Farm Ireland

Friday 27 April 2018

Donegal to Dubai - how one Irish farmer’s oysters ended up in the desert

Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

Donegal native Edward Gallagher was on his way to Singapore in 2009 to shuck oysters when a stop over in Dubai offered him the opportunity of a lifetime.

He met Girar Vouyoukas, a Greek ex-pat whose family-run import and distribution business in Dubai.

“Ed was my first Irish customer,” Girar says as he unpacks a box of oysters, which are wrapped in seaweed from the Donegal coast to keep their taste and freshness.

“When he came here he said he didn’t want to sell me oysters, he just wanted me to taste them.” That taste test was enough for Girar who still buys oysters from the Donegal farm. 

Girar’s import and distribution business in Dubai serves a high end world of restaurants, yachts and VIPs.

In the seafood room of Girar’s business, Fresh Express, a swordfish lies out waiting to be cut up, yellowfin tuna are unwrapped, seabass from the Italian coast sit in ice, while lobsters and crabs from Ireland wait in tanks.

The fish rooms have strict temperature controls – not only do the fish and crustaceans have a limited shelf life, dead or alive, and managing to keep fish fresh in a dessert country where outside temperatures can hit 50 degrees takes work.

“It’s a maximum one week we can keep the lobsters or crabs,” Girar says “usually they are caught on a Wednesday, flown on Friday and arrive to us in Dubai on Saturday.”

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Fresh Express works as an importer of fresh fruit, vegetables, fish and meat for the high end restaurant trade in Dubai, as well as many wealthy, private clients on yachts and in villas around Dubai and the UAE.

According to Girar, the warehouse works on two 12-hour shifts, and handles 35t of food every week. Much of the food is on order in its imported format, but Fresh Express employs 47 chefs who take the fish and other foods to the next level – cutting and packaging it to customers’ needs.

Irish lamb, that goes through Fresh Express, ends up in top end restaurants such as Nobu, while other Irish food ends up in Ethiad Towers.

Today, Edward Gallagher’s Irish Premium Oysters is one of five Irish shellfish companies who export to the United Arab Emirates – a region that is worth €58m in exports for Irish food and drink companies and worth €1.5m to the seafood industry.

Girar, who runs high-end food import and distribution business with his brother and sister, import food from nearly 40 different countries and is expanding its business in Ireland to create an Irish distribution hub that will allow more Irish food to be exported to Dubai 

The expansion has been enabled, he says, by the fact that Dublin now has twice daily flights to Dubai with Emirates.

Dubai has 7,500 places to eat, from street cafes to high end restaurants, while another 138 hotels are currently under construction in the city – all of which will have high end restaurants.

And, Bord Bia predicts that the Gulf region will have high potential for Irish food and drink products. It estimates that the market could be worth €400m by 2026 – up from its current value of €247m.

"There will be another 90,000 hotel rooms build and available by 2020," Padraig Brennan, Director of International Markets with Bord Bia.

This year Bord Bia is supporting 21 companies at Gulfood, which will see around 100,000 international buyers attend that Bord Bia and the Irish contingent hopes will turn into business for their produce.

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