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Diary of a Failte Ireland Food Champion

Photo caption: Fáilte Ireland’s new food champions (front row, l to r) Jacinta Dalton, Gabriel Faherty, Olivia Duff, Ketty Elisabeth, Garrett Fitzgerald, Chris Molloy, Ruth Healy and Brid Torrades. (Back row, l to r) Kevin Ahern, Seáneen Sullivan, Claire Dalton, Tom Flavin, Judith Boyle, Ivan Varian, Aine Maguire, Pádraic Óg Gallagher, Patrick Ryan, John Relihan, Anthony O’Toole and Niall Sabongi. Photograph: Pat Moore

Empowering the Youth and Cross Collaboration will grow Irish Food and Tourism, says our busy Failte Ireland Food Champion, Anthony O'Toole

There is such an abundance of local food tourism initiatives happening on our small green island that I do not know where to start telling you all about it. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been ‘at’ some exceptional festivals and events in Ireland and abroad.

Others I could not attend and just followed through the eyes of the virtual world on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. It’s the best way to keep up with what’s happening in the food world today, and most of all, by chatting to people involved within these movements.

So let’s start with congratulating fellow Food Champion, Olivia Duff and her mega team behind Boyne Valley Food Series for picking up the top prize of Foodie Destination of the Year 2016 from the Restaurants Association of Ireland. The overall aim of the Foodie Destination award is to celebrate Ireland’s exceptional food offerings and to encourage local food tourism initiatives across the country. Now in its third year, this award has already raised food tourism awareness with previous winners The Burren Food Trail and Dingle still basking from the success.

I know I mentioned the Boyne Valley Food Series in my previous article but I really think what they’re doing is truly magnificent, with two counties (Louth and Meath) working together in harmony to strengthen their food tourism offering.

They recently released a collaborative food strategy for 2016-2021 where an appointment of a Food Development Officer was top priority. Like most local food initiatives, they are organised voluntarily for the love of good food, community spirit and visitor experience, and the stage comes when a full-time representative needs to be appointed to drive initiatives forward. The idea is that this person would sit in the front seat for about three years and then, someone else would take the reins. New blood is always great to move forward.

I really think what the producers, chefs, restaurateurs, and general food enthusiasts have done in the Boyne Valley - along with other rural places like the Burren, Dingle, West Waterford, Sligo and Kilkenny - is truly remarkable for our Irish food movement. Not just for attracting visitors to their area but showcasing what their land can produce and provide to local residents. I would encourage anyone who has an interest in what’s happening with Irish food to contact his or her local food tourism initiatives and get involved. If you haven’t got one, start your own!

One of the tourism initiatives that I’m excited about in Wexford at the moment is a cross-country one between Visit Savannah and Visit Wexford. I was delighted to attend a ‘building links and exploring opportunities’ event in Wexford Opera House in early October and met tourism representatives from Savannah and Wexford. Something I learnt on the day is that Savannah is the most Irish city in the American south where many descendants from the South East have made their mark within the Savannah tourism industry. It was great to see developments on both sides and hear about the collaborative plans going forward.

For four days at the end of September, I spent some time on the Dingle Peninsula at the Blas na hÉireann Irish food awards and Dingle Food Festival. Fellow Food Champion Mark Murphy of Dingle Cookery School is joint chair of the festival. I’ve been to many food festivals across Ireland and abroad, and what makes Dingle Food Festival stand out for me, apart from the amazing coastal setting, is their people and their united spirit.

They all know each other and support each other’s businesses. I remember walking around last year (2015) on the Friday evening with a few friends without having any dinner reservations. The first two restaurants were fully booked out, but they did not hesitate to personally recommend another place to try and get a table. Many restaurants would just say “sorry, we are full”, and let you wander off to find somewhere else to eat! This type of attitude really enhances memories taken from festivals and towns like Dingle.

Sadly a Taste Cork Week event I missed in October was the Urru Pop-up Lunch with Barry’s Tea in the original Barry’s Grocery Shop (established in 1901) on Bridge Street in Cork City. Leonie Lyons Opticians, who now occupy the store, supported the event along with some great Cork producers. Inspired by Cork's produce, history and culture, twelve people got to lunch each hour across one afternoon at four sittings around a single long table.

