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Diary of a Failte Ireland Food Champion

Full n Plenty

This month, Failte Ireland Food Champion Anthony O'Toole shares the #FoodChamps Wish-list for 2017

It’s February already. We’re six weeks into 2017 and already we’ve seen some promising developments around Ireland in terms of food and tourism with the announcement of a new distillery in Donegal and reports of fantastic growth within many Irish food supporting businesses in the year gone by. As Irish tourism enjoyed its ‘best year ever’ in 2016, it’s reported that 2017 will out perform 2016, even though we are still unsure how the looming ‘Brexit’ will effect short haul destination stays in Ireland.

So, the question is, are we ready for another increase? Are our tourists really getting to immerse themselves in the experiences we are selling through various media channels around the world? And simply, are we portraying the right image about our food culture and hospitality? Food is a fundamental part of any experience whether you’re travelling to a destination for work or recreation.

Anyone visiting our island should have easy access to points of reference about our food culture and get to taste our championing ingredients. From our fish caught in the Atlantic and Irish sea, and the many fresh water rivers that flow through our valleys, to the shellfish and sea vegetables that are harvested along our rugged coastline, the animals that graze our lush pastures, along with the fragrant fruits, herbs and vegetables that grow in our fertile soils, not to mention the edibles from our vast wild hedgerows and the many magnificent craft drinks produced in all four provinces of Ireland.

Actually, come to think of it, I barely have easy access to the above in North Wexford or on my working commute around Ireland, so how do we know if tourists are getting to buy and taste it?

With the recent appointment of Paul Kelly as Fáilte Ireland’s new Chief Executive we are all hoping Paul will be on our side and really support the Food Tourism team, us, the Food Champions and other Food Ambassadors around Ireland, in building a more sustainable Irish food destination.

I’m especially eager to see him make the strategic decision to seriously invest in the work achieved so far as he is a native of Wexford like me! Just one of our wishes for 2017, but don’t you worry, it will not stop our fight if he doesn’t. It might just fuel us even more to keep going.

The Food Champions are continuing to create links within their regions and map out events for 2017-19 using the inspiration from our Denmark benchmarking trip (read about the trip here), and the information shared at recent Fáilte Ireland workshops as well as the numerous support emails, texts and phone calls that are happening at least weekly between us all. Hopefully I will get to share some new developments with you soon.

Can I just remind everyone here that what we, all twenty-two of us, are working on is voluntary as we really see the benefit in creating a sustainable food island for us, our families and friends, but more importantly for the next generation. We need to forget about developing food tourism for a minute and focus on what we can develop for people who live on this island.

Yes, in turn this will benefit our tourism prospects. At the moment, there is so much focus on food exports and international visitors, we are forgetting about us, the people who need to live and eat in Ireland.

Lately, we’ve been seriously thinking about the above, assessing current food tourism activities in place and discussing in detail what we as Food Champions could do as a collective that would really make an impact on our food culture. Even though we all have strong opinions on what we need to do next to strengthen our food nation, lots of common ambitions have arisen from them.

So here are a few actions we hope 2017 will bring in order for us all to achieve a more viable food destination. Some points are directed towards our policy makers while others are for food businesses and you, the citizens and custodians of Ireland to consider.

As I’ve highlighted in my previous articles here, collaboration between each stakeholder is vital in generating a food island that we’re all proud of calling our home, before we can sincerely champion our food experiences within the international tourism arena. It’s just not up to one person or group of people. Power in numbers as they say, so please get behind the movement and support anyway you can.

National Parks and Heritage Sites: Have you visited any national parks or attractions lately, especially with visiting family and friends from overseas? Did you eat in the adjoining café or restaurant? Was there any local produce on display from that area? If the answer is no, why not?

Generally most of our these sites do not take pride in what they’re offering. It’s basically a moneymaking machine for the caterer who has the contract and for the corporation itself. They do not see the benefit in what supplying real Irish food can do to a business.

Yes, there are exceptions, but very rare and our media outlets should champion these exceptional premises more. Many of our national attractions have huge volumes of tourists going through on a yearly basis and the food experience is frankly very poor. Serving frozen deep-fried and overcooked so-called ‘food’ which is just expensive. Is this the image we’re selling overseas? I think not.

