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We Should Talk

 

Bill Hogan of West Cork Natural Cheese

Bill Hogan of West Cork Natural Cheese

I’m sitting in the stimulating setting of the new Riverside Café in Skibbereen with Bill Hogan of West Cork Natural Cheese watching jackdaws steal peanuts from a feeder intended for smaller, more colourful birds. “I think we should talk about the crisis,” Bill says to me. I agree because I want to see where this will go, but I’m hesitant because the gloom is getting to me and I want to hear something positive in this bright haven by the water. Bill Hogan is one of Ireland’s most celebrated cheese makers. He and Sean Ferry started West Cork Natural Cheese in Schull in the mid 80s and produce two large hard cheeses in the Swiss style using summer milk – Gabriel and Desmond. Their cheeses have many champions, particularly among Ireland’s community of chefs, who tend to favour them over parmesan for flavours that have as much bite, depth and authenticity but are distinctively Irish. “If you want to talk about something positive then let’s talk about Irish milk. Sean and myself have proven that there is great taste in Irish milk. When you can walk out on a lovely May morning and sniff something good and then find that it’s there in the cheese too, you know you are doing something right. These are tastes that were there all along and the work of the artisan is to give them back to the people.”

Bill and Sean have also been championed over the years by food writers, particularly recognising their refusal to go under in their legal battle with the Department of Agriculture. Almost all of their 2002 cheese production was seized when TB was found in 2 of the herds supplying their milk. This effectively shut down the business without compensation. Bill and Sean were able to prove in court that the cheese did not present any health risk but still the dispute dragged on for four years and six court cases. Despite their appeal against the seizure being repeatedly vindicated in court, they have never received meaningful compensation. It was only through an alliance with Newmarket Co-op that the pair finally got back to making cheese again, just in time for the recession!

“You know this crisis has been coming for a long time. There’s no respect for money; it’s just another commodity to be traded. Did you know that 98% of currency transactions have nothing to do with commerce? It’s a demented game that has to end. That kind of playing with value should be illegal. Our trading relationships should be based on a respect for labour and a respect for real value. I know, for example, that the Sterling exchange rate is hitting food producers very hard; it would be so much steadier if the UK were in the euro, but they’re not. You can’t eat money, it’s the means of exchange not the end. I’m not against people being materialistic but we have to separate need from greed, everything has gone so bling. Getting rich and spending money doesn’t make you free. Marx said that real freedom comes from knowing what you need.” Bill suggests that this is where the sustainability movement has so much to offer in starting with meeting our needs now but not compromising the needs of future generations.

Much of Bill’s character was forged during his involvement in the US civil rights movement and working with Dr. Martin Luther King in the 1960s. He has first hand experience of dramatic social upheaval. He understands how lasting success can be gained through non-violent methods and the destructive and equally enduring impact of violence. “I see that a lot of people are furious at what has happened. My great fear is that some people won’t have enough to eat, that old people can no longer heat their homes, that families can’t afford kids school books. The one bonus for Ireland is that the crisis is global so we shouldn’t lose our talent like before. Emmigration is not a great option, I mean there’s jobs in the Canadian Yukon! …I think we’re in a pre-revolutionary state. A major overhaul is needed but we have to ensure that it doesn’t turn to violence, we must steer that fury to non-violent change.” Bill is not averse to the idea of upheaval but it is people that he cares about not ideas.

 “We must get back to basics in our relationships,” Bill continues, “Gandhi said that the revolution was about a transformation of relationships not the seizure of power. To do this we have to start talking to each other and get out of the box of thinking that the system will solve my problems. Just look at what the community achieved in Schull, when they got the Community College set up. They kept at it in spite of being told no; no, they were told, it doesn’t make any sense to have a college like that down on a tiny peninsula. But it has been fantastic. This is what we need now, not just intelligent individual thinking but community intelligence and will. I think people are very isolated in the gloom; Fuchsia could bring producers together to discuss how the crisis is affecting them. We can build on that Sean and I were thrown into crisis in 2002 when our case with the Department of Agriculture began. We’ve learned a lot about how to keep a small business going in a crisis situation and I would say that relationships are the key. In particular, our relationship with our bankers, AIB, has been fundamental. They have stuck with us right through the case. I do recommend to people to keep talking to your bank, don’t hide in the hole. Tell them what they can do for you and what you can do for them.”