Food Champion Ruth Healy, the owner of Urru Culinary Store in Bandon, County Cork and organised the event, Ashamed to say I have not visited Urru yet - hoping to visit in the near future. Urru (meaning, urban-rural) is a café and grocery stocking produce from all regions in Ireland along with independent wines, over 1000 cookery books, some kitchenware and Irish craft ware. I hear she is planning to sell Terroir Hampers offering a comparative selection of ingredients from the three Irish food regions; Wild Atlantic Way, Ireland’s Ancient East, and Northern Ireland. Tasting notes included. What a beautiful idea for a Christmas present (hint, hint). Online orders taken at: urru.ie.

Two-time James Beard award winning American filmmakers, Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine with their little son James have been touring Ireland for the last eight weeks documenting an Autumn Irish food story for the fourth season of their sustainable food travel show ‘The Perennial Plate’. I first chatted to Daniel and Mirra at Ballymaloe LitFest back in 2014 over an Ottolenghi pop-up dinner, and since then, I’ve been following their journey eagerly online.

They arrived in Ireland on September 10th participating in the Fáilte Ireland ‘Food Connect’ Conference, and since then, have been exploring our local food cultures as they experience the landscapes of Ireland’s Ancient East, Dublin, and the Wild Atlantic Way.

With the assistance of Fáilte Ireland, fellow Food Champions and local producers around Ireland, they’ve been documenting some exceptional stories. Last month at Food on the Edge , they showed a video of McGrath’s Butcher Shop and farm in Lismore, one of the very few small independent abattoirs still operating on this island. Sad thing to say this but it is a fact. Please support your local butcher and get to know them; businesses like independent butchers, grocers, producers, and fishmongers have been contributing to your communities for centuries.

Our constant search for convenience is destroying rural communities and Irish food culture. We are all to blame. Shopping in one place might save time and money but in the long-term it’s not. We are destroying our health, our welfare, our communities, our stories, and our food heritage. Our ancestors built something to cherish, share and grow, not to let die and be forgotten about.

Daniel and Mirra will be releasing ten films of their food adventures around our small island starting on November 15th. Watch them here: theperennialplate.com.

From September 22nd to the 25th, I was in Turin (Italy) checking out what worldwide food initiatives are taking place. Every two years, Slow Food hosts an international meeting of food communities called Terra Madre Salone del Gusto (pictured above). Terra Madre, meaning Mother Earth is the biggest artisan food fair in the world, where over 7,000 farmers and food producers from over 160 countries come together so that they can meet and share concerns and solutions for a sustainable future and thereby build a global network of food ‘communities’.

Usually the event takes place in the enormous exhibition hall, Palazza del Lavoro, but for the first time, the event took place across the city. I attended Salone del Gusto back in 2012 and, this year, the event felt more empowered. There is something magical about hosting an event like this out in the fresh air and in remarkable places like Valentino Castle (Castello del Valentino), Carignano Theatre (Teatro Carignano), and the beautiful park beside the River Po, Valentino Park (Parco del Valentino).

I travelled on my own accord just to meet producers from around the world and listen to inspirational food activists like Alice Waters, Ron Finley and Edward Mukiibi who spoke about the garden revolution and the future of food education. Other speakers like Marion Nestle and José Bové discussed how large multinationals are controlling and destroying our natural resources.
‘THEY ARE GIANTS BUT WE ARE MILLIONS’ was the key message taken from all the talks and discussions at Terra Madre, highlighting that people like us across the world need to work together to protect our indigenous produce and stories.

Our very own Sally Barnes was one of the Irish Delegates there and is part of the Slow Fish movement. Sally runs Woodcock Smokery in West Cork, where she smokes fish like Wild Salmon, Pollock, Kippers, and Mackerel.

Spending some time with Sally and other members of Slow Fish made me sad to think what we’re doing with our global waters – intensive aquaculture, pollution, selling our shores, overfishing certain groups of fish, and just not eating enough native fish, seafood and sea vegetables.

