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Peadar O Lionaird of Follain Teo mincing oranges for marmalade

Peadar O Lionaird of Follain Teo mincing oranges for marmalade. (Photo by John Minihan)

I’ve been waiting  for blackberry season for a few months now, initially  observing  the profusion of blossom with anticipation but realising as the  wet  weeks passed that the promise shown in May would never be  delivered. With what  we we could gather last weekend it wasn’t  worth contemplating jam, so for the  next 12 months we’ll have  to continue relying on Folláin Teo…how bad! Their  jams are  great, I particularly like the raspberry and blackberry, which are  tart  enough to retain the full fruit flavour and aroma. Anyway  resigned yet consoled,  I recycled my stash of jars (I even had enough lids!) and travelled to  Ballyvourney to talk to Peadar O’ Lionáird about jam making, fruit growing and  the bad weather.
Peadar and his wife Mairín, started their business 26 years ago in their  kitchen in Coolea, subsequently growing through various stages  from their garage  to a portacabin to a small enterprise unit,  until they finally took on a  stand-alone factory in Ballyvourney. The business provides employment for 15  people, including their  daughter Máiréad. With all the bad news about job  losses, Peadar reckons that there is still near full employment in the local  Muskerry  Gaeltacht. “There is a strong tradition of trade and enterprise here and people who start businesses always have the support of  the local community.  During the 1950s when emmigration was huge, local people recognised the need for industry to prevent the loss  of the population and culture. We’re not dependent on any large  multinationals, all the businesses here are indigenous or locally  owned partnerships.”
Struck by the scale of the plant,  I asked Peadar about making the transition  from home production  to what they do now. “We wanted to bring what we had  developed  to the market but retain our core qualities as artisan producers.  It  has been very important that we designed the new plant around  our processes and  products, not the other way around. Almost all  of the equipment you see here has  been custom made for us and  people are still the most important element in the  making our  jams. We continue to cut, de-seed and mince oranges, lemons and  grapefruit by hand. I don’t know of any other jam maker at this  scale that does  that. We’re using the same recipes here as we  used with the six saucepans in the  kitchen. And just like your  mother might test for setness on a plate, we do it  visually too.  But a bit of science helps as well, by testing the ph level and sugar solids we know when to stop boiling and so retain more of  the flavour while still getting it set.” This taste quality was  once again acknowledged at the annual Great Taste Awards in London  this year, where Folláin picked up  awards for 3 of their preserves. “This recognition means a lot to us. It gives  creedence to the  quality we’ve got and shows that one can take artisan quality from the kitchen to a larger factory unit.”
Peadar gave me a  tour of the jam making process, guiding me through the sweet  aromas  and steam to observe the simmering fruit, the shunting jars and  an array  of ingenious machines that serve to get the jam just  right. Stopping over a pot  of blackberries I asked Peadar about  where they get their berries. “We try to get as much from  local pickers as possible. It’s been an appalling blackberry season this year, I’ve been watching the ditches at home and they’re turning back to green. But there are a lot of local factors that affect  the crop, so there are probably good patches elsewhere. We’re  still looking for people to  come in with fruit. We buy in any  quantity from about 4 or 5kgs up to hundreds of kilos. With blackberries, it’s best to pick just short of full ripeness, when the berry is still firm. This makes the best jam. People take great care of  the  fruit, spreading it out at home to remove any barbs or foreign bodies before  they freeze it. The wild blackberries are different varieties to the commercially grown ones and give a better flavour, more complex, less sugary. The greatest amount we ever bought  in from local pickers was in 2003 when 8  tonnes were picked and  delivered locally.” Peadar is also keen to talk to anyone  interested  in growing fruit commercially and in fact Peadar and Mairín are  at an  advanced stage of getting into fruit growing for themselves.  “The demand for  fruit is greater than ever, a lot more is eaten fresh now and smoothies have  really upped our consumption. Even still fruit growing can be risky and we  understand the growers  concern that they might be left with the crop. We are very willing to discuss a partnership arrangement with anyone interested in growing. Around here is not the best spot for soft fruit, when it gets wet, it stays wet, not like near the sea where the wind dries the damp quickly.”
Peadar and Mairín are continually working on new recipes and products. They have a huge range of pickles and savoury sauces that we rarely see in the shops despite the fact that they are equally well adorned with Great Taste Medals. “Because we use small scale stainless steel equipment we can easily switch from sugar based products to vinegar based sauces. Larger plants can’t do that. It’s so hard to get new products listed with the supermarkets. We sell all of these to the catering trade. I’d say there’s not a hotel in the country that doesn’t have at least one of our products.”
As I left with a few new products in hand to take home and taste Peadar reminded me again to put the word out that they are actively looking for blackberries from local pickers. So if the sun has warmed the hedgerows near you and you’re interested in picking a few more kilos, give Peadar a call on 026-45288.

PS

Just found this really good blog post on Totally Cooked about blackberry picking. It has good advice, especially on jam making and avoiding dog pee.

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