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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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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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