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Archive for May, 2008

 Review of Alannah Hopkin’s book (The Collins Press, 2008)

 

Just launched last week Alannah Hopkin’s exploration of West Cork is a lovely read that draws the reader into a wonderfully complex view of the area. Originally from London, Alannah returned to her mother’s home in Kinsale. Whilst the pub was Pete McCarthy’s primary access point to discover West Cork in McCarthy’s Bar, Alannah’s is much more about the kitchen table. She spends time with people from all walks of life, visiting their homes, listening and reflecting on her own attraction to West Cork. This book is very much about people and of necessity it’s selective, all the more interesting and personal for that. To enhance the personal perspectives Alannah has meticulously researched and recorded details and dates. She moves effortlessly from people’s stories, through factual and historic analysis to her own learnings on the way meeting farmers and food producers like Norman Steele of Milleens Cheese or Pat McCarthy from Dunmanway who reflects on the changes from the joining the EEC to the recent decoupling and REPS. She meets environmental activists like Ian Wright from the INFF and Thomas Reidmuller at the Hollies, tours the islands, visits craftworkers at Coolmountain, has tea in some of the big houses and talks to Jeremy Irons and others who have taken on restoration projects. She sets aside separate chapters to visit Beara and the Gaeltacht. Everywhere she finds people open and engaging, each with a very different story to tell and a lot of knowledge about living. This is the first full-length book to tackle all aspects of West Cork, it has reminded me of why I like living here, taught me a lot I didn’t know, it has encouraged me to spend more time exploring new parts of West Cork and listening to people.

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Stephen O'Donovan, potato grower, Kilcrohane

Stephen O'Donovan, potato grower, Kilcrohane

2008 is the International Year of the Potato and I had been meaning for some time to find out a bit more about potato growing in West Cork. As a food, spuds are particularly bound up with our national food culture though perhaps as much for the tragedy of the famine as for our affection for their taste, versatility and nourishing qualities. Yes, we do like them, but potatoes are largely taken for granted and are overlooked as a topic of conversation apart from the few weeks in mid-summer when the earlies arrive. Then they are burst open in their skins and devoured before the butter has even melted. Well, at least that’s how I remember it, but of course we now have “new” potatoes on the shelf for most of the year. These imposters are tasteless, soapy and not worth bothering with, but their constant availability does steal the thunder somewhat from the real earlies.As with most commercial vegetable growing access to outlets is the key and unfortunately over the last 20 years that access has actually worsened. For a whole host of reasons, to do with scale and systems, it is actually easier for Dutch potato growers to get their product onto Irish supermarket shelves than it is for farmers in West Cork. Growers outside of the greater Cork city area with a couple of acres of spuds face the challenge of having to find and service their own markets. This wasn’t always the case as I found out on a recent visit to the Sheeps Head where I met with Stephen O’Donovan and Jimmy O’Mahony.

Stephen along with his father, Patrick and his brothers, grows about 10 acres of potatoes on a hillside farm above the village of Kilcrohane. They are the largest remaining commercial growers in an area that was once the envy of Ireland for its ability to get finest quality early potatoes out to the whole country. Jimmy, who grows on a smaller scale, told me about the Kilcrohane Growers Co-Op which for almost 15 years up to the late 1980s organized the growing, distribution and sale of potatoes and daffodils from up to 40 farms in the area. At its peak, the co-op would send 30 tonne truckloads of early potatoes every 2 days from its packhouse in Kilcrohane to lucrative wholesale markets in Dublin from where they would be on the shelves the next day. Nearly all the farms in the areas were members and even with a relatively small crop a farmer could access and service markets that weren’t otherwise viable. Kilcrohane has a natural advantage for potato growing being frost free from very early in the year. Getting first to market allows growers to achieve significantly higher prices for the first week or two making the whole operation more attractive.
Without the co-op the only market is a local one. In fact the O’Donovan’s have only one customer – Biggs Supervalu in Bantry, about whom Stephen is very positive. “Since I was this high we’ve always dealt with them, they give a good price and are very loyal.” As we talk it is immediately clear to me that this loyalty and fair play is returned in spades. “All through the summer we dig the potatoes in the evening and drop them in to the shop first thing in the morning. If there are any left from the day before we take them away. Sometimes when there are a lot of people around in the summer we dig at lunch time and drop them in straight away. Our name is stamped on the bag so we’ve got to keep the quality up.” Although they don’t sell at a premium over imports Stephen takes a lot of pride in the quality of their potatoes and is determined not to undermine this. “People often suggest that we get a washer but that would take the quality out of them. We also try to cut the use of fertilizer to a minimum, for the earlies this gives a nice floury potato.”

