Ann Fitzgerald: We need to do more to create the link between 'local' and 'quality'
If the history of food in Laois in the early 21st century is ever written, two names will stand out: Darina Allen and Helen Gee.
Helen Gee may not be a national household name but, in Laois and surrounds, she is a hero of foodie and community circles.
Originally from Bagenalstown, Co Carlow, Helen moved to Abbeyleix on marriage to tillage farmer Cecil Gee, and fulfilled a long-time ambition to run her own food business when setting up Gee's Gourmet Jams 30 years ago.
The family-run, multi-award winning enterprise now produces some 40 high-quality preserves and relishes, using the traditional open-pot method, the best of ingredients and no preservatives.
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But what makes Helen Gee particularly special is her involvement in the community. Whatever is on, she supports it, by going along and/or giving some of her delicious wares.
Despite her success, she remains the most grounded person you could imagine. She is everyone's favourite aunt, bubbling with fun, energy and positivity. Every community needs a Helen Gee.
She has now been appointed as chair of Laois Taste, a revamped group representing the county's food and drink producers. With the help of Laois County Council, they recently held an event to showcase their wares, which was also addressed by Darina Allen.
The doyenne of Ballymaloe Cookery School, cookery book author and farmers markets champion is also a proud Laois woman, having grown up in Cullahill.
Three points she made stood out.
One was a story Myrtle Allen's early days in Ballymaloe House. She had got some ducks from a lady named Nora Aherne. Myrtle's question to Nora brought a lump to my throat: "How much do you need to get to keep producing ducks like that?"
How many primary food producers have ever heard such words!
Early in Darina's career, she went to an Italian market where stalls were selling two versions of some foods, with the higher-quality one labelled 'nostrana'.
Stallholders were confused by her efforts in pigeon Italian to find out where this amazing place was. One eventually explained that it was not a place - "it means it local".
The linking of local with quality is still only emerging in this part of the world.
Darina also had an interesting suggestion as to what Laois could do to make its name in the food sector - to provide "the very best breakfast in the whole country".
A previous speaker had said that 90,000 people a day pass through Laois.
Darina mentioned Sirocco coffee, which could be served with Village Dairy milk, Castlewood bacon, Granstown eggs and Garryhinch Wood exotic mushrooms … or some porridge from The Merry Mill and fresh berries from Rose Cottage.
At the end of the evening, we were treated to a sumptuous supper.
The one shortcoming was that all the suppliers weren't readily identifiable.
Exceptions were Apoena, whose chocolate truffles were heavenly, as were Niamh Maher's Aghaboe Farm Foods pistachio meringues.
Like many small producers, their main outlet is farmers markets.
I then came across a couple of my pals snuggled up with Skinny Bitches. To clarify, in this instance, a Skinny Bitch is neither a female dog nor a lean lady, but rather a long drink made with Brennan's Old House gin.
I went home on a high, Darina's words ringing in my ears: "What can I do in my home, on my farm, to enhance the value of what we produce?"
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