On a mid-afternoon in early December, winter-weak light already fading and a damp cold sucking the life out of bones, you’d imagine any right-thinking folk would have taken to the fireside with a pile of logs, a stack of papers and a nice hot toddy. But, no, through the doors of the West Cork Hotel, in Skibbereen, they flowed in an unwaveringly steady stream until the large reception hall was nicely full, buzzing with life and laughter.
By 4pm, the place was jampacked, collars were opened, coats discarded and some serious inroads being made into wine, cava and highly toothsome nibbles courtesy of chefs Mickael Viljanen of Gregan’s Castle, Co Clare and Rory O’Connell of Ballymaloe – all in all, the equal of any cosy fireplace and a helluva lot more stimulating than the Sunday papers.
For this was the inaugural Belling West Cork Artisan Food Awards (http://www.westcorkartisanawards.com/about-awards.html) and many of the guests on the day constitute the top tier of the Irish food world and amongst them, an elite within the elite, some of the local producers who literally began the modern Irish food movement, in the 1970s and 1980s.
Nowadays, the country is awash with farmer’s markets and ‘artisan’ producers. Helen Finnegan of Knockdrinna Cheese has just won Supreme Champion at the British Cheese Awards and per capita, we produce almost as many quality farmhouse cheeses as France. The burgeoning international reputation of our high-quality produce covers a wide range of foodstuffs, not just cheese, and the awards keep rolling in to reflect that growing status.
Even the hardnosed moneymen of Irish Agribiz recognise this and the recent Harvest 2020 document, a State-sponsored blueprint for massive expansion of already substantial exports in the agriculture and fisheries sector, namechecked the ‘artisan sector’ and alluded to its associated branding potential. It remains to be seen whether this is anything more than lipservice or an association very heavily weighted in favour of Big Business, but that’s a subject for another day.
As each new generation comes along, Cork’s place in the history of this local producer movement dims a little as new histories are made the length and breadth of the country. And a wonderful thing it is too – nobody in this room overly hankers for a return to the days when West Cork was a tiny gourmet oasis in an island reeking of over-boiled cabbage and carvery crematoriums and aspiring cooks regularly ripped out hanks of hair, despairing of ever finding a sufficient supply of quality produce even as it was shipped out under our very noses to more discerning continental consumers.
These days, with farmers’ markets and deli-style retail outlets all over the island, training courses tailor-made for the quality food sector and a consumer populace whose palates have been guided to a hitherto unimaginable level of sophistication and discernment, setting yourself up as an ‘artisan producer’ is infinitely more straightforward, even as we negotiate this fiscal apocalypse.
But there is danger in discarding history altogether; in some quarters, in recent weeks, I was surprised to find enthusiasm for these Awards not always reflected on a national level. There were even a few sniffy remarks, words such as ‘parochialism’, ‘elitism’ bandied around a little too casually.
An elite is an exceptional group of people who wield considerable power through their influence. In recent times, ‘the elite’ has become shorthand for a nebulous class of Haves whom the Havenots blame (usually, correctly) for much of their woes. But that is a financial and political elite; today, those being honoured constitute a different type of elite.
John McKenna writes the following in the Awards programme: “Ireland’s contemporary food culture, with all its riches and all its critical acclaim over the last two decades, would be unthinkable without the intellectual and cultural impulse which the West Cork artisans gifted to the movement.
“It was in West Cork that the artisan movement was created, and it was in West Cork that the critical and culinary template for modern food was also forged.”
In other words, if that “elite within an elite” in this room had never existed, that magnificent food movment we have today most probably wouldn’t exist either and we certainly wouldn’t be nibbling on quails’ eggs rolled in cummin with a watercress dip, hard mozzarella cheese made from the milk of Irish water buffalo or beetroot meringues with smoked eel cream.
When the awards themselves were announced, from amongst some very worthy nominees (most especially in the Originals category), came two winners with whom, I suspect, nobody in the room, not even the other nominees, would quibble.
Brown Envelope Seeds, Madeleine McKeever and her partners Ruth Bullough and Mike Sweeney, have done a magnificent job, saving seeds and gradually expanding their catalogue (an exquisite pleasure in itself to anyone with any interest at all in growing) and Madeleine’s philosophy says it all: ‘to enable people to grow their own food.’
