'Being encouraged to expand our horizons will benefit us long term' - Irish produce proves popular at French festival as Brexit looms
The uncertainty around what impact Brexit may have on Irish exports has encouraged food producers here to broaden their European relationships.
The French market, in particular, has become an important market - not only for our food ambassadors, but also from a tourism standpoint.
Wicklow-born Sheena Dignam grew up in the Loire valley, where she studied Culinary Arts & Wine, and has spent the last number of years marrying her passion for gastronomy with promoting Irish produce abroad.
With over 15 years in the food industry behind her, Sheena has been active in showcasing the powerful innovation inherent in food producers in the west of Ireland to our mainland counterparts - and bringing French speaking people on unique tours here also.
"Galway has been awarded the Region of Gastronomy for 2018, the first region in Ireland to receive this award for outstanding food culture, sustainability, gastronomy, and innovation," Sheena (of Galway Food Tours and Merveilles D’Irlande) told independent.ie.
"On the back of that, myself and a number of food producers attended the Fête des vins de l'Anjou in the west of France in Pays de la Loire to showcase the diverse and unique range of locally sourced produce here."
The Galway food syndication - which included Athenry, Gran Grans and Tribal Foods - also highlighted key SMEs and start-ups in the food industry to the French market.
Over the course of the festival, close to 30,000 tastings took place and over 7,000 visitors turned out to sample what was on offer.
"A lot of the people were really surprised at what we had to offer," Sheena said.
"Rather than turn their nose up at what we had on display, we impressed the French with the innovative and high standard products that we brought with us. They were really surprised at what we achieved.
"Irish producers have been encouraged more recently to broaden our horizons; we have really strong products and we wanted to show France just how string we are."
President of the Fete des Vins D’Anjou Dominique Pairochon remarked that he is “confident that the relationship [between Ireland and France] will grow and that there will be economic and cultural benefits in both regions as a result of the work being undertaken.”
Food products like Connemara Smokehouse, Kellys Oysters, Galway Hooker Brewery and Independent Brewing already being exported to France, these along with Aran Islands Goats Cheese, Killeen Farmhouse Cheese and Mc Geough cured meats and Micil Poitin, being in high demand.
Sheena is currently in her second year of running Merveilles D’Irlande, a tourism business which brings French people to Ireland to experience a "high end style of travelling in the west of Ireland" inspired by her passion to show French people our culture and food.
"At the moment, I'm targeting French but also French speakers so I am also looking at the French Canadian and the Swiss market. I'm also looking to get the tour translated to target the US market," she said.
A shockingly bad election result for Prime Minister Theresa May this week has plunged Britain into political chaos days before the start of Brexit talks.
Many Irish SMEs and food producers who export their products are unclear how relations and business will continue following upcoming negotiations.
But Sheena remains confident in the strength of what our producers have to offer.
"We are alway going to find a way [to continue trade]; it's just a matter of seeing where we are going to go. We're all still very much in the dark about how things are going to unfold.
"But, out of every circumstance, there is always going to become a positive outcome. Being encouraged to look elsewhere will be of benefit to our producers in the long term."