The End of Lent

Easter eggs

It’s all happy days and celebrations here in the world of ice cream with the end of Lent, which ended at 12 noon today. (I must say that I always thought it ended tomorrow, but my Aunt Carol, not being one for undue suffering, set me straight.)

In any case, Chocolate is back, coffee is back, indulgence is back.

The shops are packed, and the smiles are large.

Happy Easter!

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Black and Tans

I just stumbled upon the following website that brought my attention to Ben & Jerry’s new flavour in the States: Black and Tan.

Even though I might be considered a competitor in the Irish market, Ben & Jerry’s is actually close to my heart because the two founders were two of many reasons I went into this business. They made ice cream more fun. They seemed to have fun at what they were doing. They had a social conscience.

I remember their ice cream as much better than it is now, before they became part of Unilever. I would eat a tub of Cherry Garcia at one sitting, marvelling at the huge chunks of chocolate and amount of cherries. I don’t remember any water in the ingredients back then.

A Black and Tan flavour? This is weird on so many levels. First of all, for some of their Irish-American customers, surely “Black and Tan” wont immediately bring to mind the drink but rather unsavoury historical references. Are they not aware of this?

Secondly, their website states this flavour is for “beer enthusiasts” but there is no beer (or stout) listed in the ingredients, just “natural flavours.”

It makes me kind of sad. Have they come so far from what they were?

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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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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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Information Overload and the Kerry Cow

Even before my recent introduction to blogging, I was suffering from information overload. I have at least five books half-read, from “Leonardo da Vinci” to the interesting and disturbing “Shopped.” I just managed to finish Tim Richardson’s excellent book Sweets, (see right) so at least I can put that aside, but the stack of books either being read or waiting to be read is alarming.

Then there’s the Irish Times, which we get every day in the shop, the food magazines such as Food and Wine that I could read all day, and my chronic addiction to the New Yorker.

I won’t even get into to trying to descripe the alarming stack of papers, leaflets and booklets on everything food and ice cream that is balancing in a huge pile in my inbox.

Add to this the wealth of available blogs, not to mention excellent Irish blogs, and I think my brain will crack! You could spend a lifetime trying to get through it. I think I need to get away from it all and just make some ice cream!

By the way, with the weather warming up and the cattle back on the grass, we should be able to get back to working with a local farmer here who has some Kerry cows.

The milk from this indiginous breed is fabulously smooth and creamy, and the preliminary tests we did last year with our ice cream were extremely positive.

We’ll be going out to the farm in the next couple of days…

Also, Clodagh McKenna just told me she has a cookbook coming out in November and has included one of our recipes. There’s a heap of Christmas gifts sorted, and it’s only March!

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Chocolate and Lent

Valrhona Organic Chocolate We are into Lent, which is a sad time for us. Customers come in looking a little mournful, and you try to cheer them up talking about the exciting new organic chocolate from Valrhona that’s just arrived and is truly excellent. They look even more desolate and say, “I’ve given chocolate up for Lent.” Yes, chocolate and Lent are anathema in Ireland.

As you know, chocolate is very dear to my heart, and the point of this certainly is not to undermine Lent. You might also think I’m just being greedy in a holy time, which is not the case at all. In fact, we more than make up for any loss of chocolate sales with lots of coffee (or even more tea, if customers have also given up coffee), chocolate-free cakes and ice cream. I guess people have to make up for that empty chocolate part of their soul.

Which makes me digress and think of my grandmother Kitty, who had a pub in Cork. She dreaded Lent because all the fellows gave up the drink. Mind you, they didn’t give up her pub, which did a flying trade. They gave up the porter, and for the whole period before Easter, got more sloppy drinking sherry, port, etc. than they ever would have done if they stuck with their usual pints.

Chocolate biteNo, what I question with this giving up of chocolate, and you might find this a bit literal, but as far as I know the concept of fasting had to do with meat. Look at the pre-Lenten festivals – “Carnival” means “Farewell to meat” in Latin. I’ve never heard of “Chocolate-val.” People who took a more stringent line on the fasting would also give up wine, and the real penitents would shun all animal products and basically become vegan. However, being vegan means you can eat natural bittersweet chocolate, which shouldn’t have milk in it.

In fact, I found this snippet in the Catholic Encyclopedia in reference to fasting during Lent: “…the custom has been tolerated of taking a cup of liquid (e.g., tea or coffee, or even chocolate) with a fragment of bread or toast in the early morning…”

“Hold on!” you might say. “What about chocolate eggs at Easter? Shouldn’t we undertake a penance for all the chocolate we will devour?” That’s good thinking, but perhaps such a fast is better suited to children.

If you study the history of Easter, the chocolate egg is a recent phenomenon, and the whole “eggs as renewal” metaphor was pagan anyway, as was the Eostre holiday. The druids certainly didn’t have any chocolate with which to cheer themselves up (or give up).

“But it’s an unhealthy sin! You should give up fags, drink and chocolate!” Is it unhealthy? The other two have serious health consequences, but there have been numerous studies to the contrary about chocolate. Check out CNN, Newsday, BBC, and the Irish Examiner to name just a few sources.

Now I couldn’t really say, “Eat chocolate, and do away with meat!” as I don’t eat meat anyway, and so Lent is a breeze. Besides, I feel in my heart for local butchers, who have a terrible time with the multiples squeezing them out of business, and forty days of lost sales would be more than any retailer could handle.

Still, I feel chocolate really is getting rough and perhaps mis-guided treatment… Might I suggest some sort of middle ground? The following list mixes penitence with a complementary feel-good factor:

List of Things to Give Up for Lent:

1. Chocolate with zero cocoa content
2. Pre-packaged meats from supermarkets
3. Tinned prawns
4. Wine in gallon jugs
5. UHT milk and cream
6. Processed cheeses
7. Non-free-range eggs
8. Anything with food colouring
9. Instant coffee
10. Fast food

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