Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Foodie Heroes: Take Two

I've been busy. So busy that I've been neglecting my blog. But not so busy that I haven't been eating, thinking about eating and thinking about the wonderful people who produce the food that I love to eat.

On a recent visit to Limerick, I met Peter Ward, a passionate man who - along with his wife Mary - has run one of the country's most fabulous food shops for the past 30 years. I've been visiting this shop, which also has a small café area, as a pitstop on the way to Dublin for years but have only recently visited their new outlet in Limerick City's Milk Market.
It's just as wonderful as the shop in Nenagh and I thought it was time to tell you all about it and all about Peter.

Peter is fanatical about food and practically evangelical about the quality of the food we produce here in Ireland.
"The excellence of Irish food is our oldest commodity," he says. "Think of our milk products, our black puddings, our seafood, even the oatmeal we've been producing for more than 2,000 years. All of these compare with the very best in the world."

This man should know what he is talking about given that he has devoted his life to food. Growing up in Navan, he lived in a house he describes as "the type of house where the food on the table was more important than the type of car in the drive".
His father loved food. "He was my original food hero," says Peter. "He travelled the country selling cattle and always brought food home from wherever he had been: beef, cheese, fish or black pudding."

After leaving school , Peter got a job with the Dunnes Stores supermarket chain. They sent him to Tipperary, where he met Mary - the woman he was to marry - at a local dance.
They shared a love of good food and decided to set up a speciality food store in Mary's home town of Nenagh. It opened in 1982 and in the years since then, it has become a haven for anyone with an interest in food.

Homemade salad dressings, pestos, the finest coffee beans, olives, farmhouse cheeses, wines; the list of foods you'll find here is long and drool inducing. The one thing they all have in common is that they are all of the highest possible quality.
Or as Peter puts it: "we sell the food we like ourselves, food we'd serve our visitors on a Sunday".

When they first opened their shop, their stock consisted of Mary's jams and the finest produce to be found at local agricultural shows and country markets. "I'd visit every show and market and see who had won what prizes," says Peter. "Then I'd ring them up and ask them if they could supply the shop. That's how we developed our contacts with people."

Their focus was always on organic, natural food. "We had duck eggs, brown soda bread and jam in our window that first day," remembers Peter. "They could be our family crest because they are still the basis of what we do today."

In the 30 years since then, Peter and Mary have added more and more produce to their shelves, including some of the finest artisanal produce from all over Europe. They also make and serve the best of Irish food in their café. Free-range chicken and leek gratin with colcannon, anyone?

"For us, it's all about where the food comes from," explains Peter. "Who makes it and how do they make it? These are the important questions."

This attention to quality explains why Country Choice has become a mecca for foodies in Tipperary and now in Limerick.

It's an attitude that Peter would like to see in all of Ireland's cafés, restaurants and eateries. In fact, he thinks it might be part of the solution to our current economic problems.
"Nobody is going to drop out of the skies into the rural parishes of Ireland," he says. "We need to look to our own and to what we are good at. We are good at tourism and food. Combine the two and work from there."
He believes that every tourist coming to Ireland should look forward to tasting Irish lamb, beef, butter, bread and milk. "And we should deliver on that promise," he continues. "It's treasonable to give our valuable guests cheap, foreign, mass-produced food."

You certainly won't find this at Country Choice in Nenagh. Nor will you find it in Limerick's Milk Market. Instead you will find the very best Irish food and in Peter, you will find a man enthusiastic to show you just how good Irish food can be.

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