I left Kilcrohane vowing to either find excuses for regular trips to Bantry during the summer or better still to find out about similarly dedicated early potato growers in my local area. And I’m more determined than ever to hang on an extra few weeks ignoring the temptations flown in from around the world so that I can truly enjoy new potatoes with butter.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

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Tart it up!




Roland Newenham, rhubarb grower, Carriagline

Roland Newenham, rhubarb grower, Carriagline

Inspired by one of my mother’s superb rhubarb tarts, this week I paid a visit to Roland Newenham at Coolmore Gardens in Carrigaline. Roland is one of Ireland biggest growers of rhubarb, in fact he’s nearly 6’5”! He also happens to have 34 acres of this wonderful dessert vegetable, which is the first tart filling to come into season and one which you can usually expect to have been grown in Ireland. Rhubarb has a long harvesting season, particularly in West Cork, where Roland has a month’s head start on other major growers near Dublin, his first crop arriving at the end of February. He can continue picking until the end of September/early October.


 


Once the plant crown is established, rhubarb is a low maintenance crop that fends off pests, weeds and disease without assistance. Each crown can produce for at least 10 years and so rhubarb is best planted at the end of the garden where it can be left alone. Roland tells me that his rhubarb is all but organic apart from the addition of some nitrogen each year. He covers the plants in straw in January, and this acts as a mulch preventing weed growth and adds nutrients to the soil. The straw covering also has a slight “forcing” effect, encouraging earlier growth. From the end of February, Roland’s team pick the fields in rotation, harvesting from each plant every 6-8 weeks, although he admits he has more planted than he needs “We could get away with 20 acres, but I let it rest longer, that way we’re not pulling the guts out of it”.


 


Roland sells most of his rhubarb to Musgraves via Fyffes (Total Produce) and supplies the whole country in March until the other growers come into crop. He finds the central distribution system very straightforward to work with and also sells leeks and Brussels sprouts in this way. His order comes in each day at 3pm by which time most of it has been picked during the day. He delivers the following morning to the distribution centre in Cork. The rhubarb and other vegetables are on the shop shelves the following day.


 


Daily picking to order like this has great advantages for freshness and wastage, and on the fine balmy day I chose to visit, it seemed a pleasant enough job, but Roland reminded me that his workers are out picking in all weather. And yet his team of 10 seem very content at their work. In fact, 2 of his staff have been with him since 1974 and most of the others since the mid 1980’s. Roland’s commitment to his staff seems his foremost concern. “We can’t pay top dollar but what I can offer is a stress free environment, there’s no-one out there pushing them.”


 


To get the bigger picture on commercial vegetable growing in Ireland I followed up my visit to Coolmore Gardens with a phonecall to the IFA press centre in Dublin where I spoke to PJ Jones, the IFA field vegetable co-ordinator. PJ presented a fairly bleak picture about the pressure that vegetable growers are under in dealing with the retail multiples – “Every week you hear of a new supermarket opening, more and more square footage of retail space, but the population isn’t increasing at that rate. There’s over capacity in food retailing and they are fighting it out with discounts. There’s a lot of talk about food inflation, and the supermarkets have recently accepted increases in the price of milk and wheat, but with vegetables they want to discount the hell out of it. It’s causing us serious problems, we can’t get a price increase and yet we’re hit with the same increases in our costs as other farmers.”


 


It would be easy to think that rhubarb has been a part of our food culture for ever, so incomplete seems the country garden without it. And yet rhubarb only arrived in the 1800s having travelled the Old Silk Road from Asia, where it is not widely eaten but used for its medicinal value. Let’s hope that our retailers behave responsibly and fairly in dealing with our growers or we may have to start trucking rhubarb down the Silk Road again. Of course that rhubarb will be more than 2 days old and not as easy to tart it up!

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