By Caroline Hennessy
Irish food has moved a long way from bacon and cabbage, boxty and soda bread. At the recent Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards – full disclaimer: I’m the chair of the Guild – we celebrated eight winners at Suesey Street in Dublin. We were also there to celebrate thirty years of the awards, which were launched in 1993. Those that took home awards that year were Cáis, the association of Irish farmhouse cheesemakers, Silverhill Duck in Co Monaghan and Donnelly’s apples, which were based in Kilkenny. Thirty years later, we’re still looking to the best of Irish cheese, Irish meat and Irish-grown produce as a focus of Ireland’s food industry.
Every year, the winners are chosen independently and anonymously by IFWG members, tasted and discussed at our annual judging meeting. People only discover that they’ve been nominated for an award when they get a letter to say that they’ve won.
Cheese was a big winner this year, with Kevin and Seamus Sheridan taking the lifetime achievement award for their work in developing and growing a market for Irish farmhouse cheese. Starting out by selling cheese at Galway’s Saturday market in 1995, today the Sheridans name – and their distinctive green, white and gold packaging – means quality and the promise of something very special. By making great cheese accessible to people through their shops and supermarket counters, they’re demystifying, supporting and making the artisan cheese industry approachable. I always find it hard to resist the siren call of Sheridans’ cheese when I’m doing my shopping.
The first time I tasted Ballylisk Triple Rose was on a food tour in Limerick. It was a warm summer evening and we got to eat this white mould-ripened triple cream cheese at the perfect moment of ripeness. Triple Rose holds up, every time, as does the rest of Mark Wright’s range, which comes from a single herd in Armagh and is now part of the flourishing Northern Ireland cheese revolution. Cheese also plays a part for another winner. Native Aran Islander Gabriel Faherty of Aran Islands Goats’ Cheese won the Notable Contribution to Irish Food Award for his Aran Food Tours. Combining his abilities as a seanchaí with his grá for cheese production, Faherty describes himself as a cheesemaker and tour guide: get the best of both on a visit that combines culture, history and a visit to his own cheese factory.
From goats to sheep, and Aisling Flanagan in Mayo was on hand to pick up an award for her well-named Velvet Cloud sheep’s milk yogurt. While it’s a great option for those who have issues digesting cow’s milk, it’s a pure treat in and of itself for everyone else. I like to cook with the yogurt, mixing it with spices before slathering on a head of cauliflower to be charred in a hot oven, or spreading it across a dish as a tangy base for roasted vegetables or plopping dollops on overnight oats and fresh fruit.
I first tasted Eoin Bird’s The Wooded Pig ethically raised, free-range Irish pork charcuterie at the Euro-Torques Ireland food awards in 2019; his fennel salami is my favourite, but that’s closely followed by the other products in his range. For the awards lunch, head chef Deniss Laskeno wrapped Wooded Pig coppa around bone-in monkfish steaks for a memorable surf and turf pairing that sang on the plate. Bird won this year’s Environmental Award for his careful animal management and stewardship of the land.
Have you ever wrestled with a Lough Neagh eel? These strong and sinuous creatures are a force to be reckoned with, as are their stewards: the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-Operative. Set up in 1965, the Co-Operative has a focus on building “a sustainable and viable future for succeeding generations of fishermen” and does so by ensuring that the traditional methods of catching eels are still used. I visited them in Toomebridge in 2019, and was brought behind the scenes by Pat Close, the chair of the Co-Operative. That’s when I got to hold a live eel, for a brief moment, before it slipped and slid out of my hands. That eel, smoked, was one of our Food Award winners.
Béal Bán from Beoir Chorcha Dhuibhne – also known as West Kerry Brewery – is a delicious golden ale from Adrienne Heslin. It was the winner of our 2023 Irish Drink Award. When Heslin started brewing in 2008 in her pub, Tig Bhric in Ballyferriter, she was establishing the first brewery in Kerry. It was also the first in Ireland to be founded and managed by a woman. Using water from a well located 150 feet under the brewery, she and her team brew on a small 800-litre kit, making idiosyncratic beer that is true to its place. Some of this beer is bottled and available in off licences but all of it is worth a trip to enjoy in Tig Bhric itself.
Our Community Food Award went to Cork’s Field of Dreams, a three-acre site where adults with Down Syndrome come to learn about growing and harvesting food, cooking and good nutrition. This is a social farming community where food is used as a means to learn important life skills along with preparing participants for employment. They also have a farm shop, selling free range eggs and chemical free produce alongside plants and herbs.
In short, the IFWG Food Award winners for 2023 included smoked eel, microbrewed beer, yogurt made from sheep’s milk, Irish farmhouse cheese, sustainably farmed charcuterie and an initiative that enables adults with Downs Syndrome to work with food from seed to plot to plate. This blend of tradition and innovation is Irish food at its finest.
This Year’s Award Winners
- Food Award: Smoked Lough Neagh Eel, Co Antrim – Lough Neagh Eels
- Food Award: Velvet Cloud Sheep’s Milk Yogurt, Co Mayo – Velvet Cloud
- Food Award: Ballylisk of Armagh, Co Armagh – Ballylisk of Armagh
- Irish Drink Award: Beoir Chorcha Dhuibhne for Béal Bán, Co Kerry – West Kerry Brewery
- Notable Contribution to Irish Food: Gabriel Faherty, Aran Island Goats’ Cheese, Co Galway – Aran Island Goats’ Cheese
- Environmental Award: The Wooded Pig, Co Meath – The Wooded Pig
- Community Food Award: Field of Dreams – Down Syndrome Cork, Co Cork – Field of Dreams
- Lifetime Achievement Award: Kevin and Seamus Sheridan, Co Galway – Sheridan’s Cheese
More information about the 2023 Irish Food Awards is availablehere.
Photography provided by Paul Sherwood