Archive for September, 2008

Let the Sunshine In

The food festival in Skibbereen was great as usual and as usual was blessed with unseasonally fine weather. I took lots of pics at the fair on Sunday but there were many more fine sights to be savoured like the fabulous creations of local students in the schools cookery competition or the spread of cakes at the afternoon tea session at Stories from the Soil, Stories from the Sea. Indeed the breakfast and lunch sessions of that event were at least as sumptuous, and at all three there was a great reaction to the speakers – Elke at Dine & Wine Club Cork has more.


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A Real Workhorse

Sandra Schmid, Ballylickey with her Irish Cob mare Winnie

Sandra Schmid, Ballylickey with her Irish Cob mare Winnie

Among the interviews that have really stuck with me in the last year of writing this column, have been those involving a relationship between farmer and farm animals. So when I looked at the programme for the An Sanctóir food event, one talk that really piqued my curiosity was that on Working Horses by Sandra Schmid. Sandra lives with her husband Tim Rowe, in a fantastic eco-house in a sheltered glade in the Ouvane Valley near Ballylickey. Tim is a full-time beekeeper and is also speaking at An Sanctóir. They have a small holding of 5 acres with a few more rented but are not farming commercially, being content for now to produce a large proportion of their own food. Sandra is still learning about farming with horses but is convinced that they have a valuable role to play for some small farms, particularly as the cost of fuel and fertilisers continues to rise.


“We have two Irish cob horses, which people would know as a type of horse developed by Irish travellers. They are smaller than Continental and English work horses, but still have the short back and musculature of a workhorse. They’re more suited to working on a small farm like this and pick their way between potato ridges. They have a very grounded temperament and will stay pulling all day.” The Irish Cob is not strictly a formal breed and as such there are no records of bloodlines etc. They were developed for pulling caravans and as such are also ideal for most farm work. Without farm work, however, the workhorse characteristics they have developed are being diluted. With their placid temperament, cobs are now being interbred for use in riding schools, the resulting animals are taller and have longer backs for more comfortable riding.

Sandra uses the horses to take a lot of the manual work out of growing potatoes, their main crop, which they eat themselves and feed to the pigs. “We bring in weanling pigs for the winter. They root up everything and dig out the left over potatoes. They love rooting and grow nice and fat before they go to the freezer in March. They also leave us with a field stripped of vegetation and well fertilised. It means that we don’t have to plough the field, instead the horse can sort it out with the harrow to make it nice and smooth. Then we bring him in with a ridger to make furrows for the potatoes. Our project for next year is to restore a potato digger that we bought up north. Getting hold of good farm tools has proven to be a real problem. There are loads lying around, the harrow was here when we bought the farm. But most of what you find is only suitable for painting as an ornament and would fall apart in a field. In America some farm communities, like the Amish, have never stopped using horses and so have continued to develop and improve their new horse drawn tools.”

“I’m not trying to suggest to farmers that they go back to working with horses, in most cases it would not be viable. That said, I have read American research which concludes that horses are more economical on holdings up to 20 acres. But working with horses is right for me and for our home. I don’t want the noise that goes with tractors taking over this place. I have come from a place where I could always hear the motorway, so now I want to hear the birds singing as I work.”

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Plant a Seed

Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds nr Turk Head, Skibbereen

Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds nr Turk Head, Skibbereen

There was a time in Ireland when we would not have countenanced lifting a morsel to our mouths without first giving thanks to the Creator for the gifts we had received.

It was understood that life was a miracle and as such food was a gift from above, in which God blessed our toil in the fields. Now don’t worry, I’ve not fallen under the entrance of campaigning creationist Sarah Palin, more simply my point is that we no longer view food as a gift from something greater than ourselves. This is not just a sentimental loss but is also a fundamental danger when we turn the tables and start to play god with nature. The God complex is nowhere more evident than in the science of genetics, particularly genetic modification, the dangers of which have been well spelled out and thankfully for now kept from our door. Just 2 weeks ago at the Terra Madre Ireland conference in Waterford, Minister for Food, Trevor Sargent, gave a solemn promise that Ireland will remain a GMO free country. The real agenda behind genetic modification (GM) is not simply the worthy desire to produce a superior product but is actually to grab ownership of the means of production itself – the seed. Monsanto, which has 90% of the GM-plant trait patents, doesn’t need to own all of the world’s agricultural land if instead it can effectively charge a rent on land use through seed patent monopolies and the prohibition of seed saving by farmers. There is a small but growing movement to protect agriculture and biodiversity from this scenario by spreading and improving the practice of seed saving.

