IRISH FOOD WRITERS’ GUILD CELEBRATES 30 YEARS OF FOOD AWARDS WITH SPOTLIGHT ON CHEESE, EEL AND ALE
Lifetime Achievement Award presented to well-known cheese-making brothers
From eel and ale and sheep’s milk yogurt to eco-friendly pig farming, the winners of the 30th Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards are a diverse group that represent a commitment to provenance, sustainability, quality and flavour above all else.
With just eight prestigious awards presented, the biggest winner of the day was Irish cheese, with Ballylisk of Armagh, Gabriel Faherty of Aran Island Goats’ Cheese and brothers, Kevin and Seamus Sheridan of Sheridan’s Cheesemongers all picking up awards at the 2023 Irish Food Writers’ Guild (IFWG) Food Awards.
Speaking about this year’s awards, Caroline Hennessy, chair of the IFWG said: “Since the Food Award’s inception, each winner has been chosen independently and anonymously by IFWG members, recognising the best in Irish food by shining a light on smaller producers who might otherwise slip under the radar. From traditional products of the highest quality to new innovations, this year’s winners exemplify what is so exciting about Ireland’s food and drink industry right now.”
The winners of the 2023 Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards are:
- Food Award: Smoked Lough Neagh Eel, Co Antrim
- Food Award: Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt, Co Mayo
- Food Award: Ballylisk of Armagh, Co Armagh
- Irish Drink Award: Beoir Chorcha Dhuibhne for Béal Bán, Co Kerry
- Outstanding Contribution to Irish Food: Gabriel Faherty, Aran Island Goats’ Cheese, Co Galway
- Environmental Award: The Wooded Pig, Co Meath
- Community Food Award: Field of Dreams – Down Syndrome Cork, Co Cork
- Lifetime Achievement Award: Kevin and Seamus Sheridan, Co Galway
Three decades on from the first IFWG Food Awards, Caroline Hennessy took a moment to celebrate how the industry has evolved and how this has been reflected in the Food Awards each year: “When the IFWG Food Awards began in 1993, it was with the aim of promoting and celebrating Ireland’s indigenous food producers and, as Ireland’s artisan food scene has developed and flourished, our core principles have remained true.
“Guild members have always shared a passion for nurturing a proud and vibrant Irish food culture. Thirty years on from those first awards, we are fortunate to live in a country where there is more attention paid to the food we eat, to who is producing it and how it is produced.
“Many of the winners from the early years are still familiar names today, proof of their enduring quality and we have no doubt that this year’s cohort of winners will continue that legacy.”
Una Fitzgibbon, Director of Marketing at Bord Bia, which sponsors the IFWG Food Awards, said: “Bord Bia is delighted to support The Irish Food Writers’ Guild as it consistently highlights the outstanding quality, craftsmanship and innovation in Ireland’s artisan food industry through these awards. Now in their 30th year these awards have honoured those in the sector that take ingenuity and entrepreneurship to the next level. Congratulations to all those involved in these prestigious food awards and, of course, to the very deserving winners.”
The Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards were celebrated at Dublin’s Suesey Street, with a lunch created by Head Chef Deniss Lasenko, featuring the winning produce. The Guild is grateful to the team at Suesey Street, Liberty Wines and Teeling Whiskey for their support.
The IFWG Food Awards are unique. No business or individual can enter, nor do they know if they have been nominated or shortlisted for an award. The Guild is the sole nominating and decision-making body* whose members nominate and anonymously buy products for tasting. Proportional representation voting is then undertaken at a Guild tasting meeting. Winning products must be produced in Ireland and the main ingredient must be Irish grown or produced.
* The exception to this is the Community Food Award, for which the Guild invites nominations every year from the general public as well as their own members.
Lunch menu for the 2023 awards, featuring the winning produce:
- Drinks Reception – Beoir Chorcha Dhuibhne, Beal Bán
- Ballylisk Triple Rose | Balsamic Caviar
- Aran Island Cranberry & Honey Goats’ Cheese | Balsamic Bramley Apple Chutney
- Smoked Lough Neagh Eel | Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yoghurt Mousse | Dill
- The Wooded Pig Coppa-Wrapped Monkfish | Broad Beans | Peas | Charred baby leeks | Morels
- Lemon Cheese Cream with Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt Granita | Shortbread | Mango Ginger Gel
- Selection of Sheridans’ Cheese, Crackers & Chutney
About the Winners
Smoked Lough Neagh Eel: Food Award
A Lough Neagh eel is a curious thing. Born in the Sargasso Sea, the young elvers gradually make their way across the wild Atlantic to mature in the largest freshwater lake on the island of Ireland. It’s a unique habitat and one which ensures that Lough Neagh eels are renowned for their flavour and texture. They have long been appreciated locally, with evidence of eel fishing in the area dating back to the Bronze Age.
More recently, the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-Operative was set up in 1965 to safeguard the traditional methods of catching eels and has steadfastly maintained its focus on building “a sustainable and viable future for succeeding generations of fishermen. “It was a world that fascinated Seamus Heaney who wrote A Lough Neagh Sequence, including these lines “for the fishermen:”
“He stood at night when eels
Moved through the grass like hatched fears
Towards the water.”