“We have to find ways of having more direct and honest trading relationships that are based on real value, not stealing. When I look at how our sales have been affected I can see that they have really held up in the local market, particularly the English Market in Cork and the farmers markets. It’s in the big multiples that sales have really been hit. As a rural region we can start looking at our relationships with basic questions like, How are we going to feed ourselves? and, How are we going to sell food into the cities?”

As a rural development worker, I love the simple dynamic that the countryside produces food for the cities. It is a natural geographic relationship between people and places that allows everyone to have their need met. We talk about positive solutions, our great food and natural resources like renewable energy. Bill returns to the quality of the milk on the Mizen peninsula. “I would love to get involved in establishing a Mizen dairy, a small up to date plant that could deal with the wonderful milk that’s there. The technology that we’ve been using to make our cheese has moved on a lot. I’d design it differently if we were starting again.” It’s not just the hardware that Bill wants to re-invent. “This big corporate model that Ireland chose to pursue in the 1960’s is inappropriate; it looks good on paper, lower costs etc but it’s less diverse and it supports fewer people. The same applies to farms, they’ve shown the negative impact of corporate style agri-farms in the US, particularly how it leads to the deterioration of land and community. The family farms we have on the Mizen employ more people and families have a long term perspective of passing on the land in good health to the next generation.” I look again at the jackdaws at the feeder, and ponder how we can help the many smaller, more colourful birds get to the peanuts – if only they could talk to each other!

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Sean, Elmar and John Nolan of Union Hall Smoked Fish

Sean, Elmar and John Nolan of Union Hall Smoked Fish

 

 

Between the dark evenings and the budget it really feels like things are drawing in. Commonly accepted dietary advice at such times is to prescribe a range of mood enhancing foods to beat the winter blues. I say commonly accepted, because there are certainly those, like Ben Goldacre who writes Bad Science in the Guardian, who rail against the medicalisation of food, which more often than not ends up in encouraging us to swallow handfuls of dietary supplements with our breakfast rather than take more constructive steps to addressing our issues. Anyway, I believe I’m still on safe ground in recommending Omega 3 rich oily fish. Omega-3 raises serotonin levels in the brain, the chemical messenger that regulates mood and reduces irritability. Eating fish to regulate your mood doesn’t lead to an instant high, but if you incorporate it into your diet it should be beneficial in the long term. Herring and mackerel have the highest Omega 3 content and now is the time of year when the West Cork boats are landing herring. Herring and mackerel are connected, in that they are caught in the same way by the same boats and can only be landed at certain ports – in West Cork these are Baltimore and Castletownbere.

This week I headed down to Union Hall to talk to Sean Nolan, a fish smoker who buys in locally landed mackerel and herring. Before meeting Sean I had a chat with his mackerel and herring supplier, Donie Sheehy of Ilen Seafoods in Baltimore, to get an overview of the herring and mackerel fisheries. “There are plenty of mackerel out there and most of the boats fill their quotas at the start of the year, the season is too short.  Mackerel migrate once a year from the north of Scotland down along the west coast of Ireland to breed – by March they are off Cork and Kerry. Some of the boats hold off on 10% of their quota at the end of March so that they can land mackerel in November and December when they are caught as a bye-catch when fishing for horse mackerel. The mackerel we sell to Sean are the same species that you can catch off the pier, but much bigger. Sean needs fish of around half a kilo with a high fat content. If he was to smoke the fish they catch off the rocks they’d look like sprats in the bag after smoking.”

Union Hall Smoked Fish was established by Sean’s parents, John and Elmar, in the late 1980s and Sean has taken over in the last few years having previously worked as a fisherman. “I gave twenty years fishing out of Union Hall, mostly we fished for prawns but we also went after herrings. When I was 17 I was making £1000 a week into the hand for the first four weeks of June. And at that time, we were in every night, there was no staying out. It has changed so much now, I’d never go back to it, especially when you hear about the hassle they’re getting from the department. This is still a fishing village, most people are connected to it, but I can’t see there being much onshore employment from fishing anymore because the fish won’t be there and neither will the work. The big boats now are staying out for up to 3 weeks and doing all the processing on board.”

The mackerel and herring are hand filleted at Ilen Seafoods and Sean soaks them in brine (salt and water) to prepare them for smoking. They are then hot smoked in oak shavings for 4 or 5 hours before they are chilled back down and vacuum packed. Hot smoking cooks the fish, unlike cold smoking, which simply infuses the smoke flavour and creates an anti-bacterial protective smoked coating. Union Hall Smoked Fish also produce fine cold smoked salmon, barbequed salmon and in the winter, smoked whitefish. Sean and his full time staff of 6 also make spreadable fish pates from mackerel and salmon. Whilst most of the fish is from conventional fish farms, organic is starting to feature more prominently. “Although a lot of the salmon we buy in is organic we don’t sell it as such yet. I think that all of the Irish salmon farms will be organic within a few years.”

Like any conversation these days we ended up talking about the recession. “It really hasn’t hit our sales. But I have noticed suppliers getting nervous about credit control. We’re buying mayonnaise from the same supplier for over ten years and always had 4 weeks to pay, with never a problem. Last week they rang looking for a cheque after 2 weeks! They must be worrying about smaller businesses. From our own point of view we really have to keep an eye on restaurants that are only open for one summer – we never seem to get paid for the busiest month – August. You be amazed at the neck of some people, coming back the next summer with a new restaurant having not paid us the year before. They’ll tell you things like ‘Oh! I was only the front man for that place, it wasn’t mine’ and they expect you to supply them again!”

As with many of the other local food producers I’ve spoken to, Sean emphasizes the importance of having good relationships with shops. The company do all their own deliveries rather than go through central distribution and Sean’s mother, Elmar, although semi-retired still regularly takes the van out for a run. “The person working in the store is very important to us and we put a lot of work into that. I’ve pulled out of stores where our product has been shoved to the back 20 minutes after I’ve put it onto the shelf. I can’t stand that, everyone wants their product to be visible but I’d never cover another man’s fish!”

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So it’s official, after 2 quarters of negative growth we’re in a recession. A lot of the businesses we are dealing with at West Cork LEADER Co-op are getting very worried. Yet amidst the anxiety there is a noticeable sense of relief too, a sense of getting back to reality and a sense that perhaps we have at last a chance to catch breath, to look at a new direction, a direction that’s about more than the housing market, overseas property shows, releasing equity and tax-lead foreign investment. With the US economy in severe trouble we can expect that the IDA have perhaps run out of road for a while and we’re largely going to have to get out of this one ourselves. So where do we look for new growth in our economy and a sustainable future? I’m convinced that the values we place in food and food production as expressed in our food culture can be strong contributors to that future.

Earlier in September, when the recession was still unofficial but clearly emerging, I had a chance to listen to Prof Kieran Byrne, the director of Waterford IT, address this topic of “Where to now?” He was speaking at the Slowfood Terra Madre conference and delivered a message of his Institute’s firm belief in a positive future for Irish food, food as a product but also food as part of the hospitality sector, and food as part of our culture. He talked about a return to what we are good at, valuing our own culture and from that deriving a wellspring of confidence. He spoke of the role of education in culturing young people, not just teaching them the raw facts or skills but instilling “confidence in our rising generations in our culture, our way of living”. This he argued offers the secure grounding for a new direction. “Perhaps now,” he said, “is the time when we have to transition and it is a challenge to transition. To transition from that era which marked the recent past, that era of the indigent. Perhaps we can turn now from that period in the lifecycle of the country, turn from it to something that is more gradual, more considered, that’s more reflective and surely that’s more healthy.”

