Friday, March 21, 2014

"Natural", "Artisan"? - nonsense? Get involved in the discussion on use of food marketing terms in Ireland

This is something that constantly amazes me; I pick up a pack of Danish sausages in the supermarket (often distributed by big Irish brands) who neither state the country of origin or make ridiculous claims of it being a cutsey farm product rather than mass-produced factory food using the lowest acceptable standards, sold at the lowest possible prices. 

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland have announced a public consultation on the use of food marketing terms in Ireland. Words like "natural" "traditional" and "farmhouse" are used liberally on food labels but carry no meaning or no protection in the case where food is actually produced by hand in small quantities. Consumers are confused and many believe that like "organic" these terms carry a defined meaning.
As this has been an issue for many years Food and Drink Industry Ireland, (IBEC), the Artisan Forum and Consumers Association of Ireland have now developed the draft code of practice aimed at protecting the integrity of certain marketing terms on food and the interests of consumer and the small food industry.
This Code of Practice outlines the general legal requirements but in addition will provide an agreed set of rules for the food industry concerning the use of the following marketing terms to describe foods placed on the Irish market:

• Artisan/Artisanal
• Farmhouse
• Traditional
• Natural
I know that many people in both the food and consumer sector are concerned with this so now is the chance to have your say.
The consultation will run for 8 weeks and the closing date for responses is 14 May 2014. All feedback and comments will be considered in advance of the FSAI publishing a final industry Code of Practice later in the year. To let your opinion be known please check out the following link:

Pls share and let people know in the small food sector #Irishfood

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Lovely Lamb

In my food column this month for The Gloss magazine I write about Spring lamb and a time for learning.

New born lambs are appearing in the fields around our house. This happens just as my friends and neighbours bear the weary eyes of long nights in sheds with bawling ewes, or bottle feeding the unwanted or third in a triplet set in the kitchen.

The valley I live in is mountainy marginal land and has very few cattle anymore. Most of the sheep farms have consolidated into a remaining ten to twenty farmers with their own home farm and sheds, who rent extra land from families that have left farming. Close to us the Hogans, McKees and Keegan's of @waterfallfarm shop are in the thick of the lambing season. In a fickle marketplace it's a business with price rises and crashes like everything else. Sheep are also notoriously tricky to rear and I've witnessed myself the old adage - the first indication of illness in a sheep is mortality. Yet the farmers still stay up all night, both men and women, to lamb ewes, to get the newborn started on feeding and nurse the ones not thriving.

Lambing season here is something both myself and my children delight in. The squeals of delight in response to newly born lambs bucking and skipping on their first day out on grass say it all. It's a pity that as a foodstuff in Ireland we are eating less lamb and it's now purchased by mainly older consumers. I love lamb. I buy half a lamb from the farm across the lane every year and for me it tastes like home.


This Edible Life  March 2014

One of my Spring pleasures - holding a new born lamb is unfortunately contraindicated to eating one. Not only are they too cute with their little velvet muzzles, early lamb can have a jelly-like texture and is much better killed at about five months old. While the garden eases into Spring I´m still cooking plenty of dark cabbage and have successfully converted all cabbage sceptics with my fabulous Gnocci with Savoy cabbage and Wicklow Blue or fried off with chorizo and garlic for an easy soup with vegetable stock and cream.

Around Dublin I´ve fallen in love with The Green Bench cafe on Montague Street (as if those pesky Dublin 8-ers aren´t served with enough great spots for a quick lunch). The serve lovingly-made take out for at your desk or if you´re like me - on the run from one venue to the next.  Super moreish is their wrap of citrus marinated feta with avocado, olive tapenade and hummus.

