This years' Blas na hÉireann awards were very special, because this year I was in attendance not just for the craic, but as the Irish Food Producers' Champion 2023...
This years’ Blas na hÉireann awards were very special, because this year I was in attendance not just for the craic, but as the Irish Food Producers’ Champion 2023…
What does being Blas na hÉireann Irish Food Producers’ Champion mean?
First up, this award has serious chops. No-one knows who each year’s recipient will be because all the producers that are a part of the Blas network post their ballot in secret, and that’s what is so special about it.
I feel the acknowledgement even more because when I started Flavour.ie all the way back in 2012, I was inspired to do so because of the amazing food producers we have in Ireland. I wanted to do whatever I could to raise up their profile and their stories to encourage more of us, as consumers, chefs and retailers, to support them too by the simple act of buying what they were making or growing.
So, it is an honour to be selected as their Champion for this year, and for many years into the future too!
I started judging for Blas not long after I started Flavour.ie, so in many ways my participation with the annual Irish Food Awards has been an integral part of my own journey. The opportunity it brings to be a judge at these awards creates exposure to new Irish foods from right across the spectrum of the raw to the cooked, pickled and fermented! It has also been a catalyst for connecting with other industry professionals and growing my network of contacts with colleagues from right across the food world.
This year, I participated in judging again, like every other year, but I also got to work closely with Artie and Fallon (the father and daughter powerhouse behind the entire Blas enterprise), in the run up to a number of key events in their calendar.
2023 Finalists Announced
The first event was announcing the 2023 finalists with a press event at Fumbally Stables in Dublin. The event was based around a picnic style lunch and furnished with many of the products from the finalists. I worked with Fallon choosing producers from the list and opportunities to place products together to make singularly tasty bites.
This wasn’t by accident! Through their close scrutiny of producers that had made the finalists list, Artie and Fallon found that this year there were a number of co-produced products coming through. A few of these had been past Blas winners, and now were working together to collaborate on designing a new food product that celebrated the best of what both were doing.
This gave rise to the idea of the theme for Blas 2023 of “Better Together”. During the press briefing in Fumbally, we showcased some truly fabulous things, such as the Everything Bagel by The Daily Apron, Co Antrim with Whiskey & Dill Trout, Goatsbridge, Co. Kilkenny and Killowen Cream Cheese, from Co. Wexford.
There was also Long Prooving Bread by Rustic Boowa, Co. Kerry with Hazelnut Oil by ION Oils, and Venison Salami by Corndale Farm, in Co. Derry.
We had Macroom Buffalo Bocconcini dressed with Blackberry and Thyme Pearls from Burren Balsamics; Cratloe Hills Sheeps’ Cheese and On the Pig’s Back pate paired with a duo of perfect pickles by MU Pickles & Ferments (Dublin) and Pickled Beetroot (Andrea’s Kitchen, Ballycotton, Co Cork).
Sweet things came in the forms of Coffee and Pecan Tea Brack by The Cupcake Bloke paired with Cinnamon and Honey Butter by Irish Gourmet Butters. Also Miena’s Nougat collaboration with Achill Island Sea Salt, Mella’s Fudge also flavoured with Achill Island Sea Salt, and pieces of a Florentine Slab from Sugar Plum Sweetery.
For drinks, we had BKultured Sassy Berry Water Kefir, and my take on Spanish Tinto de Verano made with Wicklow Way Wines, Valentia Island Vermouth, and Kinsale Mead (find the recipe here!).
It was so much fun working on that menu with Fallon and then to showcase it to a wonderful grouping of media and food writers who enjoyed all they nibbled and tasted.
The Awards Weekend
Next up with the awards’ weekend itself which takes place every year in Dingle. It’s a feat of engineering to see the Blas “Food Village” grow up out of an empty carpark into a hustling bustling tented food village. The main hall showcases every single finalists for viewing throughout the weekend and is where the awards announcements are made. It’s the main networking hub for producers, retailers, buyers, and media people to gather and talk in an informal way.
Next to that is the Eat Ireland in a Day showcase where each of the four provinces of Ireland are showcased by a small number of Irish food and drink producers. It’s a chance to taste, talk and purchase some of the items for sale and get a real sense of the different food identities emerging from the provinces.
Last, but not least, was the Bank of Ireland-supported, Blas Backyard; a dedicated space for producers to come and listed to a curated programme of talks by some of Ireland’s leading thinkers, writers, and practitioners. It a forum for asking questions, getting advice, and gaining insights.
As the 2023 Irish Food Producers’ Champion, I was asked to be in conversation with fellow food writer, comrade in arms, and also, friend, Caroline Hennessy. Caroline and I have known each other for years, and most recently worked together as Chair (Caroline) and Secretary (me – I’m currently the Treasurer) of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild. Our theme was Better Together, drawing on that same thread of collaboration noted in the Blas process all throughout the year.
Both Caroline and I over the years have ourselves learned about the power of collaboration and the innovation, creativity and success it can bring. As food writers, we are always looking for great stories, and while one story is good, stories that come from two great people working together will always be a more compelling proposition for food writers.
We also praised the work of independent retailers and their vital role in Ireland’s artisan food story, and I touched on how this spirit of collaboration seems to point to a new level within Ireland’s independent food industry – one that shows confidence and a willingness to take a risk knowing that there is a solid foundation of support behind them now. A lot of that is thanks to the effect of the Blas na hÉireann food awards.
Watch the full discussion with Caroline here on YouTube (recorded live at the Blas Backyard) HERE.
As much as you’d love everyone to win, not everyone can. And while so many wonderful producers walked away with a Bronze, Silver or Gold award, there were also many who came home without an award. But there is always next year, and the work of the Blas team doesn’t end when the final award is called out. There is feedback and insights to share; ways that things could be improved upon; networking and connections made a-new or refreshed, and encouragement to come back again next year and try again. Maybe next time will be your time…
My thoughts inevitably float back to Cork. Hailed as Ireland’s premier food county, that still remains largely true, but be in no doubt that other counties are hard at heel and coming in strong with their food and drink offerings, too. There is no room for complacency, and I say this even as there were an incredible 39 producers from County Cork who went home with a array of awards from #Blas2023.
How did Cork do?
The winners from Co. Cork are…
What Blas Means to Winners…
Speaking as the winners were announced, Blas na hÉireann Chairperson, Artie Clifford said, “We are thrilled to see such deserving winners and finalists again this year at Blas na hÉireann 2023. Looking back on 16 years of Blas, it’s fantastic to see the standard of food and drink in Ireland go from strength-to-strength year on year. It’s a real privilege for myself and the whole Blas family to bring these products, and the amazing producers who make them, to a much wider audience.”
Diarmuid O’Sullivan, Managing Director, Irish Yogurts, Clonakilty:
“We’ve received gold, silver and bronze awards for great tasting products that we been creating for 29 years now. We’re absolutely delighted with the recognition we have got here today, and it’s testament to what we do best, which is making great tasting yogurts.”
Daniel Emerson, Stonewell Cider
“Absolutely delighted to be back at Blas again, and to have won a gold and silver in the specialised cider category, I couldn’t be happier.”
Now in its 16th year, Blas na hÉireann saw the highest number of entries with almost 3,000 products and many new producers entering the awards for the first time. Products from every county in Ireland were entered to win bronze, silver or gold awards in over 150 food and drink categories, as well as key awards like Supreme Champion and Best Artisan Producer. As the competition ramps up year on year, securing that Blas badge is a huge achievement and means those producers who are short listed as finalists and the final winners really are the crème de la crème of Irish food and drink.
For me, I’ve been watching many of these winners over the years grow and blossom from niche products to foods and drinks that are embraced as an every day part of our food culture. When I first started Flavour.ie 11 years ago, many of these products could only be found on restaurant menus or specialised retailers. Now, they are part of our daily larder of great things to eat.
There is still much scope for what Ireland can offer the world. Personally, I would like to see more innovation in the fresh food sector. By that I mean celebrating our raw ingredients more: meat, fish, dairy, but more importantly our vegetables. I was inspired recently to a visit I did to Ballymaloe Foods who have taken a strategic decision to source Irish grown beetroots and red onions for two of their most popular condiments. This is in response to the uncertainty the food sector is facing in terms of climate and adverse weather conditions unsettling the traditional, sometimes considered easier, option of where to source fruit and vegetables. It has come at a dear price to Ireland’s horticulture sector which is under incredible pressure and on the verge of a very real precipice.
But, thinking on the theme of Better Together, what better outcome could there be than for secondary producers of Irish food and drink to make a conscious decision to use the goods from primary Irish food producers. One part of the industry could raise up another: choose fairness, truly support indigenous industries, fair play and fair pay.
The ethos of Blas na hÉireann shows just how transformative, creative and innovative this sector can be so it can be even Better Together!
Early next year, I will hand over the baton to next years’ Irish Food Producers’ Champion, and I can’t wait to see who the producers will choose.
As for all of our lovely makers of Irish food and drink: get thinking now! What products of yours are your heros? Which products will be your best foot forward? What’s your story? Why are you making this? Why should people take note? Taste test over and over and be bold enough to get feedback from outside family and friends. Take that feedback positively, and turn it into opportunities for improvement.
At Blas, everyone wants you to succeed and have delicious things to eat and drink that represents the best of you. But that journey starts with you.
Many congratulations to every single winner of a 2023 Blas na hÉireann award, and the very best of luck to next years’ entrants – I’m already looking forward to what you will bring to the table.
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