Supermarkets and the Small Irish Food Producer

empty shelfOne of the biggest challenges for the small Irish food producer is to negotiate and deal with supermaket chains. Inevitably they have all the power, and since you are small, you are very much at the mercy of their whims. Whether you remain on their shelf or not is of little interest to them, no matter how much they like to tell eveyone how important the Irish producer is to them. “Irish” is a good selling point for getting customers in the shop and feeling good about it, but inevitably Irish specialty lines will not perform as well as the huge multinationals. I don’t know how many zeros you would have to add on to our marketing budget to bring it up to the level of Haagen Dazs/Diageo (not to mention Ben&Jerrys/HB/Unilever), but it would be many indeed. It will be a long time before we shift as many tubs out of a shop as they do!

Bord Bia can be helpful to some degree at least in terms of information, but anyone going down the supermarket route must be wary. In our own case, we decided to avoid the big chains because we’ve heard the stories of specialty producers who think they’ve hit the lotto when they’re listed, spent a fortune ramping up production for the huge orders, and then a year later go bust when they are unceremoniously dropped.

We decided to go into Superquinn as a supermarket trial, and have been in their shops for about a year. Yesterday, they threatened to de-list us. I don’t know if it’s a ploy to try to hammer us down on price, or if it’s that the new frozen food buyer wants to get rid of all lines except the very best sellers, which is standard practise when they want to optimise sales per square metre. For us, being dropped would not be the end of the world, as we are only in a few of their shops and it’s a small percentage of our overall sales. However, it’s very frustrating in so far as many of our best customers are in areas served by Superquinn, and we know that they are delighted to be able to buy our ice cream without having to travel.

The point of all of this is not to complain about things being unfair. We drop products all the time in our own shops for a whole variety of reasons. It’s that I hope that eventually this site will be a better way to keep in touch with customers than mail and our website. That it also can be a way to mobilise customers in circumstances like these. Right now we have hundreds of customers who buy our ice cream in Superquinn every week, and they have no idea that it’s quite likely that buying the ice cream will soon become a lot harder (at least we have many other accounts in the Dublin area, but it’s too much to expect customers to regularly go out of their way). If we could generate 100 or more emails to Superquinn from Superquinn customers, they would have to pay attention (at least I hope they would). I know that if even three customers begged us to keep a product we had dropped from our own shop we would stock just for them.

I would love any feedback or suggestions.

A great (though depressing) reference on how supermarkets work is Joanna Blythman’s book Shopped. Also, Conor O’Neill has written a great article about small producers and blogging.

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Crema and Coffee at Home

Coffee pot Copernicus over at Midnight Court wrote in a comment here about having trouble getting good crema on his espresso using a little stainless steel espresso pot at home. Given that he said he spent time working in Italy, I assume he means one like that shown above. Practically everyone who has had a meal in someone’s house in Italy would have seen these. My grandmother, who lived on the Lago Maggiore used hers religiously every day.

I can only get very inconsistent crema myself making coffee made by this method. However, I think that the importance of crema is overstated in terms of home use.pull espresso In fact, it’s only a guide (though a good one) even in a cafe. There is a excellent article on Virtual Coffee in which the author says that while he believes crema is important, the mere presence of crema does not mean that the espresso is a good one, and that an espresso with great crema can be burnt and bitter. A friend in Dingle is so fixated on crema that he has ordered a La Pavoni pump machine like the one above after I gave him a loan of mine. It’s a beautiful machine, and it’s probably the best possible option for making espressos at home, but frankly it’s a bit fussy for my taste. When I stagger downstairs and into the kitchen in the morning, I want a coffee that tastes good, and I don’t need it to look perfect. In a restaurant or cafe, it’s a different story, and I expect both. That’s the standard for our own shops. But if my morning coffee doesn’t have any crema, I’m not going to worry as long as it tastes as I expect it should.

Caffetiere French pressI think my grandmother would have stared blankly at any mention of “crema” regarding her coffee pot, as would probably most Italians making coffee by this method. They would probably say, “If you want crema, go to an espresso bar. If you want a good coffee, stop babbling nonsense, and I will serve it to you.”