Not far away on Stephen´s Street, P. macs is a more comfy version of the cocktail zinc bars populating the South William street area. There´s lampshades straight from your grandmothers, patchwork armchairs and if you don´t feel like wearing towering heels it’s cosy for a quiet drink in the snug and some decent pizza. Another dress-down hide out for early evening is open downstairs on Dawson street. FAATBAAT serves a multitrip of cuisines – everything from Japanese ramen dishes to Malaysian “Drunken Prawns”. Their Go Go Bar is what this place is all about though with great tunes and decent cocktails.
Always a hot social ticket, the best food producers in the country compete on the 12th March for a gong from my own parish – the Irish Food Writers Guild. The awards will be hosted by Derry and Sally-Ann Clarke in the wonderful L´Ecrivain. We have some stunning food and drink entries, all Irish artisan-produced but I am sworn to secrecy. Follow the winners and recommendations from the day at twitter @foodguild.

No better time than Spring to sharpen cookery skills. To mark her new book The Extra Virgin Cookbook, Susan Jane White is hosting an evening of cooking and tasting at Fallon and Byrne on the 12th. Countrywide, it´s great to see many people I admire in food offering their expertise. JP McMahon, Michelin-starred chef and owner of Aniar in Galway has day workshops this month in “Nose to Tail Eating” and “The Whole Hen”. Down in Thomastown the inspiring Mag Kirwan is holding classes in smoking at her Goatsbridge Trout Farm.

Close to the beautiful beach at Termonfeckin in County Louth, the Tasty Tart Tara Walker has classes in cooking fresh fish landed at nearby Clogherhead and Foods of the Middle East, timely with the huge popularity of Ottolenghi. If you have a few bob ditch Ottolenghi and go to Beirut, one of my favorite cities for food - figs, hummus fatteh, baba ghanoui… Or closer to home check out Silvena Rowe´s cooking in at Quince in London´s Mayfair Hotel and her gorgeous book Purple Citrus and Sweet Perfume: Cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean

Always dreamed of being a food entrepreneur?

So you want to start a food business? Last year the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recorded an increase of 5% in the number of food businesses established in Ireland in the past five years. So despite recession there is plenty of optimism among food entrepreneurs. Maybe it's because of the huge success of the ag and food sector in Ireland, our active and growing food economy of both small producers and multinationals now exporting as far as Shanghai and Dubai.

Of course lots of us want to be a part of that, but do we have a clue what we're doing? I cover new food stories every week either as part of my radio or print work. Most of the people I meet are already established along the often painful food business journey. They range from dairy farms making ice cream to small cafes in rural towns.

But the failure rate in food businesses is notorius. And certainly people often enter the food world not fully aware of the basic facts of setting up and registering a food business and food premises, whether it be a new restaurant or your own kitchen. I went along to the FSAI's free seminar to advise new food entrepreneurs on what's ahead of them. And there's certainly plenty of interest.

With 46,000 food businesses already set up in Ireland, the FSAI received 1,278 business start-up queries received in the last 12 months. The group says the majority of these enquiries came from people looking to set up a food business from home.

The half-day seminar brought together an inquisitive audience to meet experts from the business of food. Talks covered everything from registering a new food business, food product development, food safety training requirements, setting up a food safety management system, labelling regulations, traceability, the food recall process, inspections and the information resources available from the FSAI.

It was both terrifying and satisfying, but every single person there learned a great deal and came out with their head spinning. It was fascinating how people found the information daunting but nevertheless still planned to go ahead with their food business ambitions, despite some having lets say, only the very roughest of ideas.

I reported on RTE Drivetime later with Mary Wilson and talked - with the high attrition rate, is it nuts to want to set up a food business? Here's the link -!rii=9%3A20516840%3A83%3A30%2D01%2D2014%3A

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Ah just throw it in the bin

Foodwaste! God how it bugs us all but yet we keep throwing out food.
We don´t mean to waste money. We don´t mean to ignore food in the fridge. We don´t mean to be wasteful, We don´t mean to overshop but we do.

