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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.

 

To keep up to date with Ummera you can subscribe to Anthony’s blog at www.ummera.com/wordpress

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On Thursday last my colleague Jean and I enjoyed an opportunity to show off a bit of West Cork to two visiting Italian journalists on a familiarisation trip organised by Failte Ireland – Gabriele Zanatta from Milan and Massimiliano Rella from Rome. They were accompanied by Kinsale based Italian speaking guide Marguerite Condon. We kicked off at the Kinsale Wine Museum where we had an excellent guided introduction to Desmond Castle, the Fitzgerald family and the winegeese. From there we stopped in to chat with Paul McBride and Iain Flynn about their growing food business. I was delighted to hear that they are looking at moving to a larger premises to handle the growth in demand and get their excellent meals out to more shops.

Oriental clams at Fishy Fishy Cafe, Kinsale

This was followed by a delicious lunch al fresco at Fishy Fishy Cafe. I had the clams with ginger and sweet chili sauce (see pic). The two guys were very interested in the area and the local food, particularly seafood. Chef and proprietor, Martin Shanahan joined us when we had finished eating and shared his thoughts on fish. Now that he is running two businesses he finds that he cannot spend as much time in the kitchen as previously. “Part of my role now has to be teaching. The most important part of the business is buying the fish and I will never give that up. I go to Skibbereen for the fish auction nearly every morning and also buy directly from about 10 local boats. In the last 10 years fish has become a global commodity, it wasn’t like that before but now generic white fish can be flown in for a fixed price at any time of the year from Chile, Thailand or elsewhere.

Martin Shanahan, chef & proprietor at Fishy Fishy Cafe, Kinsale

Martin Shanahan, chef & proprietor at Fishy Fishy Cafe, Kinsale

 For me fish is a gift, not a product. It’s not guaranteed what you’ll catch on any trip. You must treat it like a gift. It’s very important that we support our local fishermen. If this generation stops fishing, then that’s it, they won’t go back to it and we’ll have no more fresh fish. What we’ll be eating will be like plastic. We won’t know where it comes from.”

We left Martin and took the coast road to Kinsale, pulling up at Garretstown to get a sense of beach life on an overcast summer’s day. This surf lesson created a lovely splash of yellow against the gathering rain clouds.

Surf lesson at Garretstown Beach

Surf lesson at Garretstown Beach

 

Anthony Creswell met us at Ummera Smoked Products in Timoleague and gave our visitors a run through the process of smoking salmon. Anthony is fairly confident that we don’t need to go to Norway or Scotland to trace the roots of fish smoking in Ireland. “Smoking to preserve fish caught in times of plenty would have been practised all around the coast. All you needed was salt, which we did import in large quantities. Of course the smoked fish they produced then was quite different from this. It would have been extremely salty and much drier to last through the winter months. They’d eat it when there was nothing better to be had.” Happily, the same could not be said of the Ummera smoked salmon and gravad lax that Anthony treated us to!

(You can watch Anthony talking to ifoods.tv here.)

Jean, Masimiliano, Anthony, Gabriele and Marguerite pictured at Ummera Smokehouse

Jean, Masimiliano, Anthony, Gabriele and Marguerite pictured at Ummera Smokehouse

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Frank and Martin Flemming aboard Providence II in Crosshaven

 

I met Frank Fleming and his brother Martin on their boat in Crosshaven as they finished cleaning down from 2 days of trawling for prawns. The rough seas had abated temporarily to allow the excursion but the winds had returned reinvigorated from the south east bearing rain. Frank and Martin fish a 15m vessel that they brought back from Barra in the Outer Hebrides 5 years ago in what Frank describes as “a long trip”. Typical of most Irish trawlers, the Providence II is a twin rig vessel, towing 2 small nets at a time… and has its own on-board ice machine. They land daily in the winter, staying out a bit longer in the summer to make only 2 trips a week – “We land regularly so that the quality of the fish is high. We sell all our fish through Union Hall Fishermans Co-Op, they have large markets developed and so can take everything we have. So as we’re fishing I put in a call for a truck, like yesterday afternoon I booked a truck for 1 o’clock this morning. We clean, gut and ice the fish at sea and then transfer it straight to the truck on the pier.”

Frank, who is originally from Turners Cross in Cork City, explains how he first got involved in trawling 24 years ago. “Fishing grew out of a hobby for us. Myself and Martin were coming down here to Crosshaven to go angling and we got our own commercial vessel. That hobby aspect has been left behind at this stage. It’s a job but also a way of life and I can enjoy a good day when everything is going well.” Although Frank has since moved to Schull with his wife Katie, he continues to fish out of Crosshaven. He explains to me that the depth of knowledge they have built up about the sea bottom and the local fishing grounds more than outweighs the daily commute.