One such seed saver is Madeline McKeever, who is one of the founder members of Growing Awareness and farms 30 acres near Skibbereen. Madeline is giving a talk on seed saving at An Sanctóir so I called down to find out more about seed saving. “The problem with most of the seed that we buy in Ireland, is that it has been produced in hot countries and it doesn’t always work well in our growing conditions. The Pacific North West in the USA and Southern Europe are the most significant seed producing areas, they have dry summers and mild winters. It is hard to produce seed in commercial quantities in a damp climate like ours, but locally produced seed will be better adapted. My guiding principle is to concentrate on what works for me. If it works here in difficult conditions, it will work for others in this area.  We have a good climate for producing brassica seeds but it is marginal for other stuff. I could specialize and grow loads of brassica seeds but most of my customers are home gardeners and as far as possible I want to be able to provide them with all of their seed needs. So it’s important that I provide a range and that I sell the basic normal vegetables seeds that work.”

Madeline walked me through her seed gardens, introducing me to her plants. Many of these are the result of years of refining and improvement through careful recording and selection. At this time of year, the gardens have a wonderfully wild and outlandish feel. So many of the plants change form when they run to seed, stalks shooting sunwards as the leaves recede, tubers, pods and seed heads all ready to burst and disperse. Ordinary garden vegetables like the carrot plant were to me unrecogisable in their fertile form.

“I’m convinced that growing our own food is going to really take off. At the moment nobody is actually living off their garden, but in a post peak oil society we may even see people growing their own staples. It seems to me that very little research money is being channeled into improving plant varieties that can thrive without petro-chemical and fossil fuel inputs. I have a project going here with Andean potatoes; they have survived the blight this year but are not to everyone’s taste. I hope they will eventually cross with Irish varieties, and that one year through selection and interbreeding I could produce blight resistant spuds.” Madeline attributes her experiences in Growing Awareness as a significant motivator for herself and others to get working on solutions. Developing a shared understanding and consensus about the problems facing food production has planted a seed in Madeline which has taken firm root and is branching out. You can find out more about Madeline’s seed catalogue at www.brownenvelopeseeds.com



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August this year marked the tenth anniversary of Growing Awareness, a Skibbereen based food and farming group and on Sunday next (September 28th) they have partnered up with An Sanctóir, the holistic centre in Ballydehob, to put together a day of walks, talks and demonstrations looking at local food production. The guided walk will take in the An Sanctóir’s ‘Nature Trail’ which supports a wide variety of wildlife and habitat areas, and will finish in the new Forest Garden Project begun this spring. The full days’ programme will include a selection of speakers, demonstrations and activities on topics such as: Beekeeping; Working Horses: Community and Schools Gardens; Allotments and Vegetable Box Schemes; Fruit and Nut Growing; Basket Making; Seed Saving and much more. Gardeners are invited to come along and enter the Heaviest Pumpkin and the Largest Diameter Sunflower Head competitions. You can enjoy the on site Cafe from the deck of a 40ft Pirate Ship whilst being serenaded by local musicians! People are also welcome to bring a picnic. The Café will be raising funds towards the running costs of the event and there will be no admission charge. For the full schedule of events visit www.ansanctoir.ie. For my column this week I took the opportunity to find out a bit more about 2 of the individuals who will be presenting on the day and learn something of their involvement in the food culture of West Cork.

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With a bit more time to reflect on the Terra Madre experience, I’m starting to appreciate it’s more subtle effects. Something has taken root in my head, every now and then I catch myself coninuing conversations that I took part in weeks ago on a wet day at Waterford WIT. I guess it’s one of the symptoms of being listened to that one starts to talk more even when there’s no-one around. If you’re suffering similarly I would remind you that the online forum is sill open and active and will remain so until the world summit – Terra Madre in Turin in October. Looking through the various threads that have developed around each workshop it is clear that most found it very hard to capture the complexity of the discussions and often contrary positionsfrom the participants. The divide seems unbridgeable between large commercial export oriented farming and quality oriented producers developing local markets. There’s no doubt where the money is going though – I’m just looking at the Money & Jobs section in de paper and see that Enterprise Irelnad, Teagasc and 3 of the universties have just set up a National Functional Foods Research Centre and created 30 jobs – maybe I’m just naive or uncaring but I find it hard to get excited about Ireland’s plans to build core competency in functional foods targetting early infant development, metabolic syndrome and colorectal cancer. It just looks to me like inventing ways to offload powdered milk – it’s hardly going to put anymore money in farmers pockets given that they don’t own the processing companies anymore (with the exception of Carbery).

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On Sunday September 28th we have been invited to West Cork to visit Paul and Yvonne Johnson’s Dexter girls.These horned cattle are the first herd of pedegrees to be to be reared in their native West Cork for generations.Just 42 inches in height they are one of the smallest breeds in the world.Paul farms with his eyes and ears.No additives or feeds are used.They grow the natural way,hence the better quality tender meat.
You can confirm your attendance on facebook

Stephen and Sarah Canty of Food For Thought, are supplying a sumptious West Cork Picnic,with all local good clean and fair produce.

