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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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Things are looking bad for the future of industrial food in Ireland as the Dawn Farm Foods story continues to develop. There have been 90 Salmonella cases reported so far in the UK and eight in Ireland. Salmonella is not usually fatal in the healthy, but a one-year old baby has also fallen ill with it and a woman in her 70s died in Liverpool with salmonella as a contributory factor. This looks like a particularly nasty strain of salmonella, it’s called salmonella agona and is rare, accounting for approximately 1.5% of salmonella infections. There are about 12,500 cases of salmonella reported annually in the UK. It looks like the contaminated meat was used for sandwich fillings supplied to the Subway chain but it doesn’t stop there. According to the FSAI the product has also entered the retail chain via Kerry Foods (as a sandwich filler).

This is a terrifying development for a company that exports more than 80% of its output to 30 countries worldwide. It is terrifying also for the 500 or so employees who must be worried about whether the company can survive this blow. It is terrifying also for the food scientists – this is a state of the art plant in which an additional €28M was invested in 2006.

Chase the bugs

Dawn's Food Map: Chase the bugs

The question has to be asked as to whether science really is invincible in the face of the complexities presented by such a complex distribution chain, bacon zipping here there and everywhere (see picture), getting chopped, mixed with cheese  and being heated more than once. Are there any natural limits to safety imposed by distance, scale and the number of parties in the distribution chain? Questions also have to be asked about the quality of the independent lab inspections in this case: Dawn Farm Foods has said that food safety is its foremost concern and that it has an excellent track record throughout its 25 years in operation. “All of the company’s products are tested prior to release to the market,” a spokeswoman said. “Rigorous externally-run tests and regular audits are also conducted to ensure that its products meet the highest standards as required by customers, the Department of Agriculture and Food Safety Authorities both in Ireland and the UK.” With all this testing, how did this happen?

But above all questions have to be asked about food policy in Ireland – as a nation are we really aiming to be a low-cost ingredients supplier? Are we the back-end of the Fast Food Nation? This story hurts the image of Irish food around the world. So much investment in education, capital, research and mointoring has been poured into developing the industrial food sector in Ireland, but is it working?

For more on the story see here and here

Check out this post by Good Food Hunting on another current meat scare, this time in the US. And have a look at this site if you’re in the mood for a fright – http://foodsafetychat.blogspot.com

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Michael Twomey, butcher, Macroom

Michael Twomey, butcher, Macroom

Michael Twomey’s butcher shop is on the entrance to Macroom from Cork and is marked by a special commitment to supporting local agriculture. Firstly, this is Ireland’s only Guaranteed Irish butcher shop, to use the logo Michael cannot sell any meat from overseas. He tells me that he started down this path in 1996 when there were scares about antibiotics in pigs and medicated ration was banned in Ireland. He now sources pigs directly from a local farm (about 10 per week) and cures most of his own bacon. He also buys beef directly, primarily Angus but also Hereford. This year Twomey’s will be Ireland’s first food company to be awarded the EU Eco Label for environmental practices in production, packaging and sourcing of local meat. Michael buys his lamb from Cristóir in Ballincollig through whom he sources quite a bit from Tim Keohane in Clonakilty (see above). He tells me that there is very little lamb produced around Macroom anymore reflecting Tim Keohane’s experience.

 

 

 

Spring lamb is generally hung for 8-10 days and more mature lamb for an additional 4 or 5 days. “I like to see a nice white cover of fat and would rather have excess fat that I can trim off if needs be. In this meat the quality will be there, if it’s not there to begin with you can’t put it in”. Michael notes an increasing sophistication among his customers who are asking for a wider range of joints and methods of preparation. It was the interaction with customers that drew him to the trade initially, he loves to exchange cooking ideas over the counter and was happy to share some advice on preparing lamb with me:

 

  • When cooking Spring Lamb, Michael suggests doing very little with it, perhaps a rub of lemon juice and thyme being the extent of tampering.
  • In choosing any joint Spring or otherwise, Michael recommends the rack as the tastiest, though it might be best to wait another month until there is a bit more meat on the rack.  Michael will also French trim the rack to reduce the fat. If you’d like to introduce other flavours try stuffing the rack with Stauntons black pudding. Open the rack for stuffing with a cut between the eye and the bone.
  • Leg is the best known joint but others like the shank are well worth a go. Generally tough to chew, shank is altogether different when slow cooked on the bone until the meat almost melts off. Serve with a rosemary gravy.
  • If cooking time for a leg is an issue, try a butterflied leg. Your butcher will remove the bone, resulting in a large butterfly shaped piece with the tough muscle tissue removed. Score the back and rub in garlic, curry paste and oil both front and back. If possible allow to marinade overnight in the fridge. To cook, brown on both sides in a frying pan and cook in a hot oven (200˚C) for 1 hour. To keep the moisture in you can cover with tin foil and add the juices from the pan. This can also be barbecued, continue to baste while cooking.

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