apples”.

“The response was great,” he said.

“People wanted real apples and juice with a flavour and without additives.”

Seasonal tastes change, however. While apple juice was popular in September, sales had fallen away by Christmas. But he solved the difficulty by developing a different product.

“I got a gas ring and a couple of saucepans and started selling hot mulled apple juice in the Grand Parade in Cork for the four weekends coming up to Christmas.

“The response was fantastic. Every second person suggested I should bottle it, which I did the following July/August. It is important to always listen to your customers. The mulled apple juice won a silver medal for best new product in the 2010 Blas na hÉireann National Food Awards, which was a great boost.

“I knew then we were on to something right,” Mr Gilbert said. He also received an innovation voucher from Enterprise Ireland for product development at Teagasc Moorepark.

“This year, we received silver in the same category for our Irish cherries in mulled apple syrup.”

Pointing out that new food products with apples as a base have endless potential, he said a number of new ideas are now being developed with the help of Teagasc and University College Cork.

Ballyhoura Development has also supported the apple farm, where nearly 500,000 apples are grown each year. There are also plans to create a visitor centre in the old farm buildings at Clashganniff.

But what is the Joycean link? He once appeared as an extra in a feature film based on Ulysses, in which actor Stephen Rea played Leopold Bloom.

“I had a couple of seconds of glory on the big screen,” he said.

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