Archive for April 25th, 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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