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It's not just for breakfast either! Blackpudding with Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar at the Emmet Hotel

It's not just for breakfast either! Blackpudding with Strawberries and Balsamic Vinegar at the Emmet Hotel

Despite our acclaimed cheeses, seafood, preserves and other artisan foods, traditional black pudding is the food product most associated with West Cork. I know this because we at the Fuchsia Brand do fairly regular surveys to gather information from visitors and shoppers about brands and foods they associate with West Cork and Clonakilty Black Pudding comes to mind most frequently. But I suspect that many people’s experience of West Cork black puddings stops there. Does this matter, I wondered? Are all puddings much the same anyway? This week, with the help of my 7 colleagues I set out to fill in a few more of the blanks on my culinary map of West Cork. We tasted 5 local puddings all of which are made with fresh blood. This was our first such office tasting session and I was quite surprised at the enthusiasm with which my colleagues devoured the plates of lightly fried black pudding, each keeping one hand free to scribble notes on the tasting sheets. I had thought that asking people to eat 5 pieces of black pudding unaccompanied would be a strain, but in fact they would have eaten more. Like wine tasters who don’t spit, a few of my colleagues were later to rue their over enthusiasm and will perhaps feel less compelled to eat every morsel next time. Black pudding in West Cork is made with blood from either pork or beef, minced meat trimmings, pinhead oatmeal, onions and spices. The oatmeal is left to steep in the blood before the other ingredients are mixed in. It is then filled into casings and boiled gently for 20-30 minutes until is has firmed up sufficiently. Cooking requires careful judgement, overcook it and you end up with a pot of mush. The blood firms up fully as the pudding cools. Unfortunately, nowadays almost all of the black puddings on the supermarket shelves in Ireland are made with reconstituted powdered blood rather than fresh blood, generally sourced from Holland, this can result in a grainy, crumbly texture. The fresh blood has a better aroma when cooked and a firmer texture. Butchers puddings are ususally made from beef blood because they do not slaughter very many pigs. Sheeps blood can also be used. Amongst the 5 we tested, Stautons and Rosscarbery Recipes use pig’s blood. Of course, black pudding is not unique to Ireland, but appears in different forms all across Europe. It is one of the oldest known cooked foods and t is believed to have been invented by the Celts. Black pudding or blood sausage can rightly be called a heritage food for the manner in which distinct and well respected regional variations have survived. In Germany it is called blutwurst and is often served with mashed potato. In parts of Germany it can be made with horse meat. In Spain it is called morcilla and can include other fillers such as rice, breadcrumbs, pine nuts, almonds. There is even a sweet morcilla from Galicia in the northwestern region, which is fried and served most commonly as a dessert. French black pudding is called boudin and the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Goûte Boudin (Brotherhood of the Knights of Blood Sausage) in Mortagne-au-Perche, Normandy holds a annual contest of international blood sausage specialities.

 

Rosscarbery Recipes

This is the newest of the puddings we sampled and its creation is a very positive indication that the decline in fresh blood puddings can be reversed. Made by Willie and Avril Allshire of Caherbeg Free Range Pork, Rosscarbery, this pudding was best of the Irish entries at the aforementioned International Black Pudding Competition in France this year. It has a lower oatmeal content than the other four resulting in a softer texture. The flavour is full and well balanced with the meat holding its own against the salt and spices. This pudding is sold in plastic wrapped chubs and when cooked without its casing holds together well. Rosscarbery Recipes is sold in quite a number of supermarkets and butcher shops.

Ml O’Neill & Sons, Clonakilty

O’Neill’s black pudding is sold only from their butcher shop in Clonakilty and is probably the longest in existence among the five we sampled, having been created by Mike’s grandfather. Mike still buys his spice mix from a descendant of the man who used to work for his grandfather and made the original puddings. O’Neill’s is made in the traditional rings and packed in natural casing. It was the only pudding we sampled that is cooked in the casing, which some people enjoyed chewing on to savour the lasting flavour. It has a fairly open, coarse texture though it did not threaten to crumble during cooking. Although the pudding was quite salty, it was the clear favorite amongst my colleagues, none of whom had eaten it before but most of whom will now seek it out.

Collins Brothers, Dunmanway

If you haven’t tried this pudding before the first thing that strikes you is the size, being considerably wider than the traditional rings or the chubs made by most commercial manufacturers. Produced by James and PJ Collins pudding is made in a large size only – c.2 inches across and 18 inches long, and is packed in a plastic casing. It is sold in slices, either vacuum packed or freshly cut. James told me that their recipe was adapted from the process used by their mother at home – “At that time every house used to kill a pig and making the pudding was part of that. It was for home use but we knew how to make it then when we started the butcher shop. One thing that has helped a lot is the hollow tube knife for extracting the blood – it’s a very clean and contained process now.” The introduction of the hollow tube knife that James refers to has put the production of fresh blood puddings on a much sounder footing with the regulatory authorities and appears to significantly reduced the threat of losing this part of our food heritage.

Dan Maloney Meat Centre, Bandon

Another large diameter pudding, this one had distinctly more chew than the others owing both to the meat and the higher oat content. I’ve eaten this a few times recently as part of my weekend fry and have come to appreciate the balance it brings to a plate already overloaded with salty, fatty pork products. Dan told me that they launched their pudding 15 years ago at the Bandon Show and that the man who makes it learned his trade in Clonakilty. I found this a common feature among the butchers I spoke to and probably accounts for the high degree of similarity in West Cork puddings. There is usually one person employed for the task and he will have developed his skill elsewhere, the result is a high degree of cross fertilisation and consistency.

