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Archive for April 9th, 2009

Anthony Creswell, Ummera Smoked Products Timoleague

Anthony Creswell, Ummera Smoked Products Timoleague

Anthony Creswell from Timoleague is a committed smoker – no patches, no gum, no hypnotists instilling the mantra that smoking is vile and disgusting. Smoking is what he does and he has no intention of quitting. Such intransigence is not surprising when his smoking habit is rewarded year after year with acclaim at home and abroad for his range of smoked fish and meats – picking up Gold medals at the Great Taste Awards in 2008, 2006, 2005, highly commended as one of the Best Artisan Suppliers at the Irish Restaurant of the Year Awards in 2007 and winning an award from the Irish Food Writers Guild in 2007. Since the decline and ultimate disappearance two years ago of Ireland’s most prized delicacy – smoked wild salmon, Anthony has worked hard to maintain the Ummera Smoked Products reputation as one of the finest smokehouses in the world.
I met Anthony at his smokehouse near on the banks of the Argideen River, 2 miles upstream of Timoleague. Before we get talking Anthony has to shoo his young daughters from the office and I reflect on how for many small food business owners there is very little division between their work and their “life”. This can be a problem for family life during the busy periods, like the lead up to Easter or Christmas for Anthony, or having to work at markets on Saturday and Sunday. But on this day the melding of the two worlds feels like a very positive thing. Whereas in most workplaces children are an intrusion, these girls are comfortable in this space, they know what their father’s work involves and he is available to them a lot of the time. Ralph, one of Anthony’s elder sons, has a strong interest in food. He is currently working at the Urru culinary store in Bandon, but enjoys working with Anthony from time to time. “He got started with me in the lead up to a busy Christmas and enjoyed it, so he stayed on. But I wanted him to get out and learn other skills. I’m not sure if it’s always a good idea to learn from your father. I did battle with my own dad for 15 years.” I can see that stacking the teacher-student dynamic on top of the father-son relationship just gives your father even more entitlement to tell what you should be doing. And yet Anthony has changed very little in the smoking process he learned from his father in the 1970s. “We use a brine to cure the fish and meats for a number of hours before smoking. The brine is just water, sea salt and organic sugar from Costa Rica. Most smokers use a dry cure rather than brine but it seemed to work ok for my dad and if it ain’t broke… We also stick with oak for the smoke, it’s more traditional than other woods like apple or alder, but if it’s good enough for the finest wines in France then I’m happy with that.” After brining the fish or meat is left to dry in the smoker for 10 to 12 hours before the fire is lit and the smoking begins. Anthony cold smokes in 6 to 8 hours, quite a short period. Chicken breasts and silver eels are hot smoked so that they are cooked through. There are no artificial preservatives or colours in his foods, the smoke forms a natural bacteria resistant barrier and salt is a natural preservative.
Anthony’s casual manner belies a serious commitment to making his products the very best around. I recall several mornings spent at the smokehouse a few years back as part of a sensory analysis panel. Anthony used formal panel testing to get objective feedback on subtle adjustments he could make to his curing and smoking. Even after 30 years he is still motivated by quality. “It’s about producing something that people will enjoy and will come back for. There’s nothing better than someone coming back and telling you that eating your food made their day. One of the special features of our food, is that it’s not the same every time. Because it’s not factory produced there is variation from day to day and month to month. I get mad with bureaucracies obsession with standards. It leaves very little room for imagination. It must be quite challenging, even depressing, for start up food producers that are excited about what they’ve tried on a small scale. But when they step up to approved production they find that they are reduced to producing to a formula.” And yet Anthony has managed to master the world of standards whilst retaining his enthusiasm and imagination. To the best of my knowledge Ummera is also the only smokehouse in Ireland that has attained an export license for smoking both fish and meat – the full range comprises salmon, chicken, bacon and silver eel. Achieving this license status is a big undertaking for business of this scale and required significant investment in separating the handling areas for the different processes to ensure that there is no contact between raw and cooked foods, even down to controlling the airflow.
Although Anthony hasn’t changed much in the smoking process, he has been enthusiastic in adopting new technologies for communication and over the years has been one my personal guiding lights to new uses of the world wide web, like blogging and twitter, and other developments like the use of customer relationship management software and email newsletters. As we are talking his Blackberry bleeps every other minute with a new twitter post. “I think it all helps, it creates a bit of interest. These tools help us to keep contact at a distance and at very little cost. We don’t send newsletters in the post anymore. I know this assumes computer literacy on the part of customers, and we did lose a few people, but it’s working. We got quite a reaction to our last newsletter about a Dublin fish supplier misleading customers by describing farmed fish as ‘Caught at Sea’. With both blogging and Twitter, there’s an awful lot of drivel out there. I really don’t know how people find the time. You’ve go to have something interesting to say. If I was just advertising my own business, I’d quickly find people would unsubscribe. But if you catch people at the right moment, they may pass it on and your story grows exponentially moving from hundreds to tens of thousands.”
We switch back from talking about toys to talking about food, and when I bemoan the loss of the wild salmon stocks, Anthony tells me that the silver eels have also all but disappeared. “The eel’s lifecycle is the reverse of the salmon. They breed way out at sea in the Sargasso and then make the long journey to come ashore here. They are opportunist in choosing a river system and don’t return to their roots. The stock of eels has dropped by 80% in the last 10 years or so due to overfishing of the elvers (young eels), pollution and global warming. The silver eels we buy are caught just as they are about to leave the rivers and migrate to sea. They are about 4-6 years old.” I begin to appreciate the scale of the problem when Anthony tells me that the Central Fisheries Board restoration plan for eel stocks will run over 90 years! And although I can see that Anthony will miss another of our heritage foods, I know that he will continue to engage, adapt and excel, with new foods, new stories and old skills.

 

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