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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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Forgot to mention this before Christmas which could have saved you a lot of gift buying, but we have a fabulous calendar out this year called Beyond Landscape. It features all our own photos from around West Cork in 2008. We’ve been capturing photos for 2 years now as part of an image database. The calendar is available free of charge, just fill in the form on the West Cork LEADER Co-Op website and we’ll post you a copy. Alternatively, click here and download it as a pdf file.

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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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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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Anthony Creswell of Ummera Smoked Products, Timoleague

Anthony Creswell, Ummera Smoked Products, Timoleague

Thanks to Anthony Creswell at Ummera Smoked Products, Timoleague for sending me news of his success at the Great Taste Awards. Anthony is celebrating after winning two prestigious Great Taste Awards. Ummera has been presented with a much-desired Gold Great Taste Award for its Smoked Chicken (2 Stars) and its Organic Gravadlax (1 Star). The Great Taste Awards, which is organised by the Guild of Fine Food and often referred to as the Oscars of the food industry, is this year celebrating its 15th

anniversary. West Cork food producers have always appeared on the honours list and this year is no exception with 5 enterprises in total recognized. Follain Teo in Ballyvourney won awards for their orange marmalade and their strawberry jam. Gubbeen Farmhouse won three awards for Smoked Streaky Bacon, Vension Salami and Ham. Mella’s  Fudge was likewise presented with 3 awards for butter fudge, rum & raisin fudge and walnut fudge. And Gwen’s Chocolates won an award for Dark Chocolate with fresh lavender. Well done and congratulations to one and all! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Slow Food Picnic

The annual Slow Food West Cork picnic date for Lough Hyne this year is set for Sunday 17th August.  Menu and booking details will be available shortly.  This is always a fun event which draws a good crowd and the Convivium want to make it bigger and better this year as the proceeds will go to the Terra Madre Ireland Conference in Waterford Sept 4th – 7th. More on Terra Madre shortly, I’ve been invited to take part in one of the workshops.

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 Review of Alannah Hopkin’s book (The Collins Press, 2008)

 

Just launched last week Alannah Hopkin’s exploration of West Cork is a lovely read that draws the reader into a wonderfully complex view of the area. Originally from London, Alannah returned to her mother’s home in Kinsale. Whilst the pub was Pete McCarthy’s primary access point to discover West Cork in McCarthy’s Bar, Alannah’s is much more about the kitchen table. She spends time with people from all walks of life, visiting their homes, listening and reflecting on her own attraction to West Cork. This book is very much about people and of necessity it’s selective, all the more interesting and personal for that. To enhance the personal perspectives Alannah has meticulously researched and recorded details and dates. She moves effortlessly from people’s stories, through factual and historic analysis to her own learnings on the way meeting farmers and food producers like Norman Steele of Milleens Cheese or Pat McCarthy from Dunmanway who reflects on the changes from the joining the EEC to the recent decoupling and REPS. She meets environmental activists like Ian Wright from the INFF and Thomas Reidmuller at the Hollies, tours the islands, visits craftworkers at Coolmountain, has tea in some of the big houses and talks to Jeremy Irons and others who have taken on restoration projects. She sets aside separate chapters to visit Beara and the Gaeltacht. Everywhere she finds people open and engaging, each with a very different story to tell and a lot of knowledge about living. This is the first full-length book to tackle all aspects of West Cork, it has reminded me of why I like living here, taught me a lot I didn’t know, it has encouraged me to spend more time exploring new parts of West Cork and listening to people.

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