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Archive for April, 2008

Sonia Bower of Sonia's Inner Pickle, Lissavaird

Sonia Bower of Sonia's Inner Pickle, Lissavaird

Having shirked the bad weather for the last 2 months I finally got back to Bandon Farmers Market last week and was delighted to find Sonia Bower had returned. Sonia, who is based in Glandore makes a range of sweet, spicy, oil based roasted vegetable pickles that she sells as Sonia’s Inner Pickle. She has been out of action with serious illness for most of the last two years but will be back in full swing by May, and for now McBride and Flynn are selling her products from their stall. Sonia is a market person to the core, her business is very personal to her and the relationships she has developed with the other traders and her customers at the markets make up an essential ingredient in her life. “I have always been a market person, before I came to Ireland I had a business selling leggings at a street market.” Sonia tells me, “I have three great loves in life – humanity, business and food. For our regular customers, coming to a market is a sociable thing, they’re not just shopping, they stop to have a chat and they have a more personal relationship with the stallholder, who is usually also the person who made the food”.

 

 

 

 

Readers of this column will know that my starting point is a belief that growing, producing and selling food is fundamentally important to rural areas. West Cork is the envy of much of the rest of Ireland for the wealth of producers we have and we continue to see new enterprises emerge. Farmers markets are the most important breeding ground for new food businesses in West Cork. All of the new businesses that have joined the Fuchsia Brand in the last 5 years have begun by selling at a local market and most, like Sonia’s Inner Pickle continue to do so. Sonia explains that “feedback from customers helps you to understand the basics of how your product works”.

 

Sonia’s product is unique, what she describes as Jamaican oil pickle is her own fusion of taste ideas invented pretty much from scratch. “I imagine myself having a Jamaican aunt way back who had these recipes and although I never met her or tasted them, somehow I was meant to pickle.” These are not an authentic documented food, but Sonia tells me that people from Portugal to Brazil recognise the pickling process she uses and the flavours she achieves. Oil pickles are particularly popular in tropical climates, where it’s too warm to make fermented pickles reliably, as well as in Mediterranean countries where there is an abundance of food oils. Unlike fermented or acidified pickles, which rely on chemical processes to prevent spoilage, oil pickles simply involve submerging foods in plain or flavoured oils in order to deprive them of oxygen. The oil is heated slightly to help infuse the flavours of the spices, garlic, chillies and other ingredients. Pickling in oil takes a few weeks because oil doesn’t penetrate food membranes as easily as vinegar or salt does.

 

Sonia moved to West Cork 10 years ago and had her idea for a few years before she approached Giana Ferguson at Gubbeen Farmhouse for advice. She tells me that there is something in West Cork that allowed her to find her calling – “people here give you the space to be who you are, West Cork lets you be an individual and it’s only when you have this that you can really be creative.” And despite the fact that selling food at markets appears to be a recent phenomenon, Sonia is clear that what she does is part of the area’s tradition and heritage – “If you go to Bantry market on a Friday, you can really feel that it has been going on for hundreds of years. Yes, food selling died back for a while, I think because markets were associated with transience and that was socially shunned. But in trading if you don’t have the money to buy a shop on the main street then moving around is a valid option. We need to understand that people who make their living this way have also invested in their businesses and are settled at it.”
 
 

 

In the last few years farmers markets have become very fashionable, thanks to a new interest in local, authentic food. In a blog entry this week John McKenna reports on a magazine interview with Keira Knightley, the apple in England’s eye, in which to the question “So we won’t see you up partying till dawn then?”, she responds  “I’d fall asleep first!… In fact, I’d rather go to a London farmers’ market than go to a club. It’s the thing that makes me most happy!”  In Ireland, opinion leaders like Darina Allen and Clodagh McKenna have done a lot to champion the markets. And yet according to Sonia, the core of people who shop weekly at a market is still small, “The weekly shoppers are the people that keep it going, we need people like that who come out and spend their money. For me it is really important that I return their loyalty by getting out there week after week even through the cold months. Sometimes I think people don’t realise the number of internationally acclaimed producers that are out there selling on the street at markets around Cork, there is no where else in the country you’d get anything like that concentration of quality”.

 

Since starting her business she has found tremendous support in West Cork, and wanted to particularly mention Lisavaird Co-op for their understanding and support through the last 2 years when she has been unable to work. “It’s kind of a hard life, setting up your stall 3 or 4 days a week, you’re out there and exposed. But there is a great family ethos among the traders and we couldn’t do it if we didn’t support each other”.

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Bill Hogan & Sean Ferry, West Cork Natural Cheese Co, SchullCongratulations to Bill Hogan and Sean Ferry of West Cork Natural Cheese Company in Schull on being presented with the Observer Food Monthly annual Judges Award for Outstanding Achievement. The judges made to the award to recognize the invaluable service that Mr Hogan and Mr Ferry have given in protecting our food culture and heritage – for the last 6 years they have been embroiled in a legal dispute with the Department of Agriculture at the core of which is their fight to preserve raw milk cheese making in Ireland. Their story was excellently presented in last months Observer Food Monthly

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Michael Twomey, butcher, Macroom

Michael Twomey, butcher, Macroom

Michael Twomey’s butcher shop is on the entrance to Macroom from Cork and is marked by a special commitment to supporting local agriculture. Firstly, this is Ireland’s only Guaranteed Irish butcher shop, to use the logo Michael cannot sell any meat from overseas. He tells me that he started down this path in 1996 when there were scares about antibiotics in pigs and medicated ration was banned in Ireland. He now sources pigs directly from a local farm (about 10 per week) and cures most of his own bacon. He also buys beef directly, primarily Angus but also Hereford. This year Twomey’s will be Ireland’s first food company to be awarded the EU Eco Label for environmental practices in production, packaging and sourcing of local meat. Michael buys his lamb from Cristóir in Ballincollig through whom he sources quite a bit from Tim Keohane in Clonakilty (see above). He tells me that there is very little lamb produced around Macroom anymore reflecting Tim Keohane’s experience.

