Archive for November, 2007

Richard and Jane Graham-Leigh

Richard and Jane Graham-Leigh

West Cork

‘s enviable reputation for food is often traced back to pioneering producers that set up here in the late 70s/early 80s. These businesses are still going strong but in the meantime many more have joined them – often with a very different proposition. The success of the first generation was based on selling outside West Cork, in cities where their products found a critical mass of people with money and “sophisticated palates”. At the same time we have had food businesses in West Cork that catered for a more local market. A typical example is the small confectionary bakeries producing traditional buns, cakes, scones and soda breads. They compete on freshness and service. Many have developed from home baking operations and simply scaled up to offer local shoppers a taste of home.  For all its merits, however, it’s fair to say that this baking is not fancy and does not rely on developed palates. RGL Patisserie in Dunmanway, run by Richard and Jane Graham Leigh, is not one of these. True, they have also built a business that is based on a local market. But this is business that wouldn’t have been sustainable before now and their success is an encouraging sign for the culture of food in West Cork.


RGL Patisserie has been described by Darina Allen as “the best bought confectionary you are ever likely to find”. Richard and Jane produce classical French patisserie and biscuits using the finest ingredients, like couverture chocolate and free range eggs. Everything is made from scratch, there are no shortcuts. Richard told me that the critical ingredient that sets them apart is butter, which apart from adding an additional cost is also demanding to work with. Butter pastry doesn’t tolerate being warmed up or it will crumble, so it can only be worked by hand. This is time consuming and the skill level required makes it difficult to scale up easily. But it is worth it – “What we do is a blend of physics, chemistry and art,” says Richard, “fat is flavour, we have to whisper that but it’s true, butter melts at 15˚C degrees, which means an almost instant flavour release when you bit into it, literally melt in the mouth”.


Like with many others Richard and Jane were drawn to West Cork for lifestyle reasons. They left London in 1998 where Richard had been working as a chef entertaining clients for a posh firm of solicitors. They love West Cork, particularly their home in hills above Dunmanway but admit to being busier than they intended to be. They started the business in 2002 – “Like a lot of the people we know, the farmers market in Clonakilty was what made it possible for us.” says Jane, “We saw the start up notice looking for producers. Richard started baking in our own kitchen and I took it to the market to try it out. That is how we found out what worked and we also learned that people needed to be encouraged to try things out if they were going to pay the extra price. We don’t produce specifically for an Irish palate and I’m not sure that there is such a thing anyway. People’s tastes change all the time and with experience and exposure they become better able to detect the differences between foods. The market was brilliant for that because we could talk to people and if they liked pear and almond tart, for example, because they’d had it before, then we could suggest one with berries. Our biggest customer is Urru in Bandon and Mallow, they are very good at encouraging people to try new things and educating their customers about taste. When we first arrived I don’t think that there would have been enough demand for what we do, but the markets, fine food shops and restaurants are changing the appreciation of food.”


RGL Patisserie cakes and biscuits are probably not for everyday, they are a rewarding treat or a special occasion indulgence. However, that West Cork can sustain a fine confectionary business like this, which has plans for further growth, sends out a very positive message about our food culture.


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