Our Irish coastline has so much potential, livelihoods to protect and grow, many stories to tell and share with others. Not only is it rich with world-class fish and seafood, but also it’s beautiful to tour. The Wild Atlantic Way is unique and there is no other place like it on the planet. Actually, the whole Irish coastline is magical. I don’t know about you but a walk along our rugged shorelines just clears my head and prepares me for the next life adventure ahead. These experiences need to be cherished, shared and handed down to our next generation. Similar stories came from Food on the Edge, with JP McMahon and Dr. Prannie Rhatigan championing our sea vegetables - seaweed.

While in Turin, I attended a Slow Food Ireland meeting with Irish Delegates. We discussed the many food and tourism initiatives taking place in Ireland and how Slow Food Ireland can collaborate and strengthen links between those initiatives and similar movements around the world.

Two such themes discussed were ‘Slow Food Travel’ and ‘Slow Food Youth Network’. Slow Food recently announced a new project promoting a new way of travelling. Slow Food Travel provides a wealth of knowledge and experience from the global network of food communities to create a new model for tourism.

Paolo Di Croce, Slow Food International Secretary General, says: “Behind every travel destination are stories, traditions, flavours and craftsmanship that people have built and preserved over centuries, creating long-standing local cultures and identities. Gastronomic experiences are an integral part of the tourism experience, yet it is not always possible to truly capture the authenticity of local cultures. Slow Food Travel allows us to discover products, places of production and landscapes in direct contact with producers, chefs and hosts that truly value their cultures."

I don’t know about you, but when I travel, I want to experience the authenticity of local food cultures. I research and plan my travel adventures to experience that, although many tourists do not. In my opinion, eating awful food while on holidays or away for work can just ruin memories of a journey!

We also discussed empowering our youth food movement in Ireland. What I love about Slow Food is that they consider anyone under thirty-five to be in the youth category! So, if you fit in that group or know anyone who does, join us. Check out the global movement here and follow the Irish journey here.

Currently, there are many different Slow Food events taking place across the country within local groups. I’m a committee member of Slow Food Dublin, whom I’ve supported for many years while living in Dublin.

We recently hosted an ‘Autumn Foraging Walk and Preserving Demonstration’ out in County Meath with Peter and Susan Whelan of Whole Hogg’s where Theresa Storey of The Green Apron joined us as well. Another event hosted by Food Champion Áine Maguire of The Idle Wall in Westport, County Mayo was a ‘Sea to Supper and Cookery Demonstration’ as part of Slow Food Mayo. Please check out the Slow Food Ireland website, become a member of your local convivia and participate in upcoming events. 

Lastly, I cannot end this article without commending JP, Drigin, Edel, Olivia, Ruth, Jacinta, Cormac, and all the people behind Food on the Edge. What a worldwide culinary event. I was delighted to see Food Champion Jacinta Dalton enter the inaugural FOTE Wall of Fame alongside a culinary hero of mine, Pierre Koffmann. Throughout my studies at DIT Cathal Brugha Street, Pierre was one of culinary figures I looked to for guidance and inspiration while cooking and researching my way through six years of academia.

Again, until my next update, please join the #FoodChamps and keep shouting about our rich soils, clear seas, and even more importantly, our skilled farmers, growers, fishermen and women, butchers, producers, chefs, servers and all those people involved in the food movement around Ireland. We can and we will put our little green land on the world map for food and tourism.

For more information about the Food Champions, please click here.

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Anthony O’Toole

Anthony O’Toole is a freelance chef, consultant and fervernt food advocate. From a young age he was to be found helping his mother and grandmother in the kitchen; his mother was a great baker and made occasion cakes. His granny, to whom he was ‘like an adopted son’, grew tired of his experimentation in the kitchen and pushed him towards a kitchen job. He embarked on his cookery career at 13, learning quickly to take on the responsibilities of running a kitchen. Anthony went on to study a degree in Culinary Arts and then a Masters in Culinary Innovation and New Product Development in 2012 at Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). He has also completed an Advanced WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) certificate in Wine and Spirits. After his degree, Anthony spent four and a half years as Food Business Developer with catering company KSG. Since then Anthony has worked as freelance chef and consultant, as well as a cookery tutor, caterer and event organiser. ‘Education’ and ‘collaboration’ are the tool by which Anthony believes we can grow our food culture to the next level and attract the international recognition our little green island deserves, and these are two things that he is deeply committed to, along with working to link everyone and everything to create a strong local food community. @CulinarianPress

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