I am a relentless champion of Irish producers and I believe that they are among the world's best. Here are just some of my favourites.
As many the youngest child will tell you, sometimes the most wonderful things come into this world by accident. So it was with Highbank Orchard Syrup, one of a growing family of innovative apple-based food and drink products hailing from Highbank Organic Orchards in Co Kilkenny.
Rod and Julie Calder-Pott had been producing excellent apple juice from the orchards established by Rod's father, but when the recession hit the question quickly became one of how to add value to their product in order to survive. "I remembered that back in the 1970s Rod had extracted water from apples and sold a product at the farm gate which people bought for making pies, or possibly poitin," Julie explains.
"I was playing around with the idea one day when the phone rang. When I came back, I tasted what was on the hob and thought, 'that's delicious!'"
Others agreed, and soon Highbank Orchard Syrup was picking up awards from the likes of the Irish Food Writers' Guild ("that really encouraged us to move forward") and featuring on breakfast, lunch and dinner menus all over the country. Made from nothing but apples, this "flexi-food" works as well on porridge or ice-cream as it does in salad dressings or pulled pork marinades.
"It's truly amazing what you can produce just from the humble apple," says Julie, before listing off the other products herself and Rod have been "playing around with".
A newly installed still will be operational from next month and their new organic apple gin and organic orchard spirit will hit the shelves before Christmas, distilled from Highbank's syrups and range of wild-fermentation ciders. So has all of this playing around really been totally necessary? "Well, we were spurred on by necessity… but the truth is we love what we do."
Stubbornness. Independent mindedness. And a certain dogged generosity. That's what Giana Ferguson reckons it takes to succeed at the cheese-making game. That and the lack of a business plan.
"Most people who have any plan would not get into cheese-making," she laughs. Giana also believes that you can taste a cheese-maker's personality in the end product (she cites Jeffa Gill's "subtlety" in Durrus, Louis Grubb's "Tipperary courage" in Cashel Blue). And in Gubbeen? "I'm a Libran. I'm constantly seeking balance. I don't want to produce wild cheeses but prefer strong, deep flavours."
Having escaped the austerity of her native post-war London with a Kerry Collie and a tent, and wound up in Ballydehob, Co Cork, Gubbeen Farmhouse Cheese began life as "something I could contribute" to the family farm she married into. Childhood summers visiting her "escapist" divorced father in the wilds of the Andalusian mountains had introduced Giana at an impressionable age to the joys of growing and producing your own food.
"We made fresh cheese from goats' milk every day. We would add a drop of lemon and hang it up in muslin by a sunny window." From those fundamentals of cheese-making, she began experimenting with the "gift of perfect milk every morning" from the Ferguson farmhouse to produce a semi-soft washed rind cow's milk cheese.
Now, 35 years on from her first innocent wanderings down the "rabbit hole" of learning about fermentation, she hasn't lost her fascination with the "magic of turning a liquid into solid". She believes that "fermentation appeals to people who question things - it's like a great puzzle."
That fascination has translated into 21 local jobs plus a sustainable living for her children Fingal and Clovisse, who produce cured meats and chemical-free greens respectively. Not a bad contribution, all in all.
Kieran Murphy is hatching a plan to sell rain to the Irish. An Irish citizen with a Stateside accent, the former marketing manager to a US software company returned to his family's holiday home in Dingle for a career break in the 1990s. Increasingly reluctant to leave, he and his brother Sean wondered how they might make a living this side of the Atlantic.
Struck by the quality of Irish dairy produce and spotting early signs of the nascent Irish food revolution, they honed in on their great loves in life - ice-cream, chocolate, coffee and whiskey - and asked themselves what would happen if they combined those wondrous things.
What happened was Murphy's Ice-cream, which the brothers describe as "ice-cream that knows where it's coming from". And where that is definitely not is powdered milk or artificial flavourings. Instead, Kieran explains, "we break over 1,000 eggs by hand every day to make our custard base. Our rum and raisin ice-cream has both rum and raisin. Our chocolate is chocolate. And we make as much as possible ourselves: we even make our own Dingle sea salt".