To varying extents, all of us waste food. I am a complete scrooge but at some stage during the week I will still throw something into the bin that should not be there. Most of the time I think I´m great on the food waste issue but actually I´m not. I´m pretty medium rate. I make the "it goes to the dogs" excuse. We have two dogs which are very good at eating anything that falls on the floor, let alone scraps from plates. Unfortunately remembering to cut the Labrador´s food after half a bowl of scraps doesn´t always occur. So we´ve one fat dog and one anorexic terrier which is pretty much the way terriers are.

Some vegetables can go to my two rescue horses but as they are in work and as one is pretty fussy carrots are about the height of it. One thing I am very good at is shopping strategically and planning meals. I just make too much each time. Yes I freeze and make large batches to have later but often serve portions which are too large, particularly to my two children. Watching them say they are full when their plates are still laden with food, it´s tempting to make them suffer it out and eat the lot. But as we now know, this method employed by our parents is a dietary no no. (oh how I suffered at the table with gerbil cheeks full of spinach) so it´s back to the dog´s bowl it goes or into the bin.

Sometimes I get it really wrong - an untouched iceberg lettuce weeping in its wrapping at the back of the fridge and even today - some pork belly I bought which I was really looking forward to roasting tonight with Roosters and beets is somehow three days past the date. How did that happen? Why didn´t I put it in the freezer?

So we know it´s a problem but why do we keep doing it? Perhaps we don´t know Exactly how much it costs. Well now em, we do.

For the past six months by other half, journalist and co-author of the original  Basketcase Philip Boucher-Hayes has been filming a documentary for RTE on food waste in Ireland and examining strategies to curb it. When you tot up the figures it seems that in this country that of every three bags of groceries we bring into the house, one goes in the bin. Yep, throw it in, just like that. The other shocking figure is that according to the EPA - half a billion euros, yes, half a billion, could be saved if we got control of the problem.

As it´s such a large issue spanning everything from hospital food to high end restaurants one of the challenges in making the series was how to reach into our - the viewer´s own shopping and eating behaviour. So the series picked one town - Killorglin in County Kerry to focus on and take case studies of families in terms of what is coming into their house and what is going into the bin.

Here´s the promo for the documentary.

It´s interesting frankly to see your own behaviour reflected back at you. Everyone has issues with food waste and it goes on in every kitchen. In a country where one in ten people suffer from food poverty its an uncomfortable situation. Philip´s documentary - Waste Watchers is on RTE 1 television is on this 
Sunday at 6.30. 

Irish food´s Riverdance moment

After a Summer and Autumn of hard work and a lot of travel I´ve been so busy with my journalism that I´ve realised I need to post some new stuff here and let those outside Irish media to see what´s going on in Irish food and farming. Happily the big story of this year - our horsemeat scandal ended up being something postive for our food sector. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland who was first to spot the problem earned a lot of credit for lifting the lid on the murky world of "meat agents" and a European trade involving many countries and players and in some cases criminal activity in the food chain.

The truth is that aside from a very small number of rogue players, Irish beef is a fantastic food, extensively farmed, grass fed and fully traceable. In fact since the story broke Ireland has gained new markets for our beef exports and just this week we´ve seen Japan lift a ban on imports of Irish beef since the BSE scandal. Confidence is high in the food we are producing here. In many ways I´m busier than ever in a work sense because the message of our book from 2009 - that food is important, that the economic boom in Ireland ignored the farming and food sector, that the farming sector is one of this country´s selling points is now hugely recognised.

Ireland has more food festivals than ever. More food entrepreneurs than ever. But today I again visited a small food producer - a free range poultry grower whose livelihood is threatened by regulations which he feels are designed for big multinational food businesses and not the small scale individual. This is something I hear a lot on my travels around the country. But despite challenges to small or artisan producers, overall the local food culture here is growing apace. In 2009 when we penned the book there was no such pride in Irish food, and farming was a dirty word. Now there is truly a food to fork culture where many consumers, not just foodies are engaged with trying to buy local food and good quality food. Yes there are still difficulties in the sector and in these times us consumers also have less money to spend. But with less money there is also awareness of Irish food´s huge value to the local economy.