Stauntons, Timoleague

Although it is produced in a large, modern meat factory, Stauton’s pudding is made in exactly the same way as the others we sampled and is quite a separate process to main production activity at the plant. The growth in demand for their pudding from supermarkets was actually the main reason Michael Staunton closed his butcher shop in 1985 to establish a dedicated manufacturing and slaughtering plant. Fresh blood pudding making, is a tight process in terms of handling the blood and meat and is very much tied with the killing of pigs. Stauntons could not have grown the pudding sales without this new facility. The business is now wholly owned by Barryroe Co-Op who took a majority shareholding in 1998, but the puddings are still made almost exclusively by Donie O’Callaghan who started with Michael Staunton in 1967. “These puddings have stood the test if time. Nothing has changed apart from some larger machines, which make the job easier.” When I asked Donie about how Staunton’s compares with other puddings he told me that not surprisingly he doesn’t really eat any outside of work, where he’d “be nibbling away at a bit all the time.” The pudding we sampled is sold in a three pack with white and brown pudding also included. Stauntons puddings are also produced in traditional rings in natural casing. It has a nicely balanced flavour and aroma that should suit most palates.

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Martin Carey, Craft Butcher, Bandon

Martin Carey, Craft Butcher, Bandon

Picked up this from the Cork City Slow Food blog. Sounds brilliant and it’s in Bandon too!!
Slow Food West Cork Convivium, Urru Culinary Store, Dan Maloney Meat Centre and Martin Carey Butchers all of Bandon have joined together to provide a unique opportunity to give a masterclass by meat and culinary experts.
Visit the site for full details:
http://corkcityslowfood.blogspot.com/2009/02/slow-food-heritage-series.html

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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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Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Tim Keohane, sheep farmer, Clonakilty

Spring has finally sprung, there is warmth in the sunshine and life in the fields. The liveliest of springing is from lambs, most of which have been born in the last few weeks. Early lambs, born in January are just reaching maturity now and from this week on Spring Lamb should be available in our local butchers and meat counters. Lamb is my favourite meat, so sweet and flavoursome and along with beef tends to be the best meat we produce in Ireland. I visited Tim Keohane at his farm near Clonakilty to find out a bit more about lamb farming in West Cork and to see what Spring means to him.

 

 

 

Beef is the main income on the Keohane family farm, but in addition to the cattle Tim and his father John have 120 ewes, producing about 200 lambs each year. They are close to finishing lambing and the last few weeks have been the busiest period of the year, during which they’ve had to keep a 24 hour eye on their sheep. Apart from helping with any difficult births, it is also very important to attend to the bonding between mother and offspring. Tim explains that one of the biggest threats to a lamb’s survival is rejection by its mother. This can happen for a number of reasons including if it were to inadvertently suckle from another ewe, which can easily happen when they are inside in close quarters. Rearing rejected “orphan” lambs is a time consuming task that Tim can ill afford and it can be difficult to get them to a good weight in time for market. One solution for orphaned lambs is fostering to another mother by covering the lamb with the afterbirth from a new born at time of birth. The foster mother will be fooled by the smell into accepting the orphan as one of her own. Fostering is also used when the birth of triplets may put too much strain on a ewe and one lamb is fostered out to a mother with a single birth.

 

After a few days inside mother and lamb are released to the grass, so with Tim’s dogs Max and Ben for company we went out to look at the rest of the flock. Ben is semi-retired now having injured his back legs in an accident, but Max was bursting to show what he could do and with a few calmly spoken commands from Tim he brought the flock to us. Tim’s sheep numbers have fallen back a lot from what he used to keep – 500 ewes at one stage, and the profit per lamb is very low, each fetching €70-80 when they are sold in the early autumn. But it was evident from watching Tim work in partnership with the dogs that there’s more to this than money. For me it was a real treat to see a trials standard sheepdog in action and for Tim a source of quiet pride. He and the dogs had been in constant communication since I entered the yard and Tim was particularly conscious of the relationships and hierarchies between the dogs themselves. He told me that he finds the hands on nature of sheep rearing satisfying, if demanding, in comparison with the mechanised business of managing cattle.

 

Raising lambs profitably is very dependent on the markets they find, the optimum being local butchers. Butchers like larger lambs with a bit of fat on them, typically from 45-50kg, whereas factory lambs will usually be sold at a liveweight of 42kg. These lighter lambs suit the supermarkets better and the carcasses do not have as much fat for trimming. Of course individual joints sold in a supermarket are also going to be cheaper simply because they are smaller. Tim remembers when there were up to a dozen butchers buying at Bandon mart, creating a bit of competition and happy to buy larger lambs. But the number of butchers has declined sharply in the last 20 years, falling from 7 in Bandon to 2 now. The trend for buying smaller lambs in supermarkets works against an operation like Tim’s. To service this market profitably a farmer might need upwards of 1000 ewes and be located closer to a main factory, the nearest being in Wexford.

 

Easter came a little soon for Spring Lamb in 2008 but it should be plentiful from the end of March. When it is in season the more delicate tasting Spring Lamb is a delight but do look for meat with a generous coating of creamy-white fat, for which your local butcher is generally the best bet, a conclusion which brings me neatly to my other visit of the week – Michael Twomey in Macroom.

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