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Archive for November, 2008

That we have seen great changes in the food scene in West Cork is undeniable. I have heard the phrase ‘artisan revolution’ used to describe these changes, award winning cheeses, smoked fish, salamis, fine patisserie and much more. Artisan is intended to draw a line and differentiate the good from the not so good. Durrus based food writer, John McKenna has defined artisan food in terms of 4 P’s. It is a synthesis of the Personality of the producer, the Place it comes from, the Product provided and the Passion, without which no food is ever great. But I often wonder whether many of the producers it should include actually identify themselves as artisan producers. I also fear the conception of a food revolution as indicating a break with the past. Perhaps for some there appears so little of merit in Ireland’s traditional food culture that it’s a case of “out with the old and in with the new”. At the behest of a colleague I have spent some time on the road visiting butchers around West Cork that do their own slaughtering, most of them have been at it for a long time, well before the revolution, in some cases several generations. These butchers tick all four P’s for artisan food: what they do is personal and considered, they connect firmly with their place, they produce exceptional products and they have a steady passion for what they do. But these men are not about a break with the past and nor do they belong there, most of them have never spoken at any length about what they do and unlike the cheese-makers or fish smokers their skills are taken for granted rather than celebrated in superlatives.

The twelve slaughterhouse owners listed below have come together as a group to share their common concerns and look for solutions. Central to this process are the Cork County Council vets that enforce the regulations relating to the slaughter of animals and processing of meat, in particular Dan Crowley and Jim Buckley. Jim told me about his respect for the quality of the work of the butchers, “They do such a good job and it’s stress free for the animals. We’re in here as regulators but we aim to be more than that. The council’s objective in anything it does is to promote sustainable development and our slaughterhouses are an important element in that, they buy locally and sell locally too, absolutely no food miles. They pay a premium for the farmers best animals, maiden heifers younger than 24 months. It’s sometimes called baby beef and fulfils all the criteria of a quality product – taste, nutrition, safety, environmentally sound, traceable, clear provenance and good animal welfare.” Dan outlines to me the specific policy Cork County Council has to support the butchers, “For reasons of food safety and animal welfare we decided not to move towards centralisation, which was the trend elsewhere from the 1960’s on. Overseas trade was the imperative driving centralisation but from public health point of view, small abattoirs have a lot of advantages for disease control, shelf life and so on.” The amount of work required to supervise the 28 abbatoirs in Cork should not be underestimated. It was 10am on a Monday morning when I met Dan, he had already inspected animals pre-slaughter at 8 West Cork abattoirs that morning and would finish the post mortem inspections at 8pm that evening.”

With Dan’s guidance, I set out to meet a few of the butchers he works with and came home with a real appreciation of why what they do matters and what makes their meat better. And I can safely say that I’ll never again use the phrase “Butchered it” to describe a task ill-performed!

These are the 12 approved local slaughterhouses in West Cork.

    Donal Lordan Kinsale
    Dan Maloney Bandon
    Ml. J O’Neill Clonakilty
    Liam O’Driscoll Skibbereen
    Thomas Walsh Skibbereen
    Paddy Hegarty Schull
    Patrick & James Collins Dunmanway
    John McCarthy Drimoleague
    Paddy O’Donoghue Bantry
    Tim Murphy Kealkil, Bantry
    T G McCarthy & Sons Ltd. Bantry
    Christopher Collins Castletownbere
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Catherine, Chris and Trevor Collins, Castletownbere

Chris Collins, Castletownbere

My lasting impression of the busy Collins butcher shop was of how lively it was. The four smiling butchers in bright red aprons bustling behind the small counter included Chris’s wife Catherine and his son Trevor. Customers arriving in had obviously been looking forward to their visit and Christy felt it necessary to explain my presence and mission to each one in turn. “With our own abattoir we can buy the best local lamb and we talk to our customers about it, like this one here is from Garnish. We have a competition going to see whose lamb the customers like best, and at the moment Noel O’Sullivan is top of the list. People will come in and say ‘Have you got any more of Noel’s lamb?’ Another farmer with great lambs we buy from is the postman, Seamus Spencer, and he was asking ‘Have I knocked your man off number one yet?’

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Paddy O'Donoghue, Bantry

Paddy O’Donoghue, Bantry
Like many of the group, Paddy has a great range of his own products, making burgers, sausages and curing his own bacon, which he’d like to start smoking in time. They have their own suckler cattle herd from which they can provide most of their beef, which they also supply to their own restaurant in the square – the Waterfront. When I remark on the huge pieces of boiling beef they have on display, Paddy and his son Adrian comment on the differences between their older and younger customers, “Younger customers are keen to know where their meat is coming from but they always want the leanest meat. They rely on choosing from the display only and avoid the darker meat which you’d know would eat nicer. Older people know what to ask for and would know what to do with the cheaper cuts.”

