Meitheal pays off in spades on the farm
A group of farmers in west Kerry has set the benchmark for quality produce, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan
MEITHEAL is an old Irish word for a group of people who gather together to help each other with work such as harvesting crops or supporting one another in business.
Never was it more alive than in west Kerry, where in July 2009 a group of 27 enterprising sheep farmers formed Ring of Kerry Quality Lamb, marketing and selling their lamb direct to the public.
Denis Carroll of Ring of Kerry Quality Lamb says that when they started 18 months ago, "we went to the market with our price and our product and everyone laughed at us and said we could never do it. Now we are the benchmark of lamb in Kerry".
They started out mainly selling to housewives but, as their business grew, more and more restaurants began to look for their lamb. "We set about it in a totally professional manner. It is all about traceability and quality," Denis says. "It is a premium product because of what we require our members to do. All of our lambs are castrated at birth and are basically grass fed. In certain circumstances we may allow a little concentrate feed to bring them to a certain point but none is intensively fed. It is all a quality issue which ensures there is a certain standard at farm level which all adds to our lamb product."
They have been running now for over a year and the feedback has been fantastic, with people reporting on how they can really taste the difference in their lamb. Also, the farmers use small local abattoirs in Sneem, Waterville and Killorglin, with as little stress as possible for the animals.
When they started out, the group wanted to set a reasonable farmgate price for the sheep farmer's work and effort which they fixed at €5 per kilo. A full lamb of 20 kilos sells for €150 into restaurants or to the private consumer in Kerry, and if a farmer sends in a lamb that is not up to scratch, it goes back to him with a chargeback of the full retail price €150, so he makes sure he has it right next time! The balance between what the farmer receives and what it sells for goes towards expenses and marketing.
They are supplying more and more restaurants now, including Brook Lane Hotel in Kenmare and also Dunne & Crescenzi in Dublin. They are also supplying Supervalu in Cahirciveen, Killorglin and Kenmare. It has been such a success they are experimenting now with hill lamb, which only comes into season in September. These hill lambs have a distinctive flavour and if managed properly, they can be kept on the hills until February. The Ring of Kerry Quality Lamb group is also DNA testing all rams for next year's lambs so "if we have a member who is messing and brings in a lamb from outside, we can nail him too," says Denis.
Here is where the Meitheal formula really comes in. There are 27 sheep farming families involved so when it comes to the families spending their money in the community, they give their business to the restaurants and shops who buy from them. Ring of Kerry Quality Lamb is now supplying all over the 32 counties and can have your order sent to you within 24 hours by courier for an additional €10 to cover packaging, chill box and transport.
The group's other big strength, Denis says, is that they will cut and process the lamb to your requirements. Restaurants have different requirements. They vacuum pack the meat to prevent freezer burn so that when you take it out three months later, it is as good as the day it went in. They pack the orders early afternoon, they go to Killarney, thence to Tralee to a central depot, and then on to Dublin or wherever. You can order direct from the website www.ringofkerryqualitylamb .ie or telephone 1890 252978.
One of the businesses in Kenmare which has really seen the benefit of 'meitheal' is Brook Lane Hotel & Casey's Restaurant, owned by Una and Dermot Brennan.
Although Una was born into the hospitality business, as part of the well-known local Foley family who own Foley's and Davitt's Bars, she did not intend going into that area. After school she went to college in Tralee to do business studies and she then went on to Waterford where she qualified as a nurse. She worked in Cappagh Hospital in orthopaedics.
It was in Tralee that she first met Dermot, who is from Dundalk and who was studying agricultural engineering. But after college they were to go their separate ways for a number of years. The Nurses' Ball came up and out of the blue she rang up Dermot and asked him would he come and that was that!
There had been a restaurant owned by the Foley family on the site of what is now the Brook Lane Hotel which was leased out "but there were always problems", says Una.
They decided to open Casey's Restaurant themselves and Una went to Ballymaloe for three months to train. They ran this very successfully for four years and then Dermot and herself decided to knock the whole lot and build the uber hip Brook Lane boutique-style hotel. They had a vision which they fulfilled including big comfortable beds, under floor heating in the bathrooms, beautiful quality towels, and all the bells and whistles, which they are constantly maintaining and upgrading. "It was an awful lot of work, we were a young couple and a lot of the banks didn't want to know us. We finally got funding on a Christmas Eve -- having already given the builders the go-ahead! We wanted Brook Lane to be big enough to be a hotel as opposed to a guest house and we wanted good food."
They certainly got both and it has worked very well. "Last weekend 10 of our rooms were repeat business. I don't expect the staff to carry a suitcase on their heads, I just ask them to be nice to people."
They have signed up now to Failte Ireland's Green Energy initiative where they undertake to be more conscious of the environment and use of energy. They also have live music on Fridays and Saturdays with Harris Bean.
Una says they have become much more aware this year of using local and seasonal produce and they have seen great benefits from sourcing from Ring of Kerry Quality Lamb as a result. "You can see the benefits of networking already; the sheep farmers tell their families that if they are coming into Kenmare . . ."
It's a busy life for Una and Dermot, with two young children, Megan, seven, and two-year-old Ethan, and this year they have also opened No. 35 Restaurant on Main Street. (Brendan and I had the best ever Irish Stew and a shoulder of lamb casserole on our recent visit.) You'll find them on www.brooklanehotel.com
Another cog in the chain is in Sneem, where Kieran Burns is a fourth generation butcher with his own abattoir and is the producer of the famous Sneem Black Pudding. Kieran's great grandfather, Bat Burns, bought the premises in the early 1900s and it was passed on then to his son, Paddy 'Bat' Burns.
Paddy 'Bat' Burns married Marie Clifford, who was a teacher in the national school "four miles out the road". She became principal of Letterfinish school and moved into Sneem when they got married and took over the local national school. She was clearly a fantastic woman because whilst teaching and bringing up nine children, she also developed a black pudding recipe which is quite different to anything else around.
Unlike other puddings, it is not boiled but baked in rectangular tins like a cake. There is no casing, and no meat "or anything like that" goes into it: oatmeal, fat, blood and onions are the main ingredients. As Kieran says, with their own abattoir, and a special black pudding kitchen next door, the ingredients have no distance to travel. It could hardly be more local, it only goes around the corner!
The pudding is made fresh three times a week, with six trays in each batch, each weighing 15lbs. Kieran supplies the Sneem Hotel and Brehon Hotel in Killarney and has eight outlets selling it around Kerry, including in Cahirciveen and Killorglin.
This is the sort of thing people love to find when they go to Italy, France or Spain. "Small producers are really taking off, people like something different."
Kieran certainly inherited his grandmother's genes for he is a busy man, having also recently taken over Murphy's Bar in the town and creating a whole new buzz there. He also has two little boys aged seven and two whom, he says, "will hopefully take up the mantle one day".
Kieran Burns can be contacted on 064 664-5139.
So folks, how about a little meitheal in your area?