Ireland has an enviable reputation for the quality of our food and drinks sector. With a turnover of approximately €26bn and employing more than 230,000 people, this is Ireland's most important indigenous industry. In almost every town and village, small and medium sized firms are busily beavering away producing all manner of products for both the local and export markets.
One such company is Kells Wholemeal. Set up in 1982 by Bill Mosse, the company currently employs 30 and has an annual turnover of more than €7m. Located in picturesque village of Bennettsbridge, Co Kilkenny, the business is the only mill in the country still producing traditionally stoneground wholemeals on a significant scale for the bakery trade.
Bennettsbridge is home to two beautiful stone walled mills. One, the Little Mill, houses the Kells Wholemeal business; the larger, sister mill, just up the river, is home to a second business run by another member of the Mosse family, their cousin and well known potter, Nicholas Mosse.
As they take me on a tour of their mill, Bill and his son Robert explain more about what they do.
"The business has a number of elements to it," explains Bill. "Firstly, we grind our own meal using traditional methods. Secondly, we blend ingredients into pre-prepared cake and bread mixes for use by bakeries on their own premises. And thirdly, we supply a whole range of other products to the trade, such as pumpkin, sesame, linseed and sunflower seeds, baking powders and malts, as well as wheat, barley and rye flakes," he adds.
In the mill, staff are busy blending pre-prepared mixes. Carefully weighing the ingredients, they mix salt, sugar, flour, baking powder and flavourings.
"Supplying pre-blended mixes means bakeries can speed up their production processes by simply adding eggs and water," explains Robert. "Apart from the convenience, this also ensures consistency as each blend has been carefully weighed and tested by our quality control team."
In the testing area, I get the chance to taste a sample of each of the company's top selling blends - including their madeira, toffee, lemon and chocolate cake mixes, as well as their brownies, scones and traditional soda bread blends.
"Once a flour or blend batch is produced, a 1kg sample is immediately taken and then baked here in-house, to ensure it is of the highest quality before being released to our customers," explains Robert. "Our R&D and technical team are continuously working with our bakery customers to develop new mixes and flavours that are specially tailored to the Irish palette and to the requirements of the Irish market," he adds.
"Our traditional stoneground wholemeal range remains a core part of our business," explains Bill, holding up a selection of bags that include plain wholemeal, strong seeded wholemeal and wholemeal spelt.
As we make our way around the mill, it's fascinating to see how the traditional methods of milling have been maintained. The large grinding millstones and the old leather belts (that date back to pre-war times) are still in use.
Grain is sourced locally from farmers in the Carlow/Kilkenny area. Once harvested, large trucks transport it to the mill where it is unloaded into the large silos that stand tall in the yard. From here, it is passed mechanically through the screen room where specialised equipment removes any soil, chaff or tiny stones that may have been captured during harvesting. The result is the purest of clean wheat. A light spray of water is added to moisten the grain to condition it for the ensuing milling process.
Next the moistened wheat is moved to large holding bins where it is kept for 24 hours to allow the moisture to become uniform through the grain. Once sufficiently moist, it is then moved by conveyors to the large round millstones. About one and half metres in diameter and made from a mix of emery and flint, it is these stones that grind the wheat into flour.
"The friction created during the milling process by these large stones lightly roasts the wheat, giving it a uniquely identifiable taste and flavour," explains Bill. "This traditional method also retains the bran, germ and endosperm which are the most nutritional parts of the grain," he adds.
Milled up to four times, the wheat is rendered smaller and smaller until it finally takes the form of fine flour particles, after which it is taken to the bagging area for onward delivery to bakeries throughout the country.
"We currently supply more than 350 customers, from artisan producers right up to large scale commercial bakeries," explains Robert. "And we have also been exporting produce to France for the last 15 years," he adds.
Bill Mosse himself grew up in Bennettsbridge and milling is in his blood. Looking at the old black and white pictures on the walls around the mill, it's easy to see the history here. Back as far as the 1800s, the Mosse family were millers who owned and ran a number of flour mills throughout Kilkenny and Wexford.
"My family have been milling for seven generations now," explains Bill. "I joined straight from school and I swept the floor for the first six months. All part of the learning process."
He later worked in different flour mills in the UK and Middle East, which gave him a broader perspective of the industry. However by the early 1970s he was ready to return home to the family business. Shortly afterwards, they merged with Davis's in Enniscorthy, a move that saw Bill relocate to become mill manager there.
As the business looked for new opportunities, they began to branch out in developing pre-blended mixes for the bakery trade. Bill later moved to Arklow to take over the running of a bakery that was part of the same group. Though he loved the work and remained there for seven years, he had a growing yearning to do something on his own.
"Working for other people just wasn't working for me," Bills tells me with a grin.
So in 1982, he took the courageous decision to leave and take over a business called Cake Mixes of Ireland. Shortly afterwards, he took over Kells Wholemeal which at the time was based in Kilkenny, and merged both to create the current company, known as Kells Wholemeal Ltd.
However, running any food business is not without its challenges and Bill had his fair share of these.
"Over the years, we've faced everything from the fluctuating wheat prices to increased competition from international players," explains Bill. "But the biggest challenge we continuously face is trying to remain competitive. And that involves not only our pricing and quality of ingredients, but also the level of service and support we provide to our customers," he adds. Part of their success has also been their ability to come up with new ideas, while still keeping the traditions and high quality they are known for.
Robert Mosse joined the business on a full time basis in 2004 and became the company's managing director in 2013 and is now leading the company into its next phase of development.
Again, milling is in his DNA. As a teenager, he remembers spending his school holidays working alongside his father in the business. After school he studied business management and marketing in the UK before completing further courses in artisan baking in the French Culinary Institute in New York as well as at Ballymaloe, Co Cork.
Seeing innovation and diversification as central to their future and recognising the trend for 'free-from' foods, Robert began focusing on new product ranges that were free from additives and used only 100pc natural flavours and colours.
"We recently launched a new range of bread and cake mixes aimed at the consumer market, named The Little Mill after our own mill," explains Robert. "These are currently available in a number of Supervalus locally, as part of Supervalu, Kilkenny Local Enterprise Office and Bord Bia's Food Academy programme. We are also in the Avoca stores, in Morton's and Mc Cambridge's of Galway - all of which are going really well for us," he adds.
So popular are their new product ranges that they have won numerous awards including a number of Great Taste Awards in the UK.
Robert and Bill are both very positive about future prospects and expect turnover to hit €10m over the next three years. They see this coming from continuing to service trade customers while at the same time developing their retail brand.
Bill Mosse learnt his trade as a miller, the same way that his father learnt it - handed down from one generation to the next.
That knowledge has now been passed on to Bill's son Robert. With a combined focus on quality and product development, and building on the traditional methods of manufacturing, Kells Wholemeal and The Little Mill look to be in safe hands for the next generation of Mosses.
For further information: kellswholemeal.ie