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Paddy Hegarty, Schull

Paddy Hegarty, Schull

Paddy Hegarty was in a hurry to get to the mart when I arrived. “There’ll be weanlings inside in Skibbereen that you wouldn’t have anywhere else in the country. It’s all suckler herds around here now, very little dairy and the quality of the beef animals has definitely improved, all Angus and Hereford. You still have to get in and examine every animal though. There’d be days I come home with nothing. I’ll get into every pen of lambs to handle them. I buy store lambs in September and raise them to supply the shop throughout the winter until the new lambs arrive in summer.” I asked about the challenges of running a slaughterhouse. “We’d be grand only for the offal. Slaughtering for ourselves paid for itself when we used to get a “fifth quarter” – besides the meat we sold the hides and other parts, now you’ll only get 80c for a sheep’s hide and the collection costs for offal are huge, it’s all incinerated because we can’t separate out the low risk bits at this small scale.” This cost is what grieves the group most, some are paying up to €30,000 a year to the collector who has a monopoly.

PJ & James Collins, Dunmanway

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James and PJ Collins, Dunmanway

PJ and James emphasise the skills of their staff from dressing the carcass though to cutting and making their own sausages and puddings. They want me to mention each of them – Michael, Timmy, Patrick, Vincent, Geraldine and Noreen. “Every day you learn more. Like, the hollow tube knife was a breakthrough for the puddings. We can take out the blood completely without contamination now. You’d always be improving, finding new ways of cutting and so on. It’s always about serving the customer. People are turning away from the supermarkets and one reason is that the butchers are actually cheaper. They might put up an offer for 14 days, but they’d be codding you the rest of the week. We can offer better quality and value 365 days.” Their abbatoir provides a valuable service to local farmers and they have achieved organic status, an invaluable facility for a number of local organic farmers that sell their own meat.

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Dan Maloney, Bandon

Dan & Jim Maloney, Bandon

I asked Dan and Jim about the differences in quality that they can achieve by having their own slaughterhouse. “I know exactly how good our meat is. I can look a customer in the eye and say that steak will be nice. We have to sell the whole animal of course, but you’re judged on your steak. When we kill our own animals we know they are not stressed, they’re not in pens with hundreds of others and they haven’t travelled far. They are fasted for 24 hours first, which is very important to get the meat firm. You could buy factory meat that you could put your finger through, it’s like jelly because the cattle weren’t fasted and the sides weren’t hung. What is done by 23 workers on a factory line is seen through by a single butcher at the slaughterhouse. And because of the short chain and single operator, there’s no washing of the carcass. In effect, it’s dry aged, so you can hang it for longer.”

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Mike O'Neill, Clonakilty

Mike O’Neill, Clonakilty

Mike is the third generation of his family running his butcher shop and slaughterhouse. “I kind of fell into it, my father thought it might be better for me to do something else. Things have changed quite a bit. We used to actually drive in the cattle through town to the abattoir. We’d walk 5 down though we’d only want 2 and would have to walk the other 3 back, they’d be easier to control that way. Imagine that now, cattle in the town! There was a time when we kept our heads down, killing animals was seen as a bad thing. One night someone actually released the cattle from the holding pen. That has changed now, people want to know where their meat came from and how the animals lived. And I’m proud that we can tell them very easily. Anything that’s available close to us we take it, we buy nearly all our cattle from Leslie Beamish in Inchydoney.”

Stumble It!

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Jacinta French and Paul McCormick of Woodkearne Nurseries

Jacinta French and Paul McCormick of Woodkearne Nurseries

I realise that by the time you read this Halloween will be over and you’ll be mentally preparing yourself for Christmas, but indulge my reflections on the gradual erosion of another piece of our food culture. Now I don’t feel old enough yet to say “in my youth”, but you know what I mean, when trick or treating we’d expect a haul for our bonfire feast that was roughly divided like this – a tenth money for sweets; a tenth Penguin Bars or Wagon Wheels; a tenth assorted other bars and sweets, and about three quarters and apples and nuts. Before heading out into the darkness with our friends we’d have enjoyed a family evening of humourous apple games and, never owning a nutcracker, tried a multitude of unsatisfactory nut opening techniques. These days, cash is expected and handfuls of minitreats are offered as a sweetener to encourage a song or rhyme before departure (Note: success in this cultural request is usually instantly regretted). But have you seen the look you get if you proffer an apple nowadays? Blank disbelief. I’m a bit saddened at this loss and it’s not just nostalgia. In my experience, Cadbury’s Minitreats taste exactly the same every day of the year, but apples certainly don’t – there is absolutely nothing like biting into a sharp, tangy Irish apple to remind me that though the natural world is fading to winter, it has taken care to store away its sweetness and strength.

 

This week I visited Paul McCormick and Jacinta French at Woodkerne Nurseries near Skibbereen who are trying to rekindle our interest in growing apples and nuts. The couple rear organic cattle and grow fruit and nut trees on the organic farm they share with Paul’s brother’s family and his parents. The cattle they rear are Angus and Angus Kerry cross, but they will soon be introducing Droimeann, which are a rare Irish breed. When I ask Paul about his interest in the project to restore this breed, his answer sums up a lot of what the couple are about – “We have a small farm and are never going to have a big herd, if we are going to make a difference, then we need do something different.” Paul and Jacinta both have a long standing interest in the environment, particularly trees. Jacinta worked as a volunteer in the Rainforest Movement in Canada before moving back to Ireland and has been involved with the Irish Natural Forestry Foundation in West Cork. Paul worked as a mechanic before moving to Ireland but has always been planting trees – “From the early days of the environmental movement in the 1980s, planting trees was the thing to do to save the planet. But at the same time, farmers were clearing them because they didn’t produce food. I thought maybe they do. We’re very interested in this idea of the forest garden. Fruit and nuts contain proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and sugars – in fact, most of the necessary components of a balanced diet. Together with meat and fish, fruit and nuts form the basis of the ‘hunter-gatherer’ diet to which our bodies have evolved. A lot of people think that we may be less well adapted to the grain/flour based diet than we assume – it’s a diet that stems from a 10,000 year experiment with grain agriculture.”

Paul and Jacinta take me out to walk their farm which they describe as a long term, small scale research project in which they are trialling dozens of varieties of fruit and nut trees. Near their home, they have set an orchard, which in years to come will provide apples, pears and plums at arms reach, as well as being a valuable wind break. We cross a ditch that has had its boundaries widened to accommodate the interspersed planting of hazels, cobnuts, apple trees and large fruiting hawthorn. Paul reckons that the loss of grass on the margins is made up for in improved grass quality owing to the shelter provided. In the next field a large corner has been planted with Heartnuts or Japanese Walnut. Of the four species of walnut suited to the Irish climate, these seem to be the most commercially attractive, and have been proven to thrive on Fota Island in Cork. We stroll down a laneway on which the ditches have also been put to use and stop at an area of hazel coppicing. “Hazel used to be a valuable crop. It was coppiced for sticks. Every time the stems were cut back to a few inches they would burst up in a multitude of shoots the next year. These were cut for use in building and furniture making. Alison Ospina in Skibbereen buys some from us to make her green wood chairs but no-one else uses them now. In other countries they have maintained their woodland traditions, like coppicing, but in Ireland that was lost after the Tudor plantations when the forests were cleared. Between 1600 and 1700, forest cover went from 25% down to 1%. That’s why we picked the name Woodkerne for our project – at that time it referred to people of the older culture who hid out as rebels in the woods.”

Further down the lane, we reach the old railway line and the trees take over. The old line, now naturally regenerated with ash trees leads to a pocket of natural woodland which Paul and Jacinta have interspersed with Sweet Chestnut trees, mainly French in origin. They have also grown some from seed collected from local trees and hybrids grown in north western USA. The undergrowth is dense and I wonder how one could harvest nuts among the briars, but Paul explains that as the trees spread the undergrowth will disappear. “We have grown cuttings from a huge walnut tree in Ballydehob. There is almost no growth under it, about two inches of grass and that’s all. You can literally sweep up nuts by the bucket load every year.”

A lot of the trees at Woodkearne Nurseries are grown from cuttings grafted on to roots from smaller, hardier specimens like crab apple trees. The method Paul and Jacinta use to compensate for poor soils is to grow trees on their own roots by planting the tree deeper than usual so that the graft is buried thus allowing scion roots to form. This contrasts to the general practice and gardening advice of leaving the graft above the soil. This method can produce trees that are larger than usual but given poor soils and sometimes difficult growing conditions extra tree vigour is not usually a problem. Eager to improve tree breeding, Jacinta and Paul are very keen to hear from anyone that has well cropping nut trees or native fruit tree varieties from which cuttings could be taken. If you are interested in growing fruit and nut trees in your own garden, you can buy bare root trees directly from Paul and Jacinta at Skibbereen and Bantry farmers markets from December to April or arrange to visit them at Woodkearne Nurseries near Skibbereen. Their full catalogue is available online at woodkerne.net

As Paul and I walk back to the car, we return to the environmental imperative for their project. “With oil running out rapidly it seems clear that we’re all going to have to start producing more of our own food. What I’d really love to see is all of our parks being planted with fruit and nut trees. They have that in some countries and people can just go in and take what they want.” Now, if they could just host the bonfires in those parks too wouldn’t they be ideal for Halloween parties!

 

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LEADER Budget at Last

Great news – we finally got word today about the new LEADER programme, an announcement by Minister Eamonn O Cuiv, preceded by a local press release by his colleague Minister Batt O’Keefe – our budget for the next five years will be €14.6M. It will be brilliant to get going on projects again – it’s now two years since we had money to commit to new project ideas. That space hasn’t been all bad of course – for one thing I don’t think I’d have had the opportunity to start this column/blog. But it is very satisfying to be able to help local projects get funding, especially when we’re involved from the early stages and it’s also great to be able to put our ideas into action through our own proposals. We don’t quite have the timeframe to launch date worked out yet, there are a number of steps yet to be completed but the announcement of the group budget is the most significant stage towards programme launch. I’ll add more here soon, perhaps a broader look at LEADER and local food, not just in West Cork but around Europe.

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