Later this month, we will be launching the new LEADER programme for the region, which runs to 2013. In drafting a plan for the next 5 years we’ve had to take a hard look at the region and try to make sense of what works in West Cork and where the region is going. As part of the process we’ve undertaken an extensive review of the Fuchsia Brand, which we’ve published in the form of an e-book called Perspectives on the West Cork Regional Brand (you can have a look by visiting www.fuchsiabrands.com). It is now 10 years since the brand was launched and in that time we’ve learned a lot about branding and communication, but more importantly we’ve come to appreciate the value and input to economic development from West Cork’s society, its communities, culture and environment. We’ve joined the dots in thought and practice between a vibrant enterprise culture and a rich cultural and natural environment ,where there is a strong ethos of working together and a sense of responsibility for the world around us. At the time of writing I am in eastern Poland, preparing to present at a seminar where my main task is to expand on the LEADER approach, which is still fairly new here. I have been invited as an Irish representative, because all around Europe Ireland is held up as a real success story for LEADER. There are serious concerns in Poland about how well the LEADER approach fits with the Polish culture, in particular the notion of social capital, working together for a common purpose, has been seriously damaged here by 50 years of communism. Although there is a whole new generation that has not known communism, the generation that is now in power is very deeply affected by that period. Development workers here tell me that rural Poland really lacks an enterprise culture, a culture of doing and innovating. People here do not start businesses in anything other than retail or trading. There is huge interest in how LEADER groups can encourage the establishment of small rural businesses, particularly in food and tourism, which are so connected to the natural resources of the area, more embedded, more sustainable. My impression is that the biggest challenges are cultural and in particular that aspect of culture which is about values, and valuing what we know and do. As much as anything the successes that we’ve had in West Cork LEADER Co-Op have come from valuing – Fuchsia is all about communicating values – quality, tradition, pride and passion, but equally the projects we support at community level are about valuing – local heritage and the natural environment.

This thread was also picked up on in the Irish Times last week by Finbarr Bradley, a former economics professor at DCU and NUI Maynooth, when he set out an argument that national identity and traditions, and not solely academic research, provide the conditions for a society of innovation and entrepreneurship. He too has launched a book, it’s called Capitalising on Culture, Competing on Difference and has a lot to say about the role of culture in innovation. He argues that knowledge is constructed from experience not received through education or research. We can innovate only when we understand the meaning and value of information through our life experience. He says that “While knowledge is global, innovation is emphatically local. Countries and regions that successfully combine the benefits of global markets with local relationships based on quality and sense of place are likely to prosper.” I think that West Cork is very much a place where people learn by doing, certainly we would not have learned very much about regional branding without having put it into practice. The LEADER programme supports innovation by assisting people to learn by doing. We are taking this to a new level in the next programme by broadening the learning space to learning from doing with others. We are seeking to promote the emergence of a cluster of innovation among our food, tourism and craft enterprises.

The food culture that I have sought to document in this column over the last year is emphatically a culture of learning by doing. If you take a look at Perspectives you will read that the Fuchsia members between them have a combined turnover each year of over €106M, they are providing direct employment for almost 1000 people and are responsible for the creation of another 250 jobs in supporting sectors. Formal education and research play very little part in the success of the producers I have talked to. A major investment in science and advanced research is not I believe the way forward now for Ireland, as Finbarr Bradley and others have pointed out the return in terms of national prosperity is poor. As we look for responses to the recession, let’s look first to ourselves, what we know, value and can put into practice. Let’s look to learn from each other and how we can turn that learning into innovation and may other third level institutions follow WITs lead in culturing and valuing not merely producing recruits for jobs that may not be there or research that never gets off the shelf.

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