They recently developed a rain-inspired ice-cream (peat-smoked sugar, clover, nettle, mint, tea, Guinness) but Kieran's dream is to go one step further to capture, purify and showcase in a Murphy's product the Irish rain water that is "so much part of the country".
"We want to delight people," he says, but they're on a serious mission too. "Nobody actually needs to eat an ice-cream. It's about taking time out for a treat, a change of pace, and re-connecting with ourselves and with friends and family, and through that delight to allow something special to happen."
It didn't bother Declan Ryan that when he started producing sourdough bread in 1999, few Irish people knew what it was. When he secured Ireland's first Michelin Star 25 years before that, at his long-lamented Arbutus Lodge, nobody had heard of Michelin Stars either. "And when I started in the restaurant nobody had heard of courgettes or aubergines or other things that are now commonplace." Although he relished his role as "an introducer and an educator" over his 37 years of cheffing, Declan got to a point where it was time for a shift in gear.
"The stress was beginning to tell on me," he admits. "You have to constantly re-invent yourself as a chef and I was coming to the end of being able to do that. But I'm naturally very lazy and I needed something to keep my brain going and stop me putting down roots in front of the TV."
So, at the youthful age of 59, Declan set about reinventing himself one last time with what began as a "tiny bakery". Today, Arbutus Bread employs over 15 people, including seven bakers who continue to use traditional artisan methods to turn around over 2,000 sourdough and yeast loaves each night.
"You have to have a strong vision: something that you will push down all opposition in order to achieve." Declan's vision was an alternative to the "instant 'non-bread', with its so-called 'improvers'" that was masquerading as bread. "The difference is time: the average Arbutus loaf takes 20 hours to make."
Fifteen years into his second culinary career, Declan is just back from a trip to London's Borough Market to see how he can up his game. "Naturally lazy" or not, this celebrated 71-year-old has no time for resting on laurels.
Anna Leveque always had a soft spot for goats, and would regularly visit goat farms in her native Brittany. Childhood holidays on her grandmother's farm led to a master's degree in agriculture, which in turn led to a placement with Teagasc. "My English was terrible so I thought I'd come for a few months and improve it."
She stayed for a permanent job with Teagasc advising farmers on business development, followed by a stint selling Knockdrinna cheese at farmers' markets, and another making cheese with Fermoy Natural Cheese Company. It was no coincidence then that when she began to produce her own Triskel cheese five years ago, it was goats' milk she turned to.
It's been a bumpy ride since, and she has had to cling fast to the "irrational optimism" she thinks is key to farmhouse cheese-making. "I would love to be able to make a real living out of it, but I lost money last year," Anna says. The biggest challenge for goats' milk cheese producers is securing a steady supply of quality milk.
"After years advising farmers at Teagasc, I did everything that you shouldn't, and made a last-minute decision to buy 26 goats." But that investment of several months rent on housing for the goats - at a time when there was no money coming in - is paying off. "The milk is so much better that I will never go back to buying it in."
Besides, she wouldn't trade the life she and her apple- and honey-producing partner have created for themselves and their six-year-old, Lucy. "I love the whole lifestyle. We get such a kick out of watching the little one growing up in the middle of this environment, and getting to know the goats who all have their different personalities."
Find them on Facebook.
It was love that brought Birgitta Curtin to the Burren: love for the unique land of Co Clare, for the music played in local pubs, and then for Peter Curtin, the son of a Lisdoonvarna publican. When the couple married they needed a way of making their own living in Peter's hometown, so Birgitta took inspiration from her Swedish childhood. "We were hunter-gatherers," she says, listing deer, hare, pheasant, duck, smoked eel, wild blueberries, ceps and chanterelles as part of their foraged larder. "And my mother would cure and pickle and dry everything."
Birgitta wanted to give tourists coming to the nearby Cliffs of Moher a chance to "taste the landscape" she had fallen for. The smoked fish produced at the Burren Smokehouse since 1989 does just that. "The high humidity of our coastal and riverside smokehouse produces a very moist salmon," she explains. The Irish fish - mackerel, trout and organic or wild salmon - is either cold-smoked using oak shavings "on a real smouldering fire that we start with a match", or hot-smoked from the heat of a turf fire.