All visitors need and want to eat at these attractions whether it’s something small like a board of local cheeses, bread and chutneys, or a refreshing lunch or dinner. The vast majority of people want to taste the real flavours of Ireland, some just want to eat food for fuel and that’s fine too.

Many might even want to ‘bottle’ these flavours too and bring home to share with family and friends. It’s what I love to do when visiting any national attraction, whether it is down the road from my home or in another country around the world.

Now, when I say local, I mean ingredients produced within the closest radius possible to that site. No point in championing a jam, for instance, which is produced on the other side of Ireland. All we’re asking is that these attractions serve a simple menu that is seasonal and reflects our food culture. So, the next time you’re visiting any national attraction, ask them why they are not serving local produce? Only demand will create change.

Food Policy Makers: All our public stakeholders need to come together and work with each other. Central thinking is required if we want to genuinely change our food culture. At the moment, we just have too many messages, food brands and programmes in circulation. It’s confusing for people who work and live within the food movement, let alone our general population and overseas visitors.

Many of the food educational programmes designed by public bodies are relying on volunteers to actually carry out the initiative, as we just don’t have the budget to implement. Here is an idea, pool all these resources together and create something, which will actually make a positive impact.

Consult with the people who actually own food businesses and work in the space. So, we’re calling on our Ministers to act and act fast. Policies and legislation needs to be implemented in order to protect and grow our food heritage.

Food Education: It’s time we really started to focus on passing down culinary skills that our parents and grandparents taught us. There is only so much a television programme or cookbook can teach us. Skills linked to our culture like butter making, fishing, husbandry, baking, foraging and simply cooking something nourishing and sharing it with family and friends over the table are disappearing.

Along with that, people are starting to forget our culinary identity. What actually is it? We need to learn from our European counterparts and be proud of our culinary legacy. FOOD should be a core subject on the primary and secondary school curriculum. After all, all other core subjects are linked to food – History, Geography, Mathematics, English, Science, even Religion and Physical Education. Without food, no other subject would exist.

I have to recognise some fantastic programmes here in certain schools across Ireland like GIY  and East Cork Slow Food Educational Project and other local edible and cookery programmes run by parents, teachers and chefs around the country – although they are privately or voluntarily run.

But as parents and guardians we’re asking you to spend time with your kids and teach them some culinary skills. Take action and you might learn something new as well. Grow some herbs, fruits and vegetables in your back garden or windowsill, get a few hens, and/or bring your kids to a local farm, butcher or independent grocery store.

Ask questions, they are more than willing to share their enthusiasm for good food with you. A trip to the supermarket or the local chipper does not count. Also, start lobbying your school and ask why they are not teaching food as a subject. Pressure has to come from all angles.

Shop LOCAL and Eat the Seasons: I cannot stress this enough, we all need to support our neighbouring artisan trade. Yes, at the outset it’s seems more costly to shop local but if you actually spend a little time sourcing produce it all balances out.Even if you think about the amount of packaging and food you throw away there’s some savings straight away.

The artisan trade is formed on the love for real and honest food, not profits. Rarely will you see chemicals used in the production of artisan food; fewer air miles are involved and they’re more nutritionally compact compared to extensively produced crops and animals. Don’t get me wrong, supermarkets have their place and provide essentials we need but at the moment they’re dominating the market, setting low prices for fresh food with their below-cost selling tactics, which are not sustainable and are damaging our economy.

This in turn is affecting our rural communities and our green environment. Spending money on local and seasonal produce with small businesses in turn directly invests in your community. Small business owners pay high taxes that go back into the community and they personally spend money in the area too.

So make the decision to invest in food, not the multinationals pension fund and pharmaceutical industry. NO EXCUSES make it work. Ask questions. Please read and understand labels. Just a note, those tricolor logos indicating Irish produce doesn’t really mean it is an Irish product, the food could be just processed or packaged here. If you’re unsure, Google is a great tool to tell you what those longwinded ingredients and numbers really mean.

Craft Drinks Bill: We’re hoping 2017 will see The Intoxicating Liquor (Breweries and Distilleries) Bill 2016 signed into law. At present, our flourishing craft drinks industry cannot sell their beers, ciders and spirits to tourists and the visiting public on site. Can you imagine visiting a local cheese maker and not being able to purchase the cheese? Or visiting a vineyard in France and being told you’re not allowed to buy the wine you tasted? It’s frustrating.