However, I suspect if the Originals award had gone to anyone other than Veronica and Norman Steele of Milleens Cheese, the recipient would have passed it back over to the Steeles. Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery, Giana and Tom Ferguson of Gubeen Cheese and, to a slightly lesser extent, Alan and Valerie Kingston of Glenilen Farm, are all Irish food legends but as John McKenna puts it in his so eloquent essays for the Awards programme: “Milleens Cheese is the Big Bang of Irish Artisan foods.”
In my late teens, I can recall hovering around the Steeles’ yard, with a friend from Eyeries, not on any cheesey pilgrimage but, if memory serves, to visit one of the junior Steeles. Little did my unfathomably skinny sub-ten stone self realise that their cheese was about to feature in the Observer Food Magazine and kickstart an Irish gourmet revolution. Many Milleens-filled pounds and years later, I can still recall the physical and emotional astonishment this Calvita Kid felt at that first taste of ‘real’ cheese. When the British Ambassador Julian King opened that envelope, I just ‘knew’ the result in my bones and felt a real joy when it was confirmed.
The ceremony itself was MC-ed by Ella McSweeney, (the best Minister for Agriculture we could ever hope to have!) and Darina Allen and John McKenna took it in turns to deliver ecomiums to the nominees. Few were surprised that ‘local boy’ David ‘Lord’ Puttnam (sorry, 800 years, etc etc) delivered such an inspirational speech, siting the awards in the context of a much larger, international picture that inevitably led to his great passion, education.
Professor Colin Sage of UCC was more succinct but I liked the reference to the ‘hyperhygienists’ amongst the regulatory enforcers and will revisit that at some later stage. But the big surprise was the ‘sponsor’s speech’ – invariably at these things, depending on the volume of vino and quality of nosebag, the ‘sponsor’s speech’ is received with benign tolerance at best. Yer money’s welcome sort of thing but let’s leave it at that.
Sean O’Driscoll is a big cheese (shameless, I am) in the world of international business but appeared nervous at first — at least we weren’t suffering some polished Harvard MBA playing the Medici during downtime.
More than a few in the room were pleasantly surprised to hear he was a ‘local boy’, from Drimoleague, where his father was the creamery manager and he struck a nice note, recalling his father praising Alan Kingston’s father as the supplier of the best milk of all the dairy farmers in the locality: ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’ said O’Driscoll.
But it was when he moved on to the subject of food regulations that he truly found his footing. Passion and ire to the fore, he damned utterly the hidebound regulatory culture in the state departments charged with overseeing the food industry, calling for a government audit of all regulations.
The large audience went from surprise to guttural approval in seconds and were soon cheering and roundly applauding his every sentiment. O’Driscoll laid down the gauntlet, saying this was a fight that needed to be fought and he planned to be right in the thick of it. A good man to have on your side, I’d imagine.
As a nation, we place unusually high value on our sense of place and roots. To forget West Cork or attempt to relegate its place in the grand scheme of (edible) things would be akin to Christians forgetting Christ was born in a stable in Bethlehem. (And anyone accusing me of hyperbole, didn’t taste Sally Barnes’ smoked salmon served with red onion and horseradish cream on a single handmade crisp!)
It’s ok, you don’t need to read any further – you’ve been very patient up to now. But here’s a digestif if you’ve still got the room.
Also awarded was The Belling Bursary Award, worth €5,000 to the winning student, allowing them to study at UCC”s School of Speciality Food Production.
The judging panel consisted of Darina Allen of the Ballymaloe Cookery School; Rose O’Driscoll of Belling Ireland; Ella McSweeney of RTE; John Field of Field’s Supervalu; Carmel Somers of Good Things Café; and John McKenna of the Bridgestone Guides
The Belling Awards are sponsored by Belling Ireland, part of the Glen Dimplex Group.
To the disappointment of almost everyone in the room, I didn’t win the humungous Belling Range Cooker that was up for raffle. This disappointment turned to outright despair when those assembled realised I have been making do with two and a half working rings on a 25-year-old thirdhand cooker and then, slowly, that despair transformed into a quietly stunned awe. At least that’s how I read it.
Many thanks to Carmel and Ella for playing most excellently the role of truly enjoyable travelling companions, a role I was supposed to have assumed as the ne’er-do-well bumming lifts.