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Archive for March, 2008

Piglet at James Ronan's farm near Rosscarbery

Piglet at James Ronan's farm near Rosscarbery

St. Patrick’s Day on the horizon and I’m wondering what we to eat on our national day? What is our national dish? Well, from a radio poll last summer it turns out that Thai Green Curry is the nation’s favorite dish, sorry,  but I can’t accept that and it certainly won’t fit the occasion. I reckon the two prime candidates for a national dish are Irish stew and Bacon and Cabbage and of these the latter is probably far more regularly eaten. I accept that as a national dish Bacon and Cabbage probably doesn’t necessarily represent the pinnacle of our culinary ambitions. We might not choose to serve it to visiting heads of state, but we do relish it in our homes. And for an occasion like St Patrick’s Day, Bacon and Cabbage can be glammed up a bit, to which end the recipe below might be a good start. If I was to follow the line of previous articles featured here I would have headed west to Gubbeen farm near Schull where Fingal Ferguson raises pigs on a modest scale in cosy conditions both outside and indoors. I would have written a story about his passion for quality food and his infectious enthusiasm for the revival of farmers markets and artisan food production. But if I’m honest that’s not the bacon we buy in our house. Don’t get me wrong, Gubbeen bacon is very tasty and when available is not unreasonably priced, but I guess like most people the majority of our food shopping fits into routines. In our house we buy our meat from our local butcher and happen to like the bacon he sells. He buys from a nearby bacon factory, but it doesn’t say much on the label about its origin. To properly explore its place in the food culture of West Cork I needed to find out more and start with talking to a farmer.

 

I decided to find out a bit more about mainstream pig farming in West Cork and paid a visit to James Ronan in Rosscarbery, where he raises pigs from about 200 sows and also milks cows. James developed the enterprise from his father who had started it in the 60s when he brought in pigs for fattening. By Irish standards, James’ pig unit is relatively small – the average herd size in Ireland is 355, which is the largest in Europe. Pig farming at this scale is quite an intensive operation. It requires a rigorous adherence to strict management practices for hygiene, feeding and monitoring as an outbreak of disease in the herd could spell disaster. At the same time the rewards are very low at present. In fact, that’s putting it mildly. Just last month the IFA reported that pigmeat producers are facing an unprecedented crisis, with prices for pig meal having risen by almost 50% in recent months due a world shortage in wheat. This increase has not been offset by a corresponding increase in the price of the meat, which instead has fallen by 8% year-on-year. At current prices producers are likely to be losing about €20 per pig produced. There is a real danger here that pig farming in Ireland be wiped out if this shortfall continues.

 

For now James is fortunate that he doesn’t have all his eggs in one basket and that dairying has picked up. He is also fortunate that he has maintained the enterprise at a level where he and his son can run it themselves, with just one additional worker, and so ride out the tougher times. James is committed to his pig enterprise and at times very active in campaigning on behalf of pig producers, currently chairing the West Cork Pig Producers Group. At the time I visited he was in the middle of setting up a new housing unit that will improve the welfare conditions for his sows. I am glad to see the changes that have been made to improve welfare for Irish pigs and although I feel more could be done, I would not like to see local farmers driven to the wall with even higher costs. The result would be self defeating in that we would simply replace their produce with imports about which we may know or control little in regard to welfare. James shares my fundamental belief in the importance for the nation of producing its own food, likening it to our current insecurity with regard to oil and energy – “I think that food will move up the list of priorities, the food that we eat and the water that we drink are the things that sustain life, not the new cars that everyone is preoccupied with.”

 

James sells all of his pigs to Staunton’s in Timoleague, without which he would have to transport them 4 hours to either Roscrea or Waterford. Amid news of closures of pig processing plants around the country, Staunton’s is a real success story having tripled it’s workforce in the last 4 years on the back of a major investment programme. James attributes this success to very effective management and the long term vision and backing of Barryroe Co-op, the firm’s owners. West Cork has about 13% of the national pig herd, sustaining 240 jobs within the farm gate and up to 1300 at service and processing level. Staunton’s buy about 95% of pigs raised in West Cork and are extremely committed to local farmers. By contrast most of the well established Irish bacon brands import bacon from elsewhere in Europe. James fervently believes that Irish consumers should be given the choice of buying Irish bacon but are being denied this by the major brands that prefer to supplement their supplies with imports when it suits. These brands prefer to promote brand rather than the origin of the meat. “We should let the consumer decide for themselves on quality and value, based on having the full information on the labels. If you don’t know the farm of origin the only way to guarantee that you are buying Irish is to look for the Bord Bia Quality Assurance Scheme mark”.

 

So what’s the status of Bacon and Cabbage as a national dish for St. Patrick’s Day? Well, for now at least we still have Irish bacon and at this time of year we have lovely crisp bright green Savoy cabbage. But if we want to keep enjoying Irish bacon we need to check what we are buying. The Bord Bia mark employs the Irish flag, an appropriate call to action for our national day!

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