Our mouth-watering meat worth the fight

As I write this piece, at the beginning of the week, many of my farming neighbours and friends in other regions are involved in the closing stages of the dramatic picket protest outside the country’s embattled meat plants.

Were I a farmer, I would certainly insert myself into my green wellies, don my best padded anorak, and join them.

The weather has been wet and chilly enough to date, so I would have selected a position very close to one of the flaring braziers we have been seeing nightly on the TV coverage and, of course, as always, I would have talked too much to those around me. That, sadly, once again, is the pure truth.

In fairness, I would have confessed my near total ignorance in relation to the underlying factors of the dispute, which have not been totally clarified for the wider community since the dispute began.

Equally certainly, in the small hours of the morning, just to keep the conversation alive, but also out of genuine interest, I would certainly have alluded to a powerful and heartwarming story which appeared in this very supplement last week.

It was the yarn hailing the success of that superb award-winning Dingle butcher and farmer, in a highly competitive retail zone involving quality meats.

My mouth watered when he described how he sources some of his succulent lambs from a special flock raised on the mythical Blaskets, for example.

Could any offering on any butcher’s block be more intriguingly organic than that?

I can taste the chops from here, for Heaven’s sake, and know what will be one of my first stops, next time I get as far south as Dingle.

In the meantime, I today noted a newspaper advert for Achill Mountain Lamb...”from Achill’s sea-misted Heather Hills”... with a whole lamb, butchered and boxed, on offer for €99, plus €15 for delivery nationwide.

Some years ago, when covering the shooting of The Field in Mayo, I observed flocks of hardy mountain sheep grazing the iodine-rich seaweeds of the Killary Harbour’s sea bed at low tide. Later, I had a lamb dinner in lovely Leenane, and the taste of it was memorably special.

I would have told stories like this, over the picket line brazier, in a roundabout approach to the question I would really have liked the farmers to talk to me about.

I would also have mentioned an article my dear departed brother, Sean MacConnell, wrote many years ago, when he was the Agricultural Correspondent for The Irish Times. He seriously suggested it would greatly benefit an island-based farming industry, like the Irish one at that time, to go totally organic, by banning all artificial fertilisers and non-organic imputs of all kinds.

It was his view that lower stock weights and crop yields would be more than compensated for by the premium prices which our organic products would obtain in a European and world consumer market, increasingly demanding better safer food products, and being prepared to pay more for them.

I am certain the beef farmers on the picket line would speedily answer any questions I would ask over the brazier, about whether they are better served selling their animals on the hoof to the beef factories for export, rather than by adopting any other approach which might add value to the animals which, as I understand it, imperfectly no doubt, are rendered down to cuts, prime and otherwise, which compete with home-raised beef on the British market, and it seems to often suffer by comparison.

Hence, again as I understand it, leading to the quite shocking price differential that has created the ongoing costly dispute.

I wonder if an intelligent advertising campaign spearheaded by An Bord Bia and all elements of the meat industry could point up the organic advantages of a lovely Achill Island bullock over, say, a bullock raised in an intensive closed unit in Suffolk or Middlesex?

Could there be the same kind of branding exercise adopted today for Irish beef as worked so well for products like Kerrygold or, for that matter, Ballygowan Water?

I am sure I would get clear answers to these questions, either on the picket line or inside thebeef factories.

FInally, in the warm circle around the brazier, in relation to the value of branding meat products, I would ask the nearest farmer if the hind leg of a West Cork pig is dramatically worth only a fraction of what the hind leg of a similar Spanish pig is worth today.

You see, I was looking at the Christmas catalogue of one of our leading German discount stores the other afternoon. As we all know by now, one can purchase about 80% of their products at any time of year for prices of less than €9.99, and fair play to them for that.

But I did note that the hind leg of the aforementioned Spanish pig, clearly branded as air-dried Iberian Ham for Christmas, and weighing only about 7 kilos, will cost us no less than €99.99!

Again, the pure truth.

Is there a message there somewhere?


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