Please let me know if you would like the vegetarian option.

Wines from our very generous sponsors Febvre and company.
Adults €20,children €8,€15 for 2,€22 for 3
Bookings, Simone at Interior living,11 Mac Curtain Street, tel 4505819 from10am to 5.30pm,Mon to Sat.
I shall assist with directions at time of booking.
Looking forward to seeing you there

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If you’ve enjoyed any of the posts from this blog, then I can wholeheartedly recommend the Stories from the Soil, Stories from the Sea eating sessions on Friday 19th September in Skibbereen. The event is being organised by ourselves at West Cork LEADER Co-op and is part of the Taste of West Cork Food Festival. We’ll be sitting down to on three occasions during the day to dine on local seasonal food and listen to the personal stories of 2 local producers at each sitting. Diane Curtin will be on hand to guide diners and introduce the speakers. Diane is a journalist and chef and is deeply involved with food in West Cork, particularly through Slow Food. She recently published her own book The  Creators, which combines the life stories of farmers and food producers in West Cork with enjoyable recipes. The breakfast session focuses on fish and we will hear from Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery and Frank Fleming, a fisherman from Crosshaven. Sally is one of Ireland’s most highly acclaimed artisan producers and has been smoking fish in Castletownshend since 1981. She has an unswerving commitment to producing the very highest quality food. Like everyone else involved in seafood though, her business has had to cope with turmoil and uncertainty. Frank Fleming has been fishing with his brother Martin for 24 years. They concentrate largely on catching prawns. Frank has strong views about the future of fishing and is committed to finding positive solutions to many of the industry’s current dilemmas. Lunch will have a bovine theme with talks from Paul Johnson of the Traditional Meat Company and Bill Hogan of West Cork Natural Cheese. Paul rears Dexter cattle on his farm near Dunmanway. Dexters are a rare breed of cattle native to this part of Ireland and as such are uniquely well adapted to live in harmony with our environment. Bill Hogan is one of our foremost cheesemakers, he and Sean Ferry produce Gabriel and Desmond Cheese. Bill is a real champion for the small producer and the importance of food for rural areas. The final session of the day will be afternoon tea, a chance to enjoy some very fine baking and patisserie with Jean Domican from Buns ‘n Stuff in Macroom. Jean will be joined by food historian Diarmuid Ó Drisceoil, who besides writing the fascinating history of Cork’s English Market, also spins a great tale.

Places for each session are limited so I would advise booking early by calling West Cork LEADER Co-op at 023-34035, tickets cost €15 per person.

The Stories sessions will be followed at 5pm by the launch of a new food map of West Cork by West Cork LEADER Co-op. The map presents the area as a photo montage of food and is bursting with colourful images of cheeses, fish, fruits, cattle and fowl. The map will be used by local retailers promoting food from West Cork and will also be available to local schools as an educational resource. As part of the launch I have been asked to present some of the stories from my Food Culture column. This is a free event, so come along if you’d like to hear more about the people I’ve met in researching this column and the part they play in creating such a thriving food culture in West Cork.

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I got to the Terra Madre conference in Waterford on Friday last to offer my tuppence worth to the debate. Before I get on to talking about our workshop, I must congratulate the organisers, particularly Donal Lehane and Darina Allen, who really stuck their necks out in driving this and who also really pulled it off. Aside from the excellent conference, I have heard that the banquet and farmers market were also superb.

Our workshop was called Food and the Future of Rural Communities and was an amalgam of two that had been proposed on the Ark of Taste and Rural Development. There was a good number at it, some 20 or so, quite healthy considering that there were nearly 40 other workshops running concurrently. Aveen Henry from UCC and the Commissioner of the Ark made a fine job of steering the debate towards a few tightly defined recommendations. I think it was a pity that the Ark itself was sidelined as the discussion threaded its way through bigger picture issues  – particularly difficulties that small artisan food producers face in dealing with regulators and the problems for farmers in getting a decent price for their produce. To my mind we never quite bridged the gap between these two. My own hobby horse of strengthening our food culture, particularly through education and local initiatives, seemed a hard sell to farmers who realistically are getting the same price for milk now as they got 20 years ago and have faced massive cost increases in the meantime and anyway 90% of their produce is exported. Likewise, as one contributor from Midleton pointed out, people don’t just switch over to paying more for quality local produce once they’ve been enlightened on the subject. She pointed out that between the high profile farmers market and the strong profile of the Allens in the area, awareness of quality food is high in Midleton. Yet since the farmers market has opened the town has seen the arrival of a huge 24 hour Tesco, Lidl, McDonalds and Aldi, all of which are flying. We came up with 3 requests – firstly, a national database, secondly, funding for local iniatives, patricularly to build relationships and educate each other and finally, dedicated agency staff trained to deal with and understand the small food sector. I’d like to have seen something about below cost selling and some balance to the power of retailers but couldn’t articulate any solution.