So if you’re happy with your coffee, be happy – crema or no crema! If not, switch beans. If you’re still not happy, try making coffee by another method. If you want to try the cafetiere method, it’s cheap and easy, but the coffee will be less like espresso than the above method. I bought the Bodum one on the right in Roches, and I even get a decent crema! Use good, fresh coffee and let the water cool slightly after boiling. If you want a French-style café au lait, use a dark roast ground medium-fine, make the coffee strong, warm the milk (don’t scald it) and combine about half milk and half coffee. Bring on the croissants! 

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Kerry Cow and Agritourism

I mentioned the Kerry cow in an earlier post, and this afternoon I braved the lashing rain to visit the Dingle farmer with whom we’ve been working toward using the milk in our ice cream. One of his cows had twins last week, and that means the some Kerry cow milk will be coming our way again soon!

The Kerry cow is different from the Friesian (Holstein) cows that you usually see about the place. It is an indigenous and very rare breed that is smaller, hardier, and generally much more alert and healthy looking.

I can’t wait to try making ice cream again with it!

What really excites me is that I think projects like this (i.e. farmers working with artesian food producers) can be one way that small Irish farmers can survive in the future of deminished or abolished subsidies.

Another way would be agritourism. It certainly seems that more Irish farmers should be looking at it, especially in Dingle or other places that are lucky enough to have a good flow of tourists.

They are mad for it in Italy, where people pay a fortune to pick olives, and in the US even movies have been made about city boys paying to round-up cattle at a dude ranch. Farmers gain income by offering lodgings and meals and can not only avoid having to hire help at harvesting time but get people who pay handsomely for the privilege. What could be bad about that?

Perhaps the problem here is that so many Irish people couldn’t wait to leave the farm themselves and move to the city to try to make a better living (my own family included). Perhaps the farmers who are left are so used to this state of affairs that they can’t see why anyone would want to come back, even as a tourist. But many city people see a week on a farm as a way of bringing balance back into their lives, and I think this trend will grow.

In fairness, agritourism does exist in this country in various forms, and even in Dingle with its pet farms and corn maze. There are other Irish farms at it including Sweetbank in Wicklow with its sublime fruits and farm shop/cafe, which an excellent example of how it can work…

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Honey Chai Ice Cream

chai boxOne of the best and most rewarding trips I’ve ever taken was to India. From the tea plantations in Darjeeling to the beaches of Goa to the Ganges and colours of Rajisthan, it’s an amazing country.

The eating was fantastic (as long as you do as they do and avoid meat) and the drink of choice, outside of Goa with it’s exotic fruit drinks, was chai. Served up in cans by chai wallahs (vendors) it was sweet (they use lots of condensed milk) and fragrant.

Feeling nostalgic for the warmth of India in this seemingly endless winter, I made a chai ice cream today, and decided to add a bit of honey for additional chai ice creamsweetness. I also tossed in some (but not too many) dark chocolate chips because I wanted some kick!

To the right is what the finished product looked like…

If you want to try it, the recipe is below. You’ll notice it’s almost identical to the recipe for Honey Lavender ice cream from a previous post.

Murphys Honey-Chai Ice Cream Honey-Chai Ice Cream Honey-Chai Ice Cream Honey-Chai Ice Cream Honey-Chai Ice Cream

1 Cup (237ml) Sugar
5 Egg Yolks
1 1/8 Cups (266ml) Cream
honey1 1/8 Cups(266ml) Milk
6 Chai teabags
2 Cups (475ml) Water
1 tablespoons liquid honey
A handful of dark chocolate chips.