In 2011, Lough Neagh eel joined an illustrious line-up of foods such as Champagne, Gorgonzola and Parma ham when it was awarded PGI (Protected Geographical Indication) status by the EU. In line with careful conservation guidelines, the Co-Operative now catches and processes around 220 tonnes of these strong, sinuous and, yes, slimy – but very delicious – creatures annually. A select few are smoked and it is this smoked Lough Neagh eel, a traditional product of the very finest quality and flavour, that wins a 2023 IFWG Food Award.
Click here to view recipe with winners’ product.
Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt: Food Award
By Kate Ryan
There’s something ethereal about Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt. Crack open a fresh pot of their velvet-by-name, velvet-by-nature yogurt, and its purity hits you immediately. Pristine white; there is goodness in there – you can see it. You can taste it too.
“Nothing added, nothing strained away,” the label says, just the pure, natural goodness of sheep’s milk from an almost 400-strong flock on the Flanagan family farm near Claremorris, Co Mayo. The texture and flavour of Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt is outstanding; thick, rich and creamy with a refreshingly light tang. Nutritionally, it punches above its weight with a higher-than-average protein yield, alongside probiotics and live cultures.
This is a supremely versatile product. Eaten on its own, the yogurt is a pleasure in itself, but it performs magical things in sauces, marinades, drinks, bakes and desserts. Aisling and Michael refer to it as their hero product. For all its uses, adaptions and marriages with so many other kitchen staples, it’s a hero of home cooks everywhere.
We commend Aisling and Michael Flanagan for their absolute commitment to producing this beautiful, delicious and versatile Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt, our 2023 IFWG Award Food Award winner.
Ballylisk of Armagh: Food Award
Mark Wright, one of the fifth generation of the Wright family, who grew up on the family farm at Ballylisk, Co Armagh, makes Ballylisk’s Triple Rose. This white mould ripened, single-herd, triple cream cheese was Armagh’s first farm-produced cheese. A deliciously full flavoured (‘decadent’ is their word, and it is very apt) little stunner soon became one of a growing range.
It’s all part of a grand plan.
Mark has been in cheese production since 2016, when he began collaborating with Loughry College’s Food Technology Centre in Cookstown, Co Tyrone. In 2017, Ballylisk Dairies set up a bespoke production facility in Portadown, Co Armagh a short distance from the family farm. It is an exceptionally professional operation in every way, from the research undertaken for product development, to the branding and packaging, online sales and retail distribution.
Since developing and launching their flagship Triple Rose, Ballylisk has gone on to make two more gorgeous cheeses: smoked Triple Rose and Single Rose, a creamy farmhouse brie. All three have featured strongly in the coveted Great Taste Awards. There is also a range of accompaniments, notably a balsamic bramley apple chutney, to compliment the cheeses.
And the plan continues to unfold.
Further cheeses in development include a truffled version of the Triple Rose as well as a blue variant. A cider washed version of the Triple Rose is also produced on a seasonal basis.
Ballylisk’s range is a real taste of the lush Armagh pastureland – and an inspiration for other farmers too.
Béal Bán from Beoir Chorcha Dhuibhne: Irish Drink Award
Adrienne Heslin is one of Ireland’s early craft beer innovators, founding Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne, also known as West Kerry Brewery, in 2008. The brewery is based in the garden of her pub, Tig Bhric, in Ballyferriter on the Dingle Peninsula. Adrienne’s late partner, Pádraig Bric, had inherited the pub in 1999 and immediately set about renovating it and creating a home for himself, Adrienne and their daughter Maude. Tragically Pádraig died in 2001, leaving Adrienne with a young daughter and a pub to run.
Tig Bhric has been serving customers over four generations for more than 100 years. With Beoir Chorca Dhuibhne, Adrienne began a new chapter. It was the first brewery in Kerry and the first in Ireland to be founded and managed by a woman.
With a small 800-litre kit and using water from 150 feet below the brewery, this is true craft brewing that has an intense connection with its terroir. Small batch production allows the brewery to produce a range of beers which are beautifully balanced and flavourful. Besides Béal Bán, her brilliant golden ale which we are highlighting today, Adrienne and her small team of Daniel, Pat, Paul and Norah now have 17 beers in their portfolio.
Still proudly independent, Adrienne brews what she calls “progressive, traditional” beers, some which are only available in the pub itself. Fortunately for us, the delicious caramel malt flavours of Béal Bán are more widely accessible in your local off licence – but it’s always worth having an excuse to visit Tig Bhric.
Gabriel Faherty of Aran Islands Goat’s Cheese: Notable Contribution to Irish Food Award
Gabriel Faherty is a born and bred Aran Islander who owns a farm on Inis Mór. He started his cheese journey after his wife bought him a cheese-making course as a birthday present. When he decided to buy a herd of frisky goats, Aran Islands Goat’s Cheese – Cáis Gabhair Árann – was born. Fast forward to Gabriel’s purpose-built visitor centre and cheese plant and you have a former deep-sea fisherman who is now feted as one of Ireland’s top food producers.
