EVERY Christmas, craft butcher Eoin O’Mahony tweets an old photo of his mother at her stall in the English Market, surrounded by Christmas turkeys. Nowadays, though, the family butchers’ traditional Christmas meats are joined by adventurous innovations: spiced buffalