I was on the Sligo train yesterday morning to the Walking Matters Conference and missed Brendan Smith's interview on Morning Ireland, but I was delighted to hear that Irish cheese was in the headlines, albeit perhaps not for the best of reasons.
A fortnight ago I met some great Irish cheese-makers at the TerraMadre event in Turin. Terra Madre is held in conjunction with the Salone de Gusto in Italy every two years and is the brain-child of Carlo Petrini and others from the "Slow Food" movement. In essence it provides a focus on food that is "good, clean and fair." He first came to prominence in the 1980s for taking part in a campaign against the fast food chain McDonald's opening near the Spanish Steps in Rome. In more recent years he has brought more more than 6,000 delegates together to promote biodiversity, provide better food education and connect producers.
Given that I have responsibility for organics and horticulture in Brendan Smith's Department. I was keen to learn more about Petrini's work. Interestingly food, and food tourism has helped turn the city of Turin around. A generation ago Fiat employed 55,000 people in Turin manufacturing cars. These days it is closer to 5,000 and the City of Turin, and surrounding Province of Piemonte has made a conscious decision to create and sustain jobs through the food industry. It seems to be working and the strong media coverage of the Conferences showed the pride of the Region and the City in its transformation. There Irish Raw Milk Cheese Presidium had taken a stand to market seven great Irish Cheeses, and Bord Bia also had taken space to market some great Irish beef, lamb, salmon and cheeses. They also were showcasing some of the great new Irish artisan products such as Irish sea salt from the Beara peninsula in Cork, as well as relishes and mustards. Italy is the fourth largest market for Irish Agriculture and there was strong interest in sampling our exports.
I paid a visit on the Saturday morning to an enormous outside food market in one of the main squares of Turin, and it showed the tremendous scope for expansion for Irish farmers' markets to provide an alternative to the supermarket multiples. David McWilliams wrote in the Sunday Business Post recently that "The recovery will be more GAA than IDA, less bond market, more farmer's market", and I tend to agree.
I met up with Alice Waters the Californian chef and activist and we discussed the importance of healthy eating policies. Vandana Shiva was also there from India, and she discussed the connections between soil, ecology and human rights.
Closer to home Darina Allen was there wearing"Slow Food Ireland" hat, as well as Michael Kelly from the "Grow it Yourself" movement. While Darina has been a strong campaigner for Irish food for many years, the overnight success of Michael's campaigning has been fantastic. His campaign to get people growing more of their own food in an allottment or the back garden has really blossomed in the last few years.
I spoke at a "European Schools for Healthy Food" event on Sunday. While most Irish schools don't have their own canteens, we have introduced food into the curriculum through the Food Dudes and Agri-Aware's Incredible Edibles projects. In addition An Taisce through the Green Flag program has encouraged the development of school gardens as a way of introducing students to environmental issues.
The two days in Italy allowed Irish producers to learn more about selling quality food abroad, as well as learn from success stories around the world. Ireland's indigenous food sector, as Oliver Moore pointed out recently in the Irish Examiner, is a key to our recovery, and is demonstrating a very different kind of business model. Bord Bia is doing good work to assist new food businesses through their Vantage Program, and judging from Turin, there's huge scope for development. Not only are the cheese-makers blessed, they're out their creating jobs for Ireland.
The Pic? That's Ralph Haslam from Mossfield Farm, the overall winner at the Bord Bia Organic Awards this year sampling his amazing Gouda style cheese.