 

 

 

Spring lamb is generally hung for 8-10 days and more mature lamb for an additional 4 or 5 days. “I like to see a nice white cover of fat and would rather have excess fat that I can trim off if needs be. In this meat the quality will be there, if it’s not there to begin with you can’t put it in”. Michael notes an increasing sophistication among his customers who are asking for a wider range of joints and methods of preparation. It was the interaction with customers that drew him to the trade initially, he loves to exchange cooking ideas over the counter and was happy to share some advice on preparing lamb with me:

 

  • When cooking Spring Lamb, Michael suggests doing very little with it, perhaps a rub of lemon juice and thyme being the extent of tampering.
  • In choosing any joint Spring or otherwise, Michael recommends the rack as the tastiest, though it might be best to wait another month until there is a bit more meat on the rack.  Michael will also French trim the rack to reduce the fat. If you’d like to introduce other flavours try stuffing the rack with Stauntons black pudding. Open the rack for stuffing with a cut between the eye and the bone.
  • Leg is the best known joint but others like the shank are well worth a go. Generally tough to chew, shank is altogether different when slow cooked on the bone until the meat almost melts off. Serve with a rosemary gravy.
  • If cooking time for a leg is an issue, try a butterflied leg. Your butcher will remove the bone, resulting in a large butterfly shaped piece with the tough muscle tissue removed. Score the back and rub in garlic, curry paste and oil both front and back. If possible allow to marinade overnight in the fridge. To cook, brown on both sides in a frying pan and cook in a hot oven (200˚C) for 1 hour. To keep the moisture in you can cover with tin foil and add the juices from the pan. This can also be barbecued, continue to baste while cooking.

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Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Spring has finally sprung, there is warmth in the sunshine and life in the fields. The liveliest of springing is from lambs, most of which have been born in the last few weeks. Early lambs, born in January are just reaching maturity now and from this week on Spring Lamb should be available in our local butchers and meat counters. Lamb is my favourite meat, so sweet and flavoursome and along with beef tends to be the best meat we produce in Ireland. I visited Tim Keohane at his farm near Clonakilty to find out a bit more about lamb farming in West Cork and to see what Spring means to him.

 

 

 

Beef is the main income on the Keohane family farm, but in addition to the cattle Tim and his father John have 120 ewes, producing about 200 lambs each year. They are close to finishing lambing and the last few weeks have been the busiest period of the year, during which they’ve had to keep a 24 hour eye on their sheep. Apart from helping with any difficult births, it is also very important to attend to the bonding between mother and offspring. Tim explains that one of the biggest threats to a lamb’s survival is rejection by its mother. This can happen for a number of reasons including if it were to inadvertently suckle from another ewe, which can easily happen when they are inside in close quarters. Rearing rejected “orphan” lambs is a time consuming task that Tim can ill afford and it can be difficult to get them to a good weight in time for market. One solution for orphaned lambs is fostering to another mother by covering the lamb with the afterbirth from a new born at time of birth. The foster mother will be fooled by the smell into accepting the orphan as one of her own. Fostering is also used when the birth of triplets may put too much strain on a ewe and one lamb is fostered out to a mother with a single birth.

 

After a few days inside mother and lamb are released to the grass, so with Tim’s dogs Max and Ben for company we went out to look at the rest of the flock. Ben is semi-retired now having injured his back legs in an accident, but Max was bursting to show what he could do and with a few calmly spoken commands from Tim he brought the flock to us. Tim’s sheep numbers have fallen back a lot from what he used to keep – 500 ewes at one stage, and the profit per lamb is very low, each fetching €70-80 when they are sold in the early autumn. But it was evident from watching Tim work in partnership with the dogs that there’s more to this than money. For me it was a real treat to see a trials standard sheepdog in action and for Tim a source of quiet pride. He and the dogs had been in constant communication since I entered the yard and Tim was particularly conscious of the relationships and hierarchies between the dogs themselves. He told me that he finds the hands on nature of sheep rearing satisfying, if demanding, in comparison with the mechanised business of managing cattle.

 

Raising lambs profitably is very dependent on the markets they find, the optimum being local butchers. Butchers like larger lambs with a bit of fat on them, typically from 45-50kg, whereas factory lambs will usually be sold at a liveweight of 42kg. These lighter lambs suit the supermarkets better and the carcasses do not have as much fat for trimming. Of course individual joints sold in a supermarket are also going to be cheaper simply because they are smaller. Tim remembers when there were up to a dozen butchers buying at Bandon mart, creating a bit of competition and happy to buy larger lambs. But the number of butchers has declined sharply in the last 20 years, falling from 7 in Bandon to 2 now. The trend for buying smaller lambs in supermarkets works against an operation like Tim’s. To service this market profitably a farmer might need upwards of 1000 ewes and be located closer to a main factory, the nearest being in Wexford.

 

Easter came a little soon for Spring Lamb in 2008 but it should be plentiful from the end of March. When it is in season the more delicate tasting Spring Lamb is a delight but do look for meat with a generous coating of creamy-white fat, for which your local butcher is generally the best bet, a conclusion which brings me neatly to my other visit of the week – Michael Twomey in Macroom.

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