These were among the many questions asked at FoodCamp, an event held as part of the Savour Kilkenny Food Festival last Friday. This event brought together food producers, retailers, food writers, bloggers, food organisations such as Bórd Bia and lots of other people with an interest in food - asking them all to take a long and hard look at Irish food today.
Various people had volunteered to give talks throughout the day and I attended talks by:
1. Colin Jephson of Ardkeen Foodstore and John McCarthy of Trail Kilkenny Food. They spoke about the importance of retailers supporting local producers and how both sectors can best benefit from each other. As I'm currently trying to decide how I should move my cupcake business forward, this was of great interest to me.
2. William Despard of the Bretzel Bakery in Dublin's Portobello spoke of his passion for 'real bread'. His bakery has been producing high-quality breads in its brick-lined ovens since 1870 and he can't understand why so many Irish people choose to eat mass-produced slice pan instead. He demonstrated the strength of his opposition to such bread by pucking sliced pan across the room with a hurley!
William demonstrates the superior quality of his breads. This was before he hit the sliced pan!
3. Next up was my first encounter with the Dungarvan Brewing Company. I had heard so much about their beers but had never tasted them. A cheese and beer tasting session sounded like just the thing to remedy that situation!
Claire Dalton introduced the company and told us a little about its history while Helen Finnegan from Knockdrinna Cheese cut up slices of her washed rind goat's cheese for us to try.
"The French peasant tradition might have been to eat wine and cheese together," said Claire. "Here in Ireland, we had no wine but we did have beer and it tastes just as good with cheese as wine does."
And so it did. The Copper Coast red ale cut through the creaminess of the cheese and made for a great match. I'm definitely going to be trying both again.
4. Journalist Suzanne Campbell spoke on the topic 'What's Ireland Eating?'. This was a thought-provoking talk that focussed on how our choices as consumers affect Irish food producers and our health in the long term. There is a price to pay for cheap food and it's important that we all consider just what that price is and who has to pay it.
Suzanne being very serious indeed.
Then, we broke for lunch and what a lunch it was. Everyone had brought something to share and four tables groaned with the different offerings. Pies, smoked trout, cheese, salads, cakes, cookies, brownies... There was so much to choose from that people went back for seconds, thirds and more.
Bellies full, it was time for more talks. The Irish Food Bloggers' Association met to discuss plans for its future. Having been established at last year's FoodCamp, Kristen and Caroline were keen to hear people's suggestions as to how it could go forward. Basically, the consensus was that people were delighted with all they had done to date and wanted more of the same. More events and perhaps even an Irish Bloggers' Conference in 2012 - I'll keep you posted!
Finally, it was time for the Food Fight. Chaired by John McKenna of the Bridgestone Guide, two teams debated whether traditional Irish cuisine was an embarrassment or an embarrasment of riches.
The speakers included, from left to right: Seamus Sheridan of Sheridan Cheesemongers; Catherine Cleary, food writer with The Irish Times; Birgitta Curtin of the Burren Smokehouse; John McKenna; Coleman Andrews, journalist and food writer par extraordinaire; Suzanne Campbell; and Regina Sexton, food historian and food writer.
The points they made were wide ranging, challenging and interesting. They recognised the problems of the past and how our attitude to and appreciation of food has been affected by British colonisation, the Great Famine and the austerity preached by the Catholic Church. (It's not very holy to enjoy one's dinner. It's much better for your soul to subsist on black tea and toast, was the main message here.)
They discussed the changes that are happening now; how we are realising that we have a virtually pristine environment producing world-class food such as lobster, seaweed, beef and dairy. We'd already tasted some of these foods during the day and chatted to the passionate people producing them and the retailers who are promoting them so we didn't need much convincing of this.
Catherine Cleary discussed the chefs who are building on this sense of appreciation of what's native and good. Her eyes lit up as she described a creamed corn soup cooked by Ross Lewis and a meal eaten in Aniar in Galway.
The overall consensus was that we're at a good place now. More of us recognise the value of what we've got and want to celebrate it. But there were warning voices too. There was Alfie McCaffrey of OldFarm Pork who spoke about the dangers of genetically-modified food and how Irish farmers should take a stand against it. Suzanne Campbell warned of the lax regulations in labelling and retail and how that works against a quality product. Both emphasised that while we have food to celebrate, we need to do more to protect it.
It was a lady (whose name I didn't catch but who was from Bórd Bia, I think) that made one of the most salient points of all. They conducted a survey asking people unfamiliar with Irish food which cuisine they would most associate it with. The majority chose Japanese sushi because they considered Irish food to be pure, chemical free food of the highest quality.
We need to do our best to keep it that way.