Recently the Dublin Web Summit took place in Ballsbridge Dublin - it´s a giant tech festival if you like, bringing together 10,000 tech start ups, venture capitalists, international brands and 400 international media. For the first time at the web summit not only Irish tech but Irish food was put centre stage. Good Food Ireland - an organisation of food producers and restaurants simply took over the catering. Instead of the usual mass-produced conference food, the delegates dined on venison sausage, Birgitta Curtin´s smoked salmon, relishes and Irish cheeses in a menu designed by Ballymaloe cookery school´s Rory O´Connell.

Watching the delegates taste the food in the beautiful tented setting in Herbert Park Dublin (photographed above) made me realise this really was a special event, a special moment. Finally Irish food was getting the attention it deserved. It was Irish food´s Riverdance moment - an instance where something essential to us and taken for granted is pulled into the limelight and lauded. There is no going back.

Here´s my report from the day on RTE radio´s Drivetime programme

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Looking for gorgeous artisan Irish food this month?

Decent Irish grub alert: 
my This Edible Life column for April from The Gloss magazine, Irish Times. 

As nose-to-tail eating and local sourcing is where it’s at, I’m very pleased to have already chosen my Spring Lamb for slaughter from the farm next door. Once I get past the “heart-meltingly cute” phase, I coolly assess hind ends from my kitchen window, noting which lovely has the meatiest loins for my Easter table.

In London the trend, driven by Fergus Henderson of the nose-to-tail eatery St John, knows no bounds, with two hotels, several restaurant and a bakery now under the St John name. If you’re really on the food pulse, Gram Bangla on Brick Lane is the place to be. Serious nose-to-tailers flock there for liver, kidney and brain which on the menu almost every day. 

St Johns in London
Named after the old Hatch dairy in the centre of Dublin, Hatch and Sons offers local sourcing in a gorgeous new dining spot in the basement kitchen of the St. Stephens Green home of Trevor White’s Little Museum of Dublin. With serious foodie firepower with the involvement of Domini and Peaches Kemp and food writer Hugo Arnold, it’s an inviting room with big wooden tables, enamel jugs straight from my nana’s farmhouse and a relevant, well sourced menu featuring Tom Durcan’s spiced beef on Waterford’s famous blaa bread .

Wine Note: The Hatch and Sons April supper club on the 18th features a talk by Gerard Maguire of 64 Wine in Glasthule on the exploding world of biodynamic wines, with a menu of Daube of beef, parsley and mustard mash, and St Gall cheese from Fermoy

Bluebells Falls Goats Cheese
You’ll also find local sourcing and blaas on the menu at Farm on nearby Leeson Street, (also a branch on Dawson St) which has lovely tables on the pavement for people watching. I loved their gorgeous tart made with Paul Keane’s Bluebell Falls organic Irish goats cheese and butternut squash with red onion marmalade. Or try their Chicks in Town - marinated breast of Irish chicken on a Blaa with beef tomatoes, crisp leaves and homemade garlic mayonnaise.

Firehouse Bakery, Heir Island
Close to my neck of the woods, Emma Stone tells me the new Romany Stone cafe, restaurant and food store at the Delgany Inn will open early this month. I’m very fond of the original Romany Stone restaurant in Kilbride Wicklow, which morphed from an interiors shop into a swanky but comfy stop-off for anyone heading South on the N11. I frequently made excuses to drive there for their Brie and Hazelnut sandwich alone. The new venture also features a patisserie from The Firehouse gang who run the gorgeous bakery and bread school using wood-fired clay ovens on Heir Island in West Cork and will sell fresh foods from The Grocer Foodstore.