Labour spokesperson on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Alan Kelly TD, launched the Bill last November supported by many craft drink makers, like my fellow Food Champion Claire Dalton of Dungarvan Brewing Company.

Its' aim is to boost craft-beer tourism in Ireland by removing a major regulatory barrier for breweries, microbreweries, cider makers and distilleries. Read more about it here and follow the conversation on Twitter #craftdrinksbill.

Stop Promoting Exports: We’re so focused on building our food exports but what about us? For example, I can eat better Irish seafood in Spain than I can get in North Wexford. It’s a crime. It is easier for me to purchase fish from Norway or chicken and pork from Denmark than it is for me to purchase Irish seafood, chicken and pork. We should be keeping the best for us.

We need to focus on improving the supply of Irish chicken and pork to be at least free range, if not organically reared. Irish pigs and chickens reared in houses is not the standard we should be promoting as Irish food.

Our seafood industry is falling apart. There are quotas in place that are destroying small fishing communities around Ireland. At present, our laws allow huge fishing trawlers from other countries to fish our waters while our fishermen and women sit at home, banned from working as they have reached their very small quotas for the year. It’s criminal. Watch the recently launched film called Atlantic and you will see what we mean: https://theatlanticstream.com.

Irish Breakfasts: The quality of breakfasts in hotels, bed & breakfasts and guesthouses is generally poor across Ireland. Ireland is known for its breakfasts internationally, so why are so many of these establishments serving poor quality food?

We need to start promoting the establishments that actually use Irish produce and showcase the benefits in doing so. Yes, some breakfast models have tight margins, especially when all-you-can-eat buffets are involved, but how can how some places offer brilliant breakfast choices using Irish ingredients while others cannot? We have a fantastic selection of bread, butter, jams, eggs, bacon, sausages, pudding, smoked fish, oats, soft fruits, yoghurts, cheese and charcuterie produced on this island and it should be utilised. After all, breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

We need to actively promote and support the establishments who take pride in offering a proper Irish breakfast. Maybe case studies should be commissioned and published to show others what offering a good breakfast can do to your business.

Many Irish producers, chefs, food & travel writers, and independent food & hospitality guides like Georgina Campbell Guides (whose annual Awards include The Irish Breakfast Awards) have been championing Irish breakfast for decades, usually with little or no support from public representatives.

St. Patrick’s Day: A day where literally every country in the world celebrates our history with us. There is no other event like it. International eyes are on us, but we still do not harness the opportunity to really showcase what Irish food is about. Irish people don’t all eat just bacon, cabbage, Irish stew, beef and potatoes, and drink Guinness every day. I won’t even elaborate on the vile green bakes displayed too!

What about our seafood, our vegetables, our soft fruits, our bread and butter, milk and cheeses, not to mention the craft beers, ciders, spirits and country wines. Now if you’re going to flog another bacon and cabbage recipe on international television, make sure it’s the best bacon and cabbage you can get in Ireland.

Mention the restaurants that serve the best bacon and cabbage, tell a story about the type of pig, cabbage and potatoes used and their caretakers. Mention why our dairy produce is far superior compared to other countries around Ireland. And why not mention one of the craft drinks made in Ireland. Guinness has enough media attention as it is.

Celebrity chefs, food influencers and TV makers need to pull up their socks and start supporting the Irish food industry. You need to stand up and tell the world what Irish food is really about. That is your job after all.

Work Smartly and live a Slower Life. We all are leading busier lives. Is it really contributing to a better lifestyle? Sometimes it is best to slow down and enjoy the moment. Mindfulness springs to mind. At the end of the day, our lives on this earth are very short. I’m constantly reminded of this when a loved one becomes ill or dies. We need to look at our European neighbours in France, Spain and Italy. They make time for food, family and friends. Life is too short to eat bad food and drink bad beverages.

Lastly, be nice: Ireland is known for our hospitality and customer service. I’m asking any customer-facing business to take a note of this one. I’ve visited many shops, cafés and restaurants over the last year and bad service is definitely on the rise. There is no excuse for an unfriendly service.

Yes, things can go wrong, our moods change on a daily basis. Remember to smile, recognise mistakes, apologise and let the customer know you really value their custom. After all, every customer is a potential ambassador for your business.

We’re not asking for too much, are we?

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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