Mam's dripping reigns supreme
When Pat Whelan made his mother's old fashioned beef dripping, he never expected to see it in Harrods, says Lucinda O'Sullivan
When Pat Whelan wanted a recipe for 'dripping', he did what all good Irish sons would do, he asked the Mammy! Now the 'Mammy's dripping' is not only being spread on toast, but is the toast of London, where last Monday evening at the Great Taste Awards, it not only won the Golden Fork Award for Ireland but, out of 10,000 entries, was declared Supreme Champion. It is a monumental achievement for Pat and the Mammy, but brilliant also for Ireland's food producing profile. Out of a possible score of 65, the dripping got 63, which is also the highest score ever for a product at the GTA. It is stocked in both Harrod's and Fortnum's and Mason and has critics such as Charles Campion waxing lyrical saying, "isn't it lovely to see something so simple being done so well'. Fat is back in a big way."
Pat has an amused twinkle in his eye as he tells me how he has gone, I won't say from being a simple Irish butcher, for Pat Whelan is far from that, to being on the receiving end of London's top food award. He is an astute businessman and a great communicator, who had a vision, not only for progressing his own business, but for progressing his fellow county producers through the Tipperary Food Producers group, which he founded a few years ago. He also has butcher's shops in three Avoca stores in Dublin, has written The Irish Beef Book, and appeared with Rick Stein on a TV show.
"My dad is a farmer's son from Dungarvan, my mother's family were farmers in Cappoquin, but also had a butcher's shop which went back five generations. So, when my father met my mother, he found love and he found a new trade, opening their own business, James Whelan Butchers, in Clonmel in 1960." Pat and his three siblings lived over the shop where, as he says, unbeknownst to himself he learned the business. "When you grow up in a business, there's a sense of belonging and purpose to every day you get out of bed, whether it's standing in a gap, herding in sheep, tying parcels for delivery, or dropping off a leg of lamb to a local convent on a Saturday morning, that was what you did."
Pat's parents, James and Joan retired in 1999 and he took over. "I think in any successful transition of a family business, it's important that the retirement time is defined rather than a continual working together where there's never a defined exit. I think in some cases where this doesn't happen, they are living in the legacy of the past, yet trying to grapple with the future. We all know the farm that 'never got left to me although it was meant to be' and so on... It's a difficult discussion in any family, and sometimes in this country, succession is always on the agenda but never discussed, but I was very fortunate, it was defined and it happened.
"It allows you develop as a character, make your own mistakes, but as a person to develop relationships with people at a different level. My mother always taught us about the lifetime value of a customer, look after them and they will come back to you. They are the life-blood of the business - respect for the customer, respect for the environment, respect for nature, because we are dealing with nature all the time. We have a wonderful natural climate, we have a great resource, which is grass, and nature is very kind to give us these animals to nurture and prepare for the table."
Pat started selling his produce online following the relocation of American employers such as Digital from Clonmel to Galway. "My relationship was broken with these good customers, who were now living 100 miles away. They'd come back at weekends and get some meat, saying they couldn't get anything like it, which was all very flattering but you couldn't cash that in business. We put up a website in 2001, not really understanding it, but everybody was putting up a 'www' so we were having one of those as well. Then the transactional eCommerce piece came along in 2004, so that part of the business really got going. The farmer's market thing was starting back then too and Bord Bia had a Farmer's Market in Farmleigh for the month of September, so we brought the idea of the 'shopping online' to Dublin, which in terms of the internet was a lifetime ago."
In 2011, Simon Pratt rang Pat, saying he wanted to put a butcher's shop into his new Avoca shop in Monkstown and, as the Pratt family were already online customers, they knew his produce and ethos. "I'd always loved and admired what Avoca did and the partnership has really worked and grown and we opened in Rathcoole in 2013 and in Kilmacanogue in 2014.
And so to the famous 'dripping'. Standing in the boning room one day, Pat noticed the offcuts of fat were being taken away to be sold at 5c per lb for tallow. "Within a week of that, I got a notice saying we would now have to pay for its removal. I said 'over my dead body' so I went up to my mother and said 'Mam, what used you do with the fat?' She said they made 'dripping' and told me to bring some fat up to her and she'd show me how to make it. Then I needed a conical bag for it, but every manufacturer had closed in the UK and Ireland. I searched antique and bric a brac shops in London to no avail but, coming home in the plane I was rooting for the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me and out came the sick bag!" Pat roars laughing as he says, "that was it - a waxed lined bag that could keep a liquid! So I contacted the manufacturers and they made special bags for us, and James Whelan Dripping was born."
"The following spring, I was sitting with other Tipperary Food Producers and we decided to enter the Great Taste Awards in London en masse - to take the thing by storm. However, what was a great idea in February in the Horse & Jockey Hotel, was a different matter when the application form arrived and suddenly we had to decide what we would send. I sent the dripping because it would travel easily. I forgot about it then, until one day, a lovely lady phoned from London saying softly, 'Mr Whelan, I have some great news for you. Out of 10,000 products, your dripping has got into the top 150 as a 3 Star Product. I thought to myself, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, this is accidental hero stuff but it's karma. I said, 'I'm delighted, thank you very much for your phone call'. Then she said, 'not only that but it's now going forward to the top 50'. I said, 'as a matter of interest, how did they taste the dripping'? Oh, she said, they made it into candles and they burned it onto bread and served it with some superior salt. Then, as a result of the 3 Stars, we had a phone call from Fortnum & Mason, saying they wanted to stock the dripping. Next thing Harrods in London rang, also wanting to stock it. I had to go up to my Mam and say 'Mam, remember the dripping we made…it will be available exclusively in Fortnum & Mason and Harrods in London!' More guffaws of laughter from Pat.
"Life has been a great opportunity for me, I see everything as an opportunity." Pat, didn't miss the opportunity either when he met his Lithuanian wife, Lina in 2001.
"It was love at first sight. She's an accountant and came to the shop for an interview. The minute she walked in, I thought to myself, 'we'd better have coffee.' We did. After which, I rang a friend in Cashel and told him I was going to marry this person. He didn't believe me… and the rest is history."
Pat is loud in his praise of Lina's passionate interest in food and her tremendous support and they now have three lovely children together - Tom, Ben and Isabel.
Now, in 2015, the dripping has topped every other product in the Great Taste Awards by returning to a very simple traditional old-fashioned idea and reaching for the stars.