Yield: 6 Servings

1. Boil the chai in the water until the water has reduced to 1/10th of the volume.
2. Remove from the heat and strain. Stir in the honey.
tea bags3. Beat the sugar and egg yolks together until thick and pale yellow.
4. Bring the milk to a simmer.
5. Beat the milk into the eggs and sugar in a slow stream.
6. Pour the mixture back into pan and place over low heat. Stir until the custard thickens slightly (around 70C). Use a thermometer, as at 75C the eggs will scramble!
7. Allow the custard to cool.
8. Mix in the lavender/honey and chocolate chips.
9. Whip the cream.
10. Gently fold in the custard.
11. Freeze using a domestic ice cream machine, or cover and place in the freezer.

chocolate chipsNotes: 1. I suggest you use a simple, liquid honey. Darker or more complex honeys will have a very strong flavour, so in that case use less!
2. If you can’t find chai in your supermarket, you’ll find it in the tea section of your health food shop. I used organic
Clipper chai (see top photo).

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Chocolate Chip Cookies

Chocolate chip cookies 2Since we were a little shy of cake in the Dingle shop, I went baking. Nothing fancy, just some yummy chocolate chip cookies.

I like my cookies dense not fluffy, and these make a perfect combination with vanilla ice cream, if you want to try them.

Here’s the recipe:

Murphys Chocolate Chip Cookies

135g plain flour (no rising agents)
115g butter
75g sugar
90g light brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
Chocolate chip cookie batter150g 50% good quality chocolate chips or chunks

1. Preheat oven to 190C.
2. Combine sugar, and brown sugar and melted butter and beat until light.
3. Beat in egg.
4. Slowly add flour, mixing all the time.
5. Add vanilla.
6. Stir in chocolate morsels.
7. Spoon onto a lightly buttered baking tray.
8. Bake 5 min.
9. Remove tray, rap on counter.
10. Bake another 4 minutes.
11. Transfer to wire racks to cool.

chocolate chip cookies with ice creamYield: 7 large cookies

As always, good chocolate and vanilla will make all the difference in how these taste.

The photo with the mixer is a triple recipe, so don’t worry if your mixer doesn’t look that full!

Let me know how it works for you!

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Cafetiere vs. Caffe Americano

Cafetierre2 With apologies to Markham and others who have given up coffee for Lent, I am going to return briefly to the subject, because I think we’ve made a break-through. It’s not anything earth-shattering, but still I think worth talking about.

For the last years we’ve been struggling with making a simple cup of coffee. It might seem a humble option in a board full of caramel lattes, and affogato al caffes, but still I feel it’s like vanilla ice cream – a bench mark. If I go to an ice cream shop, I often taste their vanilla because often the simplest flavours are both the hardest to do and the easiest to judge.

CafetierreIn our shops, we’ve been serving Caffè Americanos when people ask for “coffee.” The Americano is perfect for the many people who like it, but it’s not perfect for all coffee drinkers. Although many people think it’s a strong coffee because it comes from an espresso machine, the name means quite the opposite. Italians called it “Americano” years ago because it tasted like American coffee to them, the kind you still find in US diners. In other words, it was very weak to their palates.

After a lot of tasting, we’ve decided on the French-style plunger, or “Cafetiere,” for our regular coffee. We’ve chosen an organic, fair-trade bean from Maher’s and grind it quite fine. The result is a deep, rich flavour for those who like their coffee very strong. For everyone else, there’s still of course the Americano.

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Killarney, Nephews and Playgrounds

Today my brother and I left Dingle to spend a Sunday working in the Killarney shop. It was a pleasant affair, with a lot of regulars and many new customers in, mostly from Cork. I worked the espresso machine, my brother scooped, and Misha did most everything else.

Toward the end of the day my nephew showed up, and he and I headed off to the new playground in the National Park. It’s opposite the cathedral, and I highly suggest it to anyone with kids.

 It’s really a big step up in terms of sophistication from most of the playgrounds around with multiple climbing contraptions, swings, slides, but all on a bigger scale than usual.

The children (and parents) all seemed delighted, and I had to practically rip my nephew away at the end of an enjoyable hour.

There definitely are some treasures in the park besides the landscape and wildlife!

Tomorrow it’s back to making ice cream…

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St. Patrick’s Day in Dingle

A few photos from the parade in Dingle, which is a pleasant and very local affair. There was a great turnout in spite of the cold day, and of course the Dingle/An Daingean controversy played its part…

I’m too busy in the shop serving coffee and ice cream to write more!

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