John Verling talks to meat supplier Jerry Kennedy about how he produces such top quality produce.
As the big beasts tangle in the farmers versus beef processors stand-off, the local butcher remains the face of the beef industry for many Irish consumers.
The Irish butcher has to find his own niche in an industry where about 90% of Irish-produced beef is exported, and our cattle farmers can endure very poor profitability in a year like 2014, despite relatively high prices in historical terms.
Sitting in McCarthy’s Bar on Goat Street, Dingle, might be an unusual place to find out more about an award-winning butcher, who is also a farmer.
With me is Jerry Kennedy. We met earlier in his shop, Kennedy’s Butchers, on Orchard Lane, which had been full with customers when I arrived.
It had been a busy Saturday morning, without any time to eat, so he suggested we go for lunch — which is how we arrived at McCarthy’s, eating a stew with the main ingredient, Dingle Peninsula Lamb, which had come from his counter that very morning.
“See, this is what I mean by local,” he says, starting in on the plate, “lamb from us, and the veg from the boys next door. And the flavour is only excellent. Costs a bit more, but the quality is there.”
Quality is vital for Jerry Kennedy — it has been since he began to learn the trade in the family business his father ran at nearby Annascaul. At 14, Jerry was working in the shop, on the small family farm, and in the slaughter house out the back. Later, he apprenticed with a butcher on Dublin’s Moore Street, who kept up the emphasis on quality.
“If you only kill one lamb a month, make sure it’s a good one, that’s what he used to say, and I always remember that,” says Jerry, taking a forkful of the tender stew.
By 1995, he had returned to Dingle to take up a lease on a cousin’s shop on Green Street. Jerry decided to give it a go, supplying local meat with the added value of quality. Business went well, local farmers were delighted to supply him. Jerry farmed his land, selling his own meat when in season, while building an understanding with his suppliers. In 1999, he bought a premises on Orchard Lane, had it designed to his specifications, and is still in the business 15 years later.
The last few years have been difficult — as they have been for most small producers. There has been the huge increase in costs, and a drop in sales, but he’s managed to keep his head above water. The move to Orchard Lane has proved a successful one and helped cement relationships with his suppliers.
“I have a handful of local suppliers, and I mind them,” say Jerry.
When I ask what he means by minding them he explains how he gives them a secure market all year round. When stock is ready, each farm is visited by Jerry. They examine the animals, chat for a while, select the best ones, and wheel and deal before striking a bargain. It takes time, but that’s the only way to guarantee quality. Once a price is struck, Jerry has to arrange transport to the slaughter house.
Gone are the days of a local abattoir, and driving over 40 kilometres to the nearest one in the county adds an extra cost. The slaughtered meat has to be collected too when ready, brought back to Dingle, and hung until fit for sale.
“Of course it’s more expensive, but quality doesn’t come cheap, it’s as simple as that,” says Jerry, taking another forkful of stew, “I could get cheaper by picking up the phone and shopping around, but not the quality.”
Jerry runs a small farm of about 20 beef heifers and 50 or so ewes. When his farmer suppliers are busy restocking and haven’t got the supply, Jerry will know to bring his meat on stream. This way he can keep a constant stock of local meat coming into the shop.
“If the farm doesn’t have it, the lads would have it. It works out very well for us all. I can gauge when they’ll be quiet so I can get my own stock in. If it was a huge operation, I wouldn’t be able to manage it myself at all, so I keep it tight.”
By fattening his own lambs from October, he’ll have hoggets ready for St Patrick’s Day, while the farmers lambing at Christmas will have spring lamb. Jerry grows his own barley to finish the heifers, giving the beef a lovely taste. The grass on the peninsula is of a good quality, the air is full of salt from the sea, and it all combines in the meat flavour.
A supplier to the shop, Donncha Ò Céileachair, farms a small holding on the Blasket Islands, where he raises unique, award-winning lamb. The habitat on the islands is special; the grass is full of salt, giving the lamb that highly valued pré salé flavour. (The French consider agneau de pré-salé lamb raised in salt marsh meadows a delicacy).
When ready in late September, the lambs are brought from the larger Great Blasket onto the smaller Beginish. Donncha corrals them there and Jerry picks the premium ones to send for slaughter, immediately. Timing is everything here. The lambs have been used to the peaceful surrounds of the islands and can lose weight very quickly on the much noisier mainland, not to mind flavour. Supply of this special lamb is limited, and Jerry sells out quickly each season.
Jerry is happiest on his own farm out among the sheep and cattle, but loves the shop when it’s busy. For a small operator, dependent on stock from a tiny catchment area, dealing hands-on over the counter is vital.
He knows he’d have nothing without the local farmers.
“If it wasn’t for them I wouldn’t have a product at all, and I wouldn’t be here boasting about it,” he laughs, while finishing off his stew. “Seriously though, it has to be good coming from the farm to the slaughter house, all the way to the bag I put up on the counter for the customer. I don’t make it good, they do.”
It works out very well for us all. I can gauge when the local suppliers will be quiet so I can get my own stock in. If it was a huge operation, I wouldn’t be able to manage it myself at all, so I keep it tight
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