My Week: Michael Keaveny talks to Martin Calvey
With six decades of experience in sheep farming and the butcher business, Martin Calvey has probably forgotten more about the lamb trade than most people will ever know.
He sold his first lamb in his early teenage years and he is now head of a highly successful brand, selling lamb all over the country.
"I grew up in Keel on Achill Island, I was the only child in my family. My father died when I was 12 so it was very hard for me and my mother because we only had a small number of cattle and sheep on a smallholding of land," he recalls.
"My mother got a job in a local hotel and the owner was a kind woman, so she gave me a job in the garden. One day we were talking about farming and I offered to sell her a lamb.
"At the time mutton - which was one to two years old and not as sweet as a lamb - was eaten by most people, so I got a local butcher to prepare one of our lambs for her. The customers loved it so it took off like a shot."
With a lack of opportunities in Achill in the late '50s, Martin emigrated to find work and learn his trade.
"I went to England to work on a building site and in the evenings, I worked with a butcher learning my trade. I eventually qualified as a butcher, returned home and set up a butcher's shop in Achill in 1962. I also met my wife Angela when I came home," he says.
"She was a cook and was able to do different dishes and advise people on how to cook it and get the best results so that was a great assistance with marketing the lamb. We called it Achill Mountain lamb. We were unique because we were family-run from start to finish, from the farm to the abattoir to the butcher."
As demand increased, so too did the services the Calveys offered. They introduced a delivery service and Martin's daughters also began to play an active role in the business.
"We started delivering all-round Mayo with a refrigerated vehicle. We doubled the output of what we did previously. My daughters Martina and Grainne got involved in the business and they began to market and sell it online.
"We now sell to people's homes around the country as well as to top chefs, restaurants and hotels. Ashford Castle is one of our customers, which is as good as you can get in my opinion as they only take the very best."
The unique way lambs are reared on Achill Island gives them a distinctive taste, Martin says.
"On Achill, every farmer has a holding of around four acres, most of which has been subdivided into smaller plots. They all have a share in the commonage, which is about 200,000 acres. This means the sheep can roam naturally and have access to different types of grasses and are rarely handled, which means they are stress-free. Both these things have an impact on the flavour.
"Long before anyone spoke about grass-fed beef or lamb, we had it because we had no choice."
Another factor in the distinctive flavour is the addition of seaweed in the Achill Island sheep diet.
"The sheep that graze along the seashore in the winter have access to seaweed," Martin says. "The lambs that are born off those sheep have a different type of fat than those reared on the mountain. I can see it in the abattoir.
"Their carcass has a golden colour to it, and those reared on the mountain are whiter in appearance. I think the seaweed gives the lamb a sweeter taste."
The Calveys' season starts in July, and runs up until February, with April-born lambs being ready for slaughter in July.
Although the drought has stalled their season slightly this year, it won't have a big impact on production, says Martin.
"The season will be a bit later this year because of the dry spell but it won't take from the taste. We might process 35 a week in the early parts of the season and 150 when we hit our peak later in the year.
"I process 200 of my lambs every year and my family contribute another 800 and the local farmers supply the rest.
"I pay the farmer for the full weight. We take the lambs from 12kg with flesh. There is no cut-off point. Some processors only pay for the first 22 kg, so a 25kg lamb isn't fully paid for, but I don't do that. That makes a big difference to farmers.
"I will also hold some of my lambs if they're ready so I can facilitate the farmer if they need to sell them."