How love helped bring us a taste of the exotic
Irish people can now enjoy 'the food of the gods', and herring with a Nordic twist.
ONE of the best things about travelling the country is the number of interesting people you get to meet.
Two such people are Kirsti O'Kelly and Sefik Dikya, who come from different countries and indeed climates but they have more than one thing in common. They both ended up living in Limerick married to Irish partners; they both have a terrific talent and love for food, and both have recently started small artisan food businesses bringing the culinary skills of their native countries to Ireland.
Kirsti O'Kelly's Silver Darlings are inspired by Kirsti's native Finland, where herrings are an everyday staple. We have wonderful herrings in our Irish waters but a lot of them are exported to Scandinavia, Europe, Japan and the Middle East and the Scandinavian-style pickled herrings in supermarkets here are, up to now, imported.
Having worked as a chef in Finland in the mid-Nineties, Kirsti went back to college to do a degree in 'restonimi', which she explains is a mix of food science and hospitality management.
She arrived in Ireland on St Valentine's Day 1999, thinking it would be a one-year adventure. Having worked in Dublin for a year, she then moved to Co Clare, working in hotel management. Then in 2004, fate took a hand and she met husband Eoin O'Kelly who works in Lyric FM.
They married in 2006 and now have two daughters, aged six and four, whom Kirsti describes as Ireland's youngest herring connoisseurs.
"I had always dreamed of setting up my own business and, in 2012, I finally 'hopped off the wheel' to take time out. I booked myself into a Start Your Own Business course with Limerick City Enterprise Board and soon took the final leap into the unknown and formed a company.
"The stall at Limerick's Milk Market has given me direct access to customers and an opportunity to get feedback on the products. I now have a good cohort of regular customers and it is this more than anything else that convinces me there can be a national and maybe even an international market for the food I make."
Having learned to marinate herrings according to traditional recipes passed on from her mother and grandmother, Kirsti's 'Silver Darlings' use a contemporary take on the traditional Nordic methods. Kirsti sources her fish from Mick O'Donnell of Island Seafoods in Killybegs, fresh Irish Atlantic herrings.
The fish is marinated in a combination of mild vinegars and spices, which dissolve the herring bones and keep the integrity of the fish flesh, allowing it to take on the subtle flavours of aromatic spices like mustard seeds, sandalwood, cinnamon, bay leaves, cloves. They are a great source of Omega 3 fatty acids.
In Nordic countries, marinated herrings are traditionally enjoyed as a starter and often paired with rye sourdough bread or baby boiled potatoes. They are also used in salads with pungent leaves, beetroot or boiled eggs and every conceivable kind of vodka or schnapps.
"While I use traditional methods, my original training was as a chef, so the first year of the company has been spent, in large part, inventing and developing new recipes and expanding and diversifying my range in numerous ways. Products like my beetroot and horseradish herring are my own invention and don't exist yet in my native Finland."
The biggest challenge so far, Kirsti says, has been time.
"Running a food business with one staff, plus a family with two small children and Eoin working full time, is a major task, so grandparents, along with all our neighbours, have picked up the child minding to support us.
"There have been other challenges, too. Herring is a fish that in some respects needs its image rehabilitated. Some people have an initial scepticism, which in most cases melts away with their first taste. Trying to politely explain to people that my foods are very different and much more refined and complex in their flavours than roll mops, with which they might be familiar, is another part of the challenge," explains Kirsti.
"As for my future plans, I will be conquering the Irish market yet for a while, but this product is ideal also for export as it has a nine-month shelf life and innovative flavours compared to typical pickled herring offerings.
"The first step to success is to reintroduce Irish herring to Irish people and Irish chefs. I have a few wonderful chefs who have discovered the possibilities with my herring products, such as Jess Murphy in Kai Galway and Tom Flavin in the Strand Hotel in Limerick. We have very recently started being distributed by Redmond's Fine Foods and the products have been taken by other restaurants, such as Eastern Seaboard in Drogheda and The Mustard Seed in Ballingarry," she says.
The retail range is now available from a number of outlets, including Avoca, Fallon & Byrne, Morton's, Caviston's, Urru and so forth. Prices range from €3.90 to €4.50.
"Silver Darlings has received wonderful support also from BIM and their Seafood Development Centre (SDC). The SDC team are highly qualified in food science and business to tailor a development plan just for me, and their sheer enthusiasm and belief in me made me realise how possible it really was to follow that plan and make this all actually happen."
Sefik Dikyar is originally from Turkey, and he produces the best Turkish baklava, and other specialties, I have seen this side of the Bosphorus.
As is often the case in Ireland, Sefik met his wife Liz at a wedding. It was 2004 and she had gone to Bodrum for the marriage of her cousin to a Turkish man.
"The groom's uncle was to be a witness at the wedding but he forgot his ID, so I stepped into the role. After the ceremony, the photographer wanted a photo of the two witnesses, who were Liz and I. After the photo, we stayed chatting and it went from there. We got married in September 2005 and then I moved to Ireland to be with her," says Sefik. Ten years on, they have a daughter, Leyla.
Sefik grew up in Tire in Izmir in western Turkey.
"Growing up, I always had an interest in food and cooking and picked up all my methods from helping my mother who always made baklava, gozleme and borek," explains Sefik.
To me, baklava is food of the Gods. It is a rich sweet pastry made from dense layers of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and drenched in honey or sweet syrup. You don't get it widely in Ireland – particularly freshly cooked.
Borek, meanwhile, are savoury filo pastries filled with feta or sirene cheese, or maybe vegetables or mince. Gozleme is a hand-rolled dough, again filled with all sorts of tasty things, from chopped lamb to smoked seafood, cheeses, mushrooms, various vegetables but always very tasty. Fillings vary from region to region but Sefik's recipes are absolutely traditional and were handed down from his grandparents.
"When I was 17 years old, I got a job in a pastry shop in Tire. There I also learned how they made their baklava and I worked selling pastries. After that, all my work was in hotels and restaurants in Kusadasi and Bodrum. During those years I picked up lots of information on different foods, how they are cooked and the ingredients used," Sefik explains.
Once Sefik arrived in Ireland, he immediately found work as a waiter in Limerick. He has worked in Texas Steakout, Market Square Brasserie and is currently working in Brasserie One at 1 Pery Square.
"I found when I came to Ireland that I really missed the tastes from home. One of the first things I started making was baklava with either apple and cinnamon or pear and almond. I would also make yayla, which is a soup made from natural yogurt, rice and mint.
"Something else I do every day is cacik, which aids digestion and is made from cucumber, natural yogurt, salt, garlic and dill. I would also cook other Turkish food such as mezze selections, kofta, shish kebabs, pilav, dolma and so on and, anytime there was a party or occasion, lots of my wife's friends and family loved the food and would say I should do it professionally."
This encouraged Sefik and gave him the confidence to think that a food business could work so he went to the Limerick City Enterprise Board for some advice.
"They recommended that I should start in my local market and build up my customer base. I started trading in the Limerick Milk Market last year with the baklava and also cooking gozleme and borek for breakfast or lunch.
"I make the gozleme with filo pastry and spinach and feta cheese or beetroot and goat's cheese. The filling I use in the borek is potatoes and onion, leek, dill and crushed cheese, or spinach and feta cheese. When I started here, it was with a couple of trays and then it just expanded and expanded with demand."
Sefik also has amazing Turkish Delight, Turkish coffee and Turkish Apple Tea, crushed chillis and more.
"I love talking to my customers about my culture and background and hearing stories about old Ireland, too. This is the best part of the job."
Baklava, borek and gozleme are €1.50 a piece.
Sefik Dikyar (085) 138-4425