At the end of the month I’ll be holding forth at the Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine with a gathering of some of the world’s best food writers and chefs - Joanna Blythman, Thomasina Miers, Stevie Parle, Darina Allen and Alice Waters, owner of the home of modern America food - Chez Panisse in California. Can’t wait for the gossip over dinner and lunch. I just may not come home.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Basketcase on trial - what I really feed my family

This piece appeared in The Irish Independent last week. The editor and I felt it was important in the wake of the horsemeat crisis to talk about the ins and outs of buying meat products and a quick guide from the horses mouth so to speak (bahahaha) on what's healthy and risky in terms of processed food is what consumers want right now. 

I feel that telling people only to buy organic or local food is not where its at, or something that most peoples income allows for. My grocery shop for my family of four is a mixture of the two - buying both local and supermarket products, and cooking really simple dishes that don't break the bank. All of us have been rattled by the horsemeat story and are shopping more carefully. A Which? survey in the UK shows substantial loss of confidence in the safety of processed meats. While 9 out of 10 customers felt supermarket food was very safe to eat before the crisis, the number has now dropped to 7 out of 10.Have a look and let me know if your food strategy has changed in the wake of the horsemeat crisis.    

Irish Independent 9th March 2013

Food Writer Suzanne Campbell - "What I really feed my family"

“Are chicken goujons safe to give the kids?” These are the sort of questions mothers ask me, especially since the horsemeat crisis began in January. As a food writer the story didn’t take me by surprise. I live in the countryside and keep horses; one which was destined for a meat plant before I gave it a home.

Over the past weeks I’ve done countless interviews for Irish and European media on the issue and in a bizarre twist, conducted a live radio piece on horse burgers while exercising my own horse. For me, horsemeat was the perfect storm; the under-regulated horse trade exploding into a Pandora’s Box of horrors for consumers. In 2009 I had spelled out these fears in the book “Basketcase: what’s happening to Irish food?” co-authored with my husband – journalist Philip Boucher-Hayes. Then as now, our warnings about the real cost of cheap food fell on deaf ears.

I’m a journalist and the mother of two young children so I also put a family meal on the table every day. Living in the Wicklow hills may be the foodie dream and I go to a lot of swanky food events but our home menu is far from Masterchef. I don’t spend a lot of money on food, I just keep things simple. When people ask me is something safe to eat, I’m honest. There are some foods I just wouldn’t eat and some surprises that I would. 

Spuds, lamb, summer salad, wild garlic pesto. Fairly uncomplicated
You will never see a ready meal in my kitchen. One spaghetti bolognese I examined recently contains just 16% meat. Food “extenders” and “fillers” often make up the rest, adding volume and taste to sausages, burgers, ready meals and any amount of things in our trolleys. The reason? They reduce food manufacturing costs by 10-30%.

I understand why many consumers buy ready meals. As a working mum I often finish my day with cooking the last thing on my mind. I get round this by always having meals in the freezer. When I cook a chilli beef, ratatouille, curry, Irish stew etc I make twice the amount and freeze a complete meal. This is the key to avoiding take-away on the way home from work or dropping into the supermarket in a flap and coming out with a huge bill and still nothing for dinner.

Goujons - do they have a texture like jelly?
The aforementioned chicken goujons I simply don’t buy or eat. I peeled open a chicken goujon last week that looked like MRM (Mechanically Recovered Meat). MRM has a texture like sponge. It is not allowed at present in European food manufacturing but businesses get around the law by using the “Bader process” to make virtually the same thing – meat recovered from sinews and scraps from carcasses.
The safety issue for me is what’s used to congeal these bits of meat back into a palatable foodstuff. I don’t eat anything “re-constituted” that doesn’t have muscle texture, including turkeys or chickens at carvery counters that look like footballs.
After our RTE documentary “What’s Ireland Eating” aired many people approached myself and Philip with fears about ham. We showed a process where ham joints were boosted to a huge size by hundreds of needles pushing water and nitrates into the flesh. Processed meats, including hams and salamis have been linked to colonic cancer. Imported rashers and ham has higher nitrite levels (up to 20%) than are allowed in Ireland so I always buy ham with Bord Bia quality assured label.

Billy Roll - I don't go near it

Look for ham (even packed slices of ham) cut from the bone where you can see muscle grain. Likewise, jelly-textured cubed chicken found in sandwich bars, and deli counters. Even if it’s covered in a heavy “Cajun” or “Tikka” dressing; most of this chicken comes already processed from Thailand or Brazil and rarely made from fresh Irish chicken.

Ireland imports 2.5 million chicken breasts a week. Many of these have been found by the FSAI to be gas-flushed with CO2 to preserve them, on sale with incorrect use-by dates and could be up to ten days old from as far away as the Ukraine. Butchers are my first choice for buying beef but I don’t buy chicken in some butchers as many imported chicken fillets are sold loose on their counters. At the very least this chicken is stale. I only buy chicken fillets if they are Bord Bia certified (in supermarkets), free-range or if I’m flush, organic. 

This carrot and parsley soup takes about 20 mins to make
In our house meat is not a central part in every meal. I make a soup (curried carrot and parsnip, leek and potato) about twice a week, and yes, I add cream. This could be a dinner in my house. As is also scrambled eggs with tomato and basil, simple spaghetti with Irish mushrooms and pesto, cous cous or quinoa salad with mixed leaves, chopped peppers, cumin, olives and salami.
We’ve one child who is a great eater, the other one is more tricky. I adopt the French approach with children; mealtime choice is - menu A or menu A. Research show some foods like lettuce have to be offered up to 21 times before they are eaten; I put it in lunchtime sandwiches, it gets picked out. Then one day it isn’t picked out and eaten from then on. So don’t give up.
For my food shop I buy meat and vegetables from shops in my local village, spending about thirty euro a week in each. I buy store cupboard foods in one big shop about every three weeks in either Superquinn or Aldi. I know many Irish farmers who produce own brand product for Aldi. I also buy a lot of their imported foods like kidney beans, tinned tomatoes, chick peas, chillies, herbs and spices. Choose what has the least added ingredients and cooks well.
Remember, the more players involved in a single food product, the more likely it is to go wrong. Yearly I buy half a lamb from my neighbour butchered into joints ready to cook or freeze. At the weekend I buy sourdough bread, Kilbeggan porridge oats, Ed Hick’s rashers and eggs from the local farm shop.

My family food spend is under 150 euro a week, not counting wine or craft beer which I splurge on now and again. If I wasn’t partial to French wines and Irish cheese I would probably be the most healthy person on the planet.
So what can we do to eat safely and not pay out a fortune? Keep your food chain short and keep things simple. It takes work but shouldn’t break the bank. I dislike patronising advice to consumers to only buy organic or local. Find a place on the food and cooking scale you are comfortable with. Ditch Masterchef, take the pressure off yourself and cook with freshness to get taste.
Six foods I wouldn’t eat
Chicken goujons
Billy roll or any ham with a clowns face on it
Huge glossy chicken fillets in independent retailers or butchers often sold at discount
Chicken in a restaurant or sandwich bar – unless stated on the menu it is imported
Breaded fish including salmon, I stay away from farmed salmon and buy wild smoked salmon as an occasional treat
Brightly coloured snacks or crisps. McDonnell’s and Keoghs are pretty additive free.

My unexpected favourites
Aldi’s Duneen natural yoghurt; I use it with everything; blitz with fruit for summer smoothies
Burgers – cook your own from mince or buy Aldi’s Aberdeen Angus 100% Irish beef; red meat is the best way to get iron into your system
Beans (without sugar) – unglamorous but a nutritious two minute meal heated on crusty bread
Smoked mackerel or herring costs about three euro a pack. Smashed up with crème fraiche and rocket makes a gorgeous topping on toast. Goatsbridge trout is so good eat it on its own.
Sodastream – invest in one. I drink two litres of sparkling water a day. Saved me a huge amount of cash and recycling of water bottles.