A food-driven rural recovery? The proof is in the pudding
Is there a twin-track economic recovery under way? Dublin is definitely showing signs of economic life, but many in rural Ireland believe that it will be a long time before they see any economic life-blood pump their parishes.
But it appears that the food manufacturing and service sector is bucking the trend in the countryside.
Look at the latest unemployment figures from the CSO. They show that two-thirds of the 58,000 extra people in work are accounted for in farming, food service and tourism.
That's the macro, and the micro tells a similar story.
Take guesthouse owner Nora Egan. She won a Good Food Ireland award last week for her black pudding, which she started making only four years ago after digging her mother's recipe out of a drawer where it had languished for the previous 25 years.
There was a great buzz at the awards night in the Shelbourne Hotel last week, and much of it is personified by Nora's story.
"When the recession hit, we went from being busy five nights a week to barely being able to stay open three nights," she said.
It was a heartbreaking time for the Egans, having built up a restaurant and guesthouse from the ruins of Inch House, which they bought over 20 years ago.
"We started the restaurant to try to make sense out of the huge amount we spent on the house and it was going great, but when the recession hit, I knew I had to come up with something else to sustain the family," said Nora, whose daughter also works full-time in the family business.
That's when the Egans rediscovered the family recipe that was buried in the kitchen cupboard.
"Initially we made it for the restaurant and people were straight away asking me where they could buy this pudding, so we thought we would try to sell it into a few shops," said Nora.
From a point where they made 10 pounds of black pudding a week, the Egans are now pumping out almost 800 pounds a week from their new purpose-built €60,000 manufacturing facility.
The pudding, which is unusual in Ireland in that it is made with fresh blood instead of a cheaper powdered alternative, is now distributed to 80 shops nationwide.
She has also expanded her range to include chutneys and has just launched a new porter cake for Christmas.
The Egans' enterprise is part of a growing force of artisan food producers that are hammering out a culinary reputation for the country on both a domestic and global stage.
"We need to develop a much greater sense of national pride in the things that we can produce well here, and if we do that we'll open up a world of opportunity for small and large food businesses that are rooted in the most rural parts of Ireland," said Peter Ward, who has long championed Irish food from his Country Choice cafe and delicatessen in Nenagh, Co Tipperary.
He's also a member of Good Food Ireland, whose 600 members are collectively selling nearly €400m worth of food in Ireland annually.
This food network was purchasing €50m of local food annually in 2011, according to Grant Thornton.
Subsequent research has shown that this amount is climbing steadily as the food service industry begins to realise the wealth of food products that are being produced on their doorsteps.
The food manufacturing endeavours that started out with the black puddings have also come full circle for the Egans, who have just had their busiest year ever in their guesthouse.
"It's got nothing to do with the Gathering because I make sure to ask everyone who stays here," said Nora.
Instead, the Egans are experiencing the concept that Good Food Ireland has been promoting for many years -- that there is a massive opportunity for food tourism here if only we can convince both the state authorities and food producers to properly engage with it.