Kilkenny town eats up the competition

Few towns in Ireland have the arts-and-crafts profile of Thomastown, in Co Kilkenny.
Kilkenny town eats up the competition

The Grennan Mill craft school’s pottery-skills course is one of the best in the world.

A town of 2,000 people, Thomastown sits on the river Nore, and is a magnet for musicians and artists, both established and emerging.

As testimony to the town’s artistic profile, the old courthouse, Sessions House, is soon to become Sessions House Arts Centre — an initiative developed with LEADER funding, topped up by the fundraising efforts of the Thomastown community.

The creativity that is the town’s main identity informs many of the food-related businesses in, and around, the town.

Joan and Bob Cahill use unique recipes and a three-day process to create Joan and Bob’s Juicy Jams, boasting flavours such as wild elderberry, blackberry and pinot noir.

Irish Times innovation award winner, Goatsbridge Trout Farm, owned by Mag and Ger Kirwan, made culinary news last year when it produced Ireland’s first ever trout roe caviar.

Mary Teehan’s Truffle Fairy Chocolaterie and Cafe has won several British Great Taste awards over the past two years, both for its handmade truffles and gluten-free brownies.

Mount Juliet Estate’s Lady Helen restaurant, under head chef, Ken Harker, is the first Kilkenny restaurant to have been awarded three AA Hospitality Award rosettes for its innovative cuisine.

With its creative legacy informing its emerging culinary identity, it was no great shock when Thomastown won the Kilkenny LEADER Project Town of Food competition, in April of this year.

Designed to develop and support the food industry in County Kilkenny, the competition was the first of its kind in Ireland, offering the winning town the opportunity to access a pot of up to €750,000 with which to develop its culinary identity, nurture community spirit, and promote and support small-food businesses across the county.

The Kilkenny LEADER Project Town of Food Competition required the entrants — Callan, Castlecomer, Piltown, Kilmacow and Thomastown — to pitch their ideas, backed up by comprehensive business plans, to a Dragon’s Den-type panel, headed by entrepreneur, Bobby Kerr (one of the panellists on the first four series of RTÉ One’s Dragons’ Den), and which also included members of Teagasc and Failte Ireland.

Thomastown’s winning pitch, delivered by a committee that included local food-business restaurateurs and entrepreneurs, an organic gardener and a homeopath/nutritionist, proposed the creation of a ‘food hub’ on the edge of the town, utilising an abandoned boys’ school.

The food hub, according to the Thomastown pitch, would provide training in how to be a chef, and for the food industry generally, and would emphasise sustainable, farmed and locally sourced ingredients.

The food hub would also house a food research-and-development centre, plus incubation units for small food producers, while the adjoining land would be a community garden, to grow vegetables.

Announcing the Kilkenny Town of Food winner, Bobby Kerr described Thomastown’s winning pitch as “a well-considered, holistic approach with a very real vision, which encompassed the community.”

“Thomastown is no different from other small towns in Ireland, these days, it needs a boost,” said Breda Gardner, local homeopath and nutritionist, project instigator, and member of the Town of Food committee.

“And winning the Town of Food competition has certainly given Thomastown a boost.”

Breda was responsible for calling the initial public meeting from which Thomastown’s entry to the Town of Food Competition emerged.

“I felt that encouraging the people of Thomastown to engage in a project like this,” said Breda, “would develop community spirit and promote the benefits of eating wholesome and locally sourced food.”

Winning the Kilkenny LEADER Project Town of Food competition, however, did not guarantee Thomastown access to the LEADER funding.

It allowed the committee to be the sole applicant for the funding, with the guidance, mentorship and support of LEADER.

With the assistance of rural-development programme funding, the Town of Food committee brought Rebecca O’Brien on board as project co-ordinator.

A freelance consultant, with many years of experience in the food business sector, Rebecca’s first success was to convince the Restaurant Association of Ireland to be collaborators for the proposed chef-training courses, which both Rebecca and the committee hope will become the main revenue earner for the food hub.

“Research showed us that there is, currently, a lack of suitably trained chefs in Ireland,” said Rebecca.

“And teaming up with the Restaurant Association will allow us to provide an outreach training centre for the south-east.

“It means that people who want to train as chefs will no longer have to travel to Dublin to do so.”

Interestingly, Thomastown has an established school with more than a tentative connection to the culinary arts — Mary Gaynor’s renowned Wine Academy (Ireland), accredited by the Wine and Spirit Education Trust, is based out of Mary’s house, on the quay in Thomastown.

Mary hosts wine students from all over the world, as well as running evening courses in wine appreciation, and Rebecca sees great potential for both schools to work together.

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