Gabriel had always been involved with tourism on the island. As a young teenager, he was a pony and trap driver, subsequently becoming a minibus operator, so food tours were a natural step for him. In 2021, Gabriel set up Aran Food Tours and combines his cheese production with bespoke tours on the history, culture and food of Inis Mór.
He drives the bus himself, taking visitors on half day and full day trips around Dún Aonghasa, The Seven Churches, the Seal Colony and the Wormhole, interspersing his commentary with information on the growing food culture of the island. He tells how the island’s micro-climate means that his goats and cattle thrive on the sandy, seaweedy soil. A visit to the Aran Islands Goat’s Cheese centre includes tasting his range of award-winning goat’s cheeses.
Gabriel is the very definition of a seanchaí, a storyteller, and his deep knowledge of the island coupled with his passion for food makes him a real food hero and a marvellous ambassador for the Aran Islands, Galway county and beyond.
Click here to view recipe with winner’s product.
The Wooded Pig: Environmental Award
Eoin Bird established the Wooded Pig in 2016 on his family-run farm in the Boyne Valley in Tara, Co. Meath, where he and his team produce ethically raised free-range Irish pork charcuterie. They want to put the trust back into the food chain by ensuring that the food they produce not only tastes better but is sustainably grown and reared.
Eoin values the importance of seasonal, ethically produced food and its provenance. He and his artisan team practise ethical and regenerative agriculture not only to craft the best possible food produce, but also to ensure a nature-friendly farming network. They fundamentally believe that as custodians of their lush, verdant landscape, they must champion a way of farming that is sustainable and good for nature. Thus, they place their animals’ welfare at the heart of what they do.
Eoin is also passionate about providing a haven for wildlife and biodiversity among the range of habitats they have on the farm, which includes mixed broadleaf woodlands, pasture, wildflower meadows and a kitchen garden. The pigs roam freely among ash, oak and beech trees, allowing them plenty of shade in the summer and endless mud to bathe and dig in when it rains. The pigs’ diet is also supplemented with barley grown on the farm. Curing meat is a long process involving butchering, spicing and drying. These age-old traditions are carried out on the grounds of the farm, thus ensuring full traceability, the highest possible food production standards and reduced food miles. It all makes for very happy pigs and delicious, hand-crafted charcuterie.
Click here to view recipe with winner’s product.
Field of Dreams: Community Food Award
By Kate Ryan
Field of Dreams was established in 2017 by the Cork branch of Down Syndrome Ireland. The three-acre site supports the learning needs of adults with Down Syndrome across the city and county of Cork using horticulture as a catalyst for learning and personal development.
From seed to plot to plate, participants work together to grow and harvest food, learn about good nutrition and how to cook. Field of Dreams works to enable adults with Down Syndrome to lead fully engaged lives with greater personal independence and self-reliance. Some secure meaningful employment thanks to the hands-on support provided by the Field of Dreams team for both employee and employer.
It’s a haven for those who come to learn and socialise, and provides space and time for the carers of participants to recuperate and recharge. The holistic nature of the learning environment, using food as a conduit for education and employment demonstrates how food can nurture people, create hope and aspiration, and develop a community that supports and provides.
Field of Dreams is a perfect example of how food and community come together. The project, which is entirely dependent upon fundraising and donations, has been quietly doing amazing work for years. The Irish Food Writers’ Guild recognises the great work of Field of Dreams and the participants it supports, and is proud to present them with our 2023 Community Food Award.
Kevin and Seamus Sheridan: Lifetime Achievement Award
From farmers’ market stall to household name. That’s been the journey for Kevin and Seamus Sheridan who started selling cheese at Galway’s Saturday market in 1995. They have since carved out their own unique path, making Irish farmhouse cheese available to more people than ever before.
That stall soon became a shop, a most deliciously pungent spot-on Galway’s Church Yard Street, where sampling has always easily turned to spending as the brothers showcased the best of cheese from Ireland alongside carefully sourced European cheese and other artisan products. A key part of their success has been in the way that they have always encouraged consumers to engage with the cheese, one delicious mouthful at a time.
Since 1997, devoted cheese lovers have beat a path to their shop in Dublin – you simply cannot go down South Anne Street without calling in for a smidgen of Coolea or Cavanbert – and the brothers also have a shop, café and maturing warehouse at a renovated railway station in the Boyne Valley, creating yet another cheese destination. There are now Sheridans’ Cheese Counters in Waterford’s Ardkeen Supermarket and several Dunnes Stores locations throughout Ireland, all staffed with enthusiastic and knowledgeable cheesemongers. From one small stall to twenty-one establishments in less than 30 years: that’s a hell of a lot of cheese.
Kevin and Seamus have worked to develop and grow a market for Irish farmhouse cheese. Building strong relationships with producers, and working closely with them to get the very best, has been central to the ethos of the company. Today the Sheridans name – and that distinctive green, white and gold packaging – is synonymous with quality. They’ve opened up a new world for the cheese lovers of Ireland.