In fact, the commute doesn’t even warrant a mention on the list of challenges and frustrations facing Frank in fishing. “Fishing is going through a difficult period, particularly due to the high fuel costs. We’ve got into a mess with the quotas too. The truth is we just don’t have enough quota, it’s not that the fish aren’t there. After 24 years fishing, for the first time in my career we are dumping mature fish due to lack of quota. I could understand these regulations if it were limiting our catches for conservation reasons, but when foreign vessels fishing alongside us can retain these fish legitimately, it is obvious that our problems stem from failures in both the management structures and policy makers that have presided over our industry for the 20 years. 15 years ago when the EU agreements were being negotiated, we were unaware of what was happening over our heads. We minded our own business and fished our vessels, oblivious to policies being drafted that would have such an effect on our lives. We’ve had the log books on board for years but they weren’t examined and quotas we not really enforced. The result was that when we were negotiating our share of the catch, we just didn’t have the fish we were landing on paper. Now the French can catch 10 times our cod quota in Irish waters. It’s not because of a shortage of fish but a historic shortage of paperwork. Hopefully, in light of recent events we will be able to work with relevant government departments and stakeholders to improve access to the resource for the future.”

The brothers specialise in prawns which they fish along the south coast, anywhere from 5-70 miles offshore. “Ireland has a very big quota for prawns and it’s a very sustainable fishery. They live in muddy ground and come out to feed after rough weather when the water has been stirred up. When it settles down in calm weather they dig in and don’t feed. There’s a great balance in this, they get a chance to recover. We could sometimes go a month in the summer without prawns, not because they’re fished out but because they’re in their burrows. We catch prawns on exactly the same grounds now as 20 years ago, proving the sustainability of this stock.” This reminded me of Sally Barnes advice last week on sustainable seafood eating requiring a spread along the food chain, we can’t just eat the large predatory fish. Frank tells me that cod stocks are recovering well too in response to the voluntary observation of the Cod Box. “The coast of the South East of Ireland is incredibly important as a cod breeding ground. It seemed unethical to see the fish being caught full of eggs. They were very slow moving and easy to catch and so were targeted at that time of year. But for the last few years thanks to a voluntary code of practice no-one from any country fishes the Cod Box in the spawning season. Now there are lots of cod though unfortunately as I’ve said unlike the French we don’t have the quota to catch them.”

Frank is particularly optimistic about a new voluntary sustainable fishing scheme that is being facilitated by BIM with the involvement of West Cork LEADER Co-op. “The Seafood EMS will be an opportunity for West Cork boats selling to Union Hall Fisherman’s Co-Op to get the Fuchsia Brand for their fish. We will have 10 boats ready to adopt the scheme in September. It basically involves 3 sets of principles – Q.P.R – quality, provenance and responsibility. These fit very well with Fuchsia as well. Quality is about the handling of fish on board, gutting and icing immediately and excellent hygiene practices. Provenance is about it coming from West Cork, it’s guaranteed Irish. This is to help differentiate our fish. I don’t want to go slamming imports. Trying to sell a negative message about fish coming in or unsustainable practices will damage the appeal of fish to the consumer. But without a scheme like this it’s very hard to tell people what to eat rather than what not to eat. Martin Shanahan of Fishy Fishy in Kinsale is involved with the scheme and will help to champion a quality product. Responsibility is about care for the environment. The boats will recycle their oil, dispose of waste at onshore facilities and also help clean up the seas for other users like anglers and yachts by gathering debris and so on.”

“The Seafood EMS should also shift our relationship with the regulatory bodies. The boats in the scheme can effectively set the agenda for good practice and get away from adversarial roles. The new levels of compliance being sought on all boats are driving people out of business and most fishermen need a more reasonable and constructive approach. This scheme can help with that.”

Frank hopes that the scheme and the Fuchsia Brand can help fishermen market at a higher level, but it is not all about getting a higher price. “In the last few weeks we’ve seen a lot of positive public opinion about fishing. It’s very important that we demonstrate to the public at large that we are operating in a responsible manner. It is only then that we can make our case.” Well, Frank certainly made that case to me and I was delighted when as I left he offered to take me out fishing to see what a day’s trawling is like. More about this anon, in the meantime, if you’d like to hear more from Frank Fleming, he’ll be speaking at the Taste of West Cork Festival in Skibbereen in September as part of the Stories from the Soil, Stories form the Sea event.

 

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Sally Barnes, Fish Smoker, Castletownshend

In the last few weeks fishermen have quite rightly forced their way to the top of the agenda in discussions about how we feed ourselves. With their backs to the wall, they have turned their anger to resolved action and their internal disagreements to a unified campaign. We are hearing a clear and reasonable message and seeing a campaign to win the public over. They appear to making some headway with the EU on a short-term aid package and have also impressed their message on the Sea Fisheries Protection Agency, which has acknowledged the need for a “fresh start”. But the big problems won’t go away overnight – what can be done to reduce the cost and usage of oil? How can we manage our fisheries sustainably so that they provide a good living now and into the future? What do we as consumers need to be aware of when buying fish? Are there some fish that we just can’t afford to eat?

 

I wanted some answers and if I’m honest I wanted someone to hold my hand and tell me it would be alright. I wanted to hear that there was light at the end of the tunnel and some interesting new things to eat. So I decided to chat to Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery in Castletownshend, because I knew these questions affected her, but the first thing Sally asked me was if I could get used to eating jellyfish. Whatever way you look at it there aren’t too many bright lights on the horizon.

 

Sally has been a fish smoker since she acquired a mini-kiln as part settlement of a bad-debt in 1981. She learned this ancient food preserving craft by trial and error, at the time having easy access to fish from her husband, a commercial fisherman. “I experimented with my own palate and the palates of many of my friends”.  Over the years Sally grew Woodcock Smokery into a business that made a valuable contribution to the local economy, employing 6 people full time at its peak and providing a good outlet for local salmon fishermen. She has won international acclaim as a fish smoker, notably winning the Supreme Champion award across all food categories at the Great Taste Awards in London in 2006. But the salmon fishery is now closed and without local salmon Woodcock Smokery can only provide 2 part time jobs. In the short term Sally is sourcing salmon from sustainable sea fisheries in Scotland but in the medium term she plans to retrain and pursue a career in mediation.

 

Sally will only work with wild fish, ideally landed locally and is very set against fish farming as it is generally practiced. Apart from salmon, she smokes a wide range of fish including mackerel, herring, tuna and haddock. But Woodcock Smokery is not about scale and cannot compete on price at the lower end of the market. What makes Sally’s smoked fish worthy of its luxury tag is the difference in taste and texture achieved from the time that she and her skilled team spend preparing it. Everything is done by hand, and there are no shortcuts. Wild salmon, in particular, rewards this extra attention and Sally’s customers around the globe recognise that. “I’m very glad I’m small because I can be flexible and work with the freshest fish available. I have customers who value that and will take what I produce. It’s getting harder to get really fresh fish though because most of the boats are now landing only once a week. Most of the time I can’t get fresh haddock, it may have been caught and kept on ice for five days at sea before it’s landed. In fairness the co-op auction officers in Skibbereen and Castletownbere are a big help, I trust their information on what is fresh. My job is to preserve fish but if it’s already 5 days old it needs to eaten right away, not preserved. So, instead of haddock I’m trying pollock which is caught inshore locally. It would great if we had an active fleet of half-deckers, small boats that would land every night. To make sure that they didn’t have to travel too far we’d need protected nursery areas for the fish stocks, maybe 6 mile no fishing zones. We also need flexible chefs and fishmongers who are willing to work with whatever is available and fresh. Most restaurants have a set menu and so if they’re going to have cod or turbot every day they need to the buy frozen imported variety.”

 

Commenting on the current regime that fishermen have to work within, Sally told me, “the strict enforcement of quotas at present makes no sense. Perfectly good fish that come up in nets are being thrown back dead rather than landed. Then when they do land the fish allowed under their quota, they face competition from imports. I spoke to a fisherman last week who had to sell turbot at €10.50/kg! A ridiculous price, but it’s hard to get buyers interested when they can guarantee a continuous flow of imported farmed turbot at €12/kg.” Woodcock Smokery also needs continuity in supplies, but Sally does this by maintaining a stock of fish that she freezes at a nearby plant in Baltimore. She has a lot of money tied up in stock which for a small business presents cashflow challenges. However, being part of a fishing community, she is very attuned to the needs of her neighbours “Fishermen have to be paid week on week, some processors try to pay for their salmon at the end of the season, but a fishing household needs regular income.” Sally believes that it will be possible in time to restore salmon fisheries in Ireland. To achieve this in West Cork will require the establishment of a few up-river hatchery sites which Sally is currently campaigning for.

 

At this point the conversation turned once again to jellyfish. “If we continue to just grab fish from only one level in the food chain then we create an imbalance, a vacuum and something else will come in to replace it, something that we don’t have a use for, like jellyfish. We need to balance our consumption over the food chain and eat fish that are lower down. One fish I am looking forward to smoking later in the year are sprats. They are delicious and because they’re so young they’ve no contaminants and so are very good for us.”

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