After lunch we all assembled in the large conference hall, which really felt like a piece of the Turin event – huge, colourful, bedecked with nice photos and graphics and full of an amazing array of people from all elements of food and agriculture. It was only when I got into the hall that I realised the scale of the event – there were close to 1000 people assembled. Prof Kieran Byrne, director of Waterford Institute gave an inspiring speech about getting back to what we do well in the years ahead. Then each workshop got to present their conclusions to the two ministers – Trevor Sargent and Michelle Gildernew, from the North. These 2 in turn then responded – both speaking very positively and indeed reassuringly – Min Sargent gave a firm guarantee that Ireland will be safeguarded from GM crops and animals. Then President McAleese arrived and then warmth of her relationship with Darina Allen was very evident – she actually has her own vegetable garden and hens at the Aras – excellent! Unfortuately, we didn’t get to hear from Carlo Petrini, he was clearly not feeling the best.

Then it was over and we dispersed and if I’m honest I feel a little dissatisfied. Yes, it was a superb event and yes, we all got listened to. But I’m not convinced that talking to the Green Party Minister for Food about the problems in food and agriculture is going to fix it. So many of the problems we discussed about food and rural development are enmeshed in other issues and the solutions are incredibly complex. Most of all they are hard to articulate and require the co-operation of many different parties – it’s not all about food culture.

If you’d looking for a  fuller picture Caroline Hennessy at bibliocook has compiled all of the recent posts about Terra Madre Ireland here.

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My journey to work this morning was considerably enriched by Sinead O’Connor’s beautifully direct and unadorned rendition of Dear Old Skibbereen. I had been trying to gather my thoughts on the town’s upcoming A Taste of West Cork festival and the hopelessness of the famine time as captured in the song really struck home how appropriate it is that now each year the people of Skibbereen put their hearts and hands into celebrating their food. The famine will never be forgotten but I feel that from a culinary point of view West Cork can now rightly be claimed “a pleasant place wherein a prince might dwell”, as the reminiscing father in the song recalls.

The Skibbereen festival is one of a number happening around the country at this harvest time, Mallow Food Festival which took place last week being the newest on the calendar. When they maintain a core value of celebrating food, festivals can be a great contributor to building a positive food culture. And goodness knows this is needed – the latest issue to emerge in a UK report out today, has warned that school children are becoming addicted to and over consuming caffeine in energy drinks. School teachers are reporting dramatic effects on their concentration and behaviour. When we have celebrity endorsements for energy drinks from Ireland’s top sport stars, it will be a real battle to get this message across to teenagers. So it’s great to see that there is a strong focus on young people in this year’s programme. I spoke with Claire Gallagher at the Plaza, one of the chefs that will be visiting local schools as part of a series of healthy eating workshops. “Our main theme will be how to get your five-a-day of fruit and vegetables without making it a chore. Smaller children often act like they’re allergic to fruit and vegetables, but if we can make it a bit of fun preparing things like smoothies and banana muffins, then it can seem more like a treat. Hopefully, they will go home and encourage their parents. I see it everyday in our restaurant, parents want to encourage healthy eating but they need a bit of help with the options available. It’s important also that we are making the connection with local chefs. Our children and their friends get to see what we do and understand the job of food preparation.”

The workshops are followed on Wednesday by the final of the Schools Cookery competition. It was a real coup this year for the committee to get celebrity chef Neven Maguire down to judge the event. Neven has generously come on board this year to offer the winning team of chefs and their teacher two days in his restaurant, MacNean House & Restaurant, Blacklion, Co. Cavan. The standards of presentation, creativity and taste achieved in the competition each year are truly astounding and it if you are looking for encouragement about young people and food then get along for a look. The strong focus on involving young people continues over the weekend with story telling sessions in the library and youth café and also a food craft workshop, where kids get to play creatively with food. A novel event at the open air market in the Fairfield on Sunday, will be the Children’s Teddy Bear Party which will be hosted by local artist Sonia Caldwell. The picnic is free with admission to the market and children are encouraged to bring their tea sets and teddy bears. There will be prizes for the best dressed teddies.

Of course there will be plenty at the festival for adults too and it should kick off with a good laugh at the Food Quiz on Wednesday. “We want local people to come along and have a bit of fun at the quiz,” says Claire, “It’s not about being a gourmet expert and there’ll be a strong emphasis on local knowledge. We’re doing more in the festival this year than ever before, and have a lot more people involved.” To get the full picture on the festival you can view the programme at www.atasteofwestcork.com or give us a call and we’ll pop one in the post (023-34035).

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