The smokehouse visitors' centre allows Birgitta listen directly to her customers, something she thinks is central to survival as an artisan food producer. "You can never get cocky. You always have to re-taste and re-evaluate what you do."
A suggestion from one such conversation - with the buyer at London's Fortnum & Mason - led to the development of her proudest creation: a cold-smoked, seaweed-marinated salmon. It was "love at first taste" and the umami-rich salmon was named one of the Great Taste Award's 50 Best (out of 10,000) in 2013. That the dillisk, sea lettuce and kombu are sourced from Wild Irish Sea Veg at nearby Spanish Point makes that success all the sweeter. It's all about sharing the love after all.
When Helen Finnegan decided she wanted a change of career from her role as community enterprise officer, a job which entailed a lot of public administration and process, she thought she could tap into her passion for food. "I was attracted to the idea of producing food and feeding people." Looking around at local farmers' markets in the early noughties, she saw lots of jam-makers and bakers, but not so many cheese-makers. "I probably know why now," she quips.
Elizabeth Bradley of Carlow Cheese taught her the basics and she began to experiment in her kitchen. That journey brought her to win Supreme Champion Winner 2011 for Kilree, a semi-soft, rind washed goats' cheese, and more recently Best Modern British Cheese 2013 for Knockdrinna Gold, a semi-hard goats' cheese, both at the prestigious British Cheese Awards. Despite these achievements, Helen admits that cheese-making is "absolutely not the easiest way to make a living".
"Something keeps you going though - my husband would say I do it just for the pig-iron - but at a farmhouse level there's such variation and intrigue in cheese-making, that you just keep going from the one batch to the next."
Helen produces a range of cheese from cows, sheeps and goats' milk at Knockdrinna, where she also runs a farmshop and regular cheese-making courses. "I love taking the milk and transforming it into whatever cheese best suits the qualities of that particular milk." She hopes that a recent partnership with the Little Milk Company co-operative of organic dairy farmers will support sustainable growth. "It allows me to focus on production, knowing that someone else is out there working on sales. They could have been competition but instead it's a collaboration." And as Helen's past life taught her, there's strength in community.
1 Farmers to Market Free- Range Chicken
It’s quite hard to find good-quality chicken but I have been up to see Farmers to Market in Cavan and have seen the value of their long farming tradition, their love of the land and impressive respect for livestock. They supply free-range chicken products that are really top class.
If you are put off by the price of free-range chicken, you have to start to think of it in terms of making the very most of the chicken: there’s the roast bird, the leftovers and then the stock. I think there is a big difference when you get good chicken — it tastes better and you know exactly what has gone into it.
2 Llewellyns’ Irish Apple Balsamic Vinegar
This is a staple in my storecupboard. It’s great to have an Irish-made balsamic vinegar and this product is beautifully rich. It’s made entirely from apples, which gives it a really nice, luxurious flavour and there is no nasty stuff in it either. Top class.
3 Ed Hicks Bacon Jam
I love this; it’s quirky and it is exactly what Wicklow-based butcher Hicks say it is: “The porkiest, pokiest, tangiest, most tantalising sweet/sour chutney you’ve ever tasted”. It’s gloriously decadent slathered on toast with eggs in the morning.
4 Jack McCarthy’s Black Pudding, Cork
It’s quite simple really: Jack McCarthy’s black pudding is the best I have ever tasted. He has even given it to the queen but he’s from Cork so he’s not fazed by that at all. My aunt goes to Cork regularly so she’s my supplier of a pudding that has unrivalled intensity of flavour.
5 Natasha’s Living Food
If you want to know anything about raw food, Natasha Czopor is the woman to talk to. She knows how to take pure, whole foods and make them really tempting. She does cakes, confectionery, crackers and dips but I always make sure to have some of her Super Spirulina Sunflower Crunch or her Living Sunflower/Gogi Sprinkes to put on cereal in the morning. If you are interested in health food, she is a really good person to watch.
Celebrity chef Richard Corrigan is considering opening a new vegetarian restaurant in Dublin using produce from his 100-acre estate in Co Cavan. The gardens of Corrigan's Park Hotel in Virginia are already supplying vegetables to the chef's London restaurants: Corrigan's Mayfair, Bentley's Oyster Bar and Bentley's Sea Grill in Harrods.