CHARMING CORNUCOPIA Cormac Kelly of Kelly's Butchers of Newport, with the bustling Kelly’s Kitchen in the background.
The rise of local food excellence, and its potential rewards
As a child visiting my grandparents in Murrisk, the food we ate was very different from city fare. It was simple, mainly home grown and home cooked.
Soda bread was baked over the big open fire. Potatoes played a starring role. There was a limited range of vegetables. Milk was supplied by our small herd of cows. Butter was churned ceremonially, with everyone called upon to take a turn. Blackberry jam was a special treat.
Photographs of Murrisk from the early 1900s show the extent of tillage, which continued well into the 1950s. Money was scarce. Trips to Westport for bought-in supplies were infrequent.
The prosperity that came to Ireland over the past half century greatly improved the quality and comfort of our lives. Today we buy in our food and have access to an extraordinary range of products, including exotic vegetables from all parts of the world.
But there is a price to be paid. Much of our food is highly processed and full of additives used to lengthen its shelf life, but may very well shorten ours. The high carbon footprint of importing green beans and avocados from South America and Africa contributes to climate change and environmental catastrophes, without necessarily rewarding the indigenous farmers.
The argument supporting the globalising of our food supply chain and industrialising food production is that it lowers prices. In a society where many families struggle to make ends meet, this is compelling. But it is not the whole story. And in the longer run, it is not a good or sustainable story.
These were my thoughts when I read in this newspaper on October 18 about the mayofood.ie initiative, supported by South West Mayo Development Company and the Local Enterprise Office of Mayo County Council.
Initiatives to promote and support local producers of high-quality food products in Mayo face obvious challenges. Low population density; no large urban centres; scattered small towns and villages. But they also have advantages. A pristine green environment; a strong agricultural tradition; a local entrepreneurial culture; the positive Mayo image. Just like the famous Avis advertisement, ‘We are not the biggest, but we try harder’.
The omens look good for growth and success of the 64 mayofood.ie enterprises. High-quality niche food products address the ever-increasing demand for ‘healthy’ foods. Local production with a low carbon footprint is a big plus. Websites and social media can be used to spread the news. The ‘Mayo’ identity can be further developed into a very positive brand image.
There is a conjunction of many ‘drivers’ that boost demand for quality products. Small producers can avail of online sales through their websites, particularly for products that travel well. Local shops and supermarkets quickly discover the popularity of excellent local products. Food fairs and country markets are burgeoning, and these alert people to local skills and product availability. Changing tastes and the growing market for eco-tourism encourage restaurants to feature quality Mayo products.
Passionate Mayo producers
But even with buoyant demand and support from official agencies, the success of enterprises comes down to individual artisan entrepreneurs. Behind every success story there are always people full of passion, enthusiasm, dedication, knowledge and experience. Such people value official supports, but they are willing to push ahead by themselves if they are excessively delaying or bureaucratic.
It was impossible to talk to all 64 four of the mayofood.ie enterprises, however much I would have loved to do so. I talked to only one, Patrick O’Reilly of Cornrue.
Cornrue is an example of an enterprise that has one main product – sourdough bread – which is currently sold only in the local area. Patrick’s years of research and product development, combined with extensive prior experience in retailing, produced a product that quickly created its own demand. You will see no advertisements for his sourdough bread, which is featured in Café Rua in Castlebar and on the menu at quite a few restaurants and cafes outside Westport. By word of mouth, the news spread. People seek it out and continue to return for more.
At the other end of the mayofood.ie size scale you have Kelly’s, the artisan butchers in Newport. Their quality black puddings and sausages first took off in the local market but are now available more widely across the land and are giving Clonakilty a run for their money. This type of enterprise has the ability to grow and to become a powerful force in local food production.
Business schools teach that enterprises are evaluated by customers from many perspectives, including the premises. Anyone who has ever visited Cornrue or Kelly’s will be charmed by the experience. In Cornrue, an attractive shop and a friendly greeting, with the busy bakery in full view. In Kelly’s, a cornucopia of novel products and a quiet, professional friendliness reinforce excellence. In both, as you leave clutching your purchases, you are already planning to return!
My grandmother’s food was simple, required very hard work and didn’t ruin the planet. Today, we are lucky to have local access to high-quality food of world class, with the hard work done by others and with minimal harm to our planet. Now that’s what I call progress!
John Bradley was a professor at the ESRI and has published on the island economy of Ireland, EU development policy, industrial strategy and economic modelling.