Trust & Innovation – The Two Key Ingredients in Great Irish Food
Trust has become one of the most important ingredients in food production in Ireland today, according to the Irish Food Writers’ Guild (IFWG). “If we can’t have full faith in what is on the label, the reputation of the food sector in Ireland could be seriously jeopardised,” said Chairperson of the IFWG Myles McWeeney, who was speaking at the Guild’s annual Food Awards which took place in February, in Dublin.
“But the good news is that when you buy from indigenous, Irish producers, you can be assured that their products are fully traceable, that the raw materials will have travelled a relatively short distance and oftentimes, that the product is as a result of cooperation between different local producers.
“It is these wonderful artisan producers that the Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards celebrate and honour and they are truly deserving of the highest recognition,” said Myles. “Thankfully, in terms of artisan food produce, the future of the food industry is in great hands. Each of today’s award-winners in their own way represents the can-do spirit of innovation that characterises this dynamic sector.”
Six Irish food companies were presented with a much-coveted IFWG Food Award at a ceremony and industry celebration at l’Ecrivain restaurant, attended by Ireland’s leading ‘foodies’.
From fresh cheese made from buffalo milk and crackers packed with character, to seeds and syrup and PGI designated lamb, the winners represent the very best of Irish and were awarded for their outstanding produce and important contribution to helping retain Ireland’s reputation, at home and abroad.
The 2013 winners are Rod & Julie Calder-Potts, Highbank Orchards (Co Kilkenny) for Highbank Orchard Syrup; Toby Simmonds, Toons Bridge Dairy (Co Cork) for Toons Bridge Dairy Buffalo Mozzarella Cheese and Connemara Hill Lamb Ltd. (Co Galway). A joint award was presented to Sheridans Cheesemongers (Co Meath) and Cookies of Character (Co Cork) for their range of cheese crackers.
An environmental award was presented to Co Clare-based Irish Seed Savers Association, for its dedicated work in preserving native varieties of fruit and vegetables.
Myles McWeeney continued, “Today is a celebration of the finest Irish food and wonderful artisan producers. However, as a food writers’ guild, we have a duty to acknowledge recent issues relating to the contamination of processed meat products and we urge immediate action on labelling and transparency, not just in Ireland but right across the EU.
“We welcome the Irish government’s recent response, but we have to act now to protect the hard-earned reputation of the majority of food companies, large and small, in what is one of Ireland’s most important export industries.”
Now in its 19th year, The IFWG Food Awards is one of Ireland’s most enduring and respected awards events in Ireland.
Derry Clarke, executive chef at l’Ecrivain created a lunch incorporating all of the award-winning products. Guests were treated to chocolates from Benoit Lorge (www.lorge.ie) and wines from Coman’s Wines (www.comans.ie). Myles McWeeney concluded proceedings by thanking Bord Bia for its continued support of the Awards and the work it does for the artisan producers and the industry as a whole, both in Ireland and overseas.
About the Winners
Rod & Julie Calder-Potts, Highbank Orchards, Co Kilkenny, Highbank Orchard Syrup: Food Award
In creating Highbank Orchard Syrup, Rod and Julie Calder-Potts have invented an intriguing product. The limestone-rich soil of Co Kilkenny is particularly suited to growing apples. The orchard was established in 1969 and, since 1994, the land has been farmed organically. Rod and Julie began farm-gate sales of surplus apples and producing fresh apple juice and apple concentrates to make wine – a product that attracted the interest of poteen-makers.
Rod has a keen interest in balancing the three essential flavours of apples: acidity, sweetness and bitterness and, as he discovered, this is best achieved by blending traditional cider-apple varieties with dessert and culinary varieties. They explored making other products from the orchard, experimenting with flavours and varieties to make apple drinks like a spicy mulled apple drink for Christmas. One day, quite by accident, one of their concoctions became exceedingly concentrated on an ancient Aga cooker. After two years of fine-tuning this delicious syrup emerged.
So Highbank Orchard Syrup was born; a unique flexi-food and extraordinarily versatile product that boasts a two-year shelf-life stored at room temperature. Unwilling to waste the by-product, apple pulp, they found it could be used to make a fresh sparkling, non-alcoholic Driver’s Cider. And, unwilling to waste the potential of natural wild yeasts, they also developed an alcoholic drink, which they call Proper Cider. The development of the company was assisted by the ongoing support of Bord Bia.
The development of the company over the past few years has been assisted by the local Leader programe, by winning awards to Savour Kilkenny Food Festival, by ongoing support and assistance from Bord Bia including Highbank’s participation last autumn on the Bord Bia sponsored stand at Terra Madre in Turin.
Kevin & Seamus Sheridan, Sheridans Cheesemongers, Co Meath & Richard and Jane Graham-Leigh, Cookies of Character, Dunmanway, Co Cork: Food Award
A joint award was presented to Sheridans Cheesemongers and Cookies of Character, for their excellent range of crackers.
The Sheridan brothers, well-known for their devoted promotion of Irish farmhouse cheeses and complementary artisan foods, began exploring the idea of finding an Irish-made substitute for imported crackers. Coincidentally, it was at this time Richard and Jane Graham-Leigh contacted them about their cookies.
In 1996, a lifestyle change saw Richard, a chef, and Jane, who worked in finance and marketing relocate to West Cork and Richard returned to his first love – patisserie. Beginning with cookies sold at the local farmer’s market in Clonakilty, success came fast and over a few years, they were in high demand with leading hotels, restaurants and speciality shops. Then, with help from West Cork Enterprise and participation in the advanced programme for small-scale food production, the range was formally launched in 2009 at SHOP.
In 2010, working closely with Elisabeth Ryan of Sheridans, development of the cracker range began with the aim of producing thin, crisp crackers that would complement and serve the accompanying cheese rather than overpower it. Getting the final recipe right and sourcing the ideal Irish ingredients took time. Irish flour and oatmeal are stone ground to their specification by Donald Creedon of Macroom Oatmeal. Butter comes from Macroom Co-op. A spin on traditional buttermilk, one made with whole milk, comes from John and Mary Cronin of Ballygooley. The result: an Irish-made range of crackers ideal for enhancing a wide range of cheeses.
The company now employs ten people and the Sheridan’s range of crackers is attracting interest on the export and the home market.
Toby Simmonds, Toons Bridge Dairy, Macroom, Co Cork, Toons Bridge Dairy Buffalo Mozzarella Cheese: Food Award
A water buffalo farm in West Cork? Well, the grass is good and water is plentiful. And so too is the spirit of enterprise, in the form of dairy farmer Johnny Lynch, olive and cheese importer Toby Simmonds and cheesemaker Sean Ferry.
Their adventure began following a conversation about “milking water buffalo to make cheese” over a pint on St Patrick’s Day in 2009. Research revealed the Irish climate and rich grasslands suited water buffalo, and the seemingly strange idea started to make economic sense. A trip to Italy was arranged and 45 Italian buffalo found themselves in Cork. When renowned West Cork cheesemaker Sean Ferry came on board everything was in place and now, in less than four years, the trio is being awarded for its excellent, fresh, raw milk cheese.
A breeding programme on a 180-acre farm in Kilnamatyra, West Cork, has since increased the herd to 85. Although the daily milk yield from a buffalo is two-thirds less than that from a cow, the milk is far thicker and richer in protein and butterfat and produces the same amount of cheese.
By-products are used to make fresh ricotta and any remaining whey goes to local pig breeders. Toons Bridge Dairy also produces a hard cheese and a feta cheese and is currently working on a blue cheese.
Their award-winning buffalo mozzerella is a successful import substitute that arrives on your plate ultra-fresh and bursting with flavour.
Connemara Hill Lamb Ltd., Connemara, Co Galway, Connemara Hill Lamb: Food Award
History, tradition and communal endeavour lie behind the story of Connemara Hill Lamb. The passion and hard work culminated in 2007, when it became the first Irish meat product to achieve the coveted European designation of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.
In the mid 18th-century, black-faced lambs were introduced from Scotland to graze Irish mountain pastures. Over many years, the higher terrain and heavier rainfall meant that these sheep evolved to become smaller and leaner, while the unique range of Connemara’s natural herbs, grasses, heathers and wild flowers ensure a very special flavour, texture and distinctive aroma. You can taste the hills of Connemara in every bite!
Lambing takes place in March and April and the lambs grow slowly and naturally to be enjoyed, as a seasonal treat, between August and the end of the year.
In 1999 a group of hill farmers from all over Connemara came together to raise awareness and promote the unique qualities of this speciality lamb. They linked up with Michael Bermingham of M&K Meats (another food lover with passion) through whose distribution company the hill lamb was offered to leading chefs and discerning consumers. The excellence of the product was pretty soon recognised.
Connemara Hill Lamb can be purchased online and at M&K’s retail shop, Market Butchers in Rathcoole, Co Dublin. The company also distribute to a small number of carefully chosen retail outlets around the country.
Irish Seed Savers Association, Scariff, Co Clare: Environmental Award
The IFWG honours the Association’s founder, Anita Hayes and the dedicated workforce in Scariff in addition to the Association’s 1,800 supporters, many of whom are active in growing and saving varieties of food crops traditional or native to Ireland.
Central to the Seed Savers’ philosophy is the need to preserve agricultural heritage, safeguard genetic biodiversity, and ensure food security for Ireland. The Association focuses on propagation of varieties relevant to Irish conditions. Mainstream seed production is often carried out in entirely different climates. By saving seeds in Ireland, varieties that do best in our damp and cool conditions are selected for pollination and seed production and, over time, become ever more conditioned to Irish conditions.
While not all the seeds are native to Ireland, years of hard work have created a seed collection of 48 varieties of native Irish grain, 50 varieties of heritage potatoes, 140 distinct apples and a seed bank of over 600 varieties of rare and endangered vegetable varieties. In the orchard they have 33 self-rooting types of apple trees that need no grafting for propagation.
A large part of the Association’s work is educational and it offers year-round, hands-on workshops for all age groups in order to pass on the skills to future generations. Some of these are specifically designed for farmers and growers to establish orchards and save seeds on a large scale. The 20-acre seed farm, orchards and a new seed processing and storage facility are open to the public, and of course seeds and apple trees may be bought onsite or online.