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Saturday 18 November 2017

Cooking up success in a melting pot

Home-grown and imported talent make a successful blend in Kenmare, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

Kenmare is one of those towns that we all love to visit. It has great restaurants, pubs, hotels and B&Bs, a great atmosphere, and a diverse population, not just of local people, but of those who came to visit or work and who have integrated and made this colourful town their home.

Christine and Alain Bras run the most gorgeous shop called Vanilla Grape in Henry Street, selling, among other items, specialist wines and a range of greeting cards. Vanilla Grape may be the name over the door but, according to Christine, it will always be known locally as Eugene's.

Christine and Alain, who is from Toulouse in France, opened the business six years ago after the premises had been closed for 16 years. Christine was born and reared in this building when it was a grocery shop run by her aunt, Joan O'Sullivan.

Christine's parents had seven children, of which Christine was the youngest, and but a month old when her mother died. She was looked after then by her father's sister Joan and her husband Eugene O'Sullivan, and brought up with their family.

The shop, Christine explains, was always known as Eugene's, and it was where all the kids of her generation went to get their sweets. The postman wouldn't know where to go down here as there are so many O'Sullivans. Everyone has a nickname, as there could be 10 John or Patrick O'Sullivan's. So they couldn't open the Vanilla Grape without having the nostalgic "Eugene's" over the door as well.

Christine and Alain met in 2002. Alain had worked in Sheen Falls as a sommelier. He has a distinguished pedigree in the wine and restaurant business, including lecturing with the Wine Board.

They wanted to do something in retail; a pastry-cum-wine shop was the original idea, but they were very disappointed with the high rents. They eventually found a premises, but it had to be restored so Christine's brother let them into their mother's shop to re-open it on a temporary basis. The reaction locally was so great, and it worked so well, that Christine's brother suggested they stay on there.

Vanilla Grape has wines that would be very much obscure appellations not normally seen in supermarkets. Alain says people come to them looking for wines to go with food, maybe as a present. Their wines therefore are mainly European.

They also have Cuban cigars, which they are buying in conjunction with a well known purveyor, and they have Cafe de Cuba Cubita Cuban coffee. Alain says that even though he loves French and Italian coffees, once you taste Cuban, you find it very hard to go back.

Vanilla Grape also stocks the wonderful Lorge chocolate range, which is made locally in Kenmare.

Christine's speciality is her huge range of beautiful and individual greeting cards.

Customers can also buy online, and also learn all about wine at Alain's School of Wine; see

Manuela Goeb came from Heidelberg in Germany on a visit to Ireland many years ago and fell in love with the place, eventually making it her home.

Like many others, she was attracted by the green and the fact that it is more relaxed here than Germany.

"I came here as a long- distance cyclist when I was young for three weeks. I had always heard it was a flat country, but I could have shot the person who told me that when I arrived here!" Manuela says with a laugh.

Manuela was originally a nurse by profession. She opened a bakery in Kenmare, doing all the German sourdough breads, spelt breads, wheat and gluten free.

This was then extended to become a vegetarian coffee shop, The Breadcrumb, where she and her team produce delicious healthy options for lunch each day. The coffee shop does gluten-free soups; delicious pancakes; and lovely, fresh healthy salads, incorporating perhaps beetroot, carrots and beans; and other vegetarian dishes.

There is a big modern refectory-style table down the middle of the cafe which Manuela calls her "communication table". People come in and sit down and get talking to other people, she says.

Manuela has just taken over the brand and production of Noodle House pasta, based in Sligo, and which has made quite a name for itself in the last number of years.

She also plans to vacuum- pack fresh pasta, she says. "That is why I have no time for a private life!" she laughs.

Did I hear her say she came for a more relaxed life? This woman is a power house! See

Not once, in talking to these hardworking, busy and successful people, did I hear the word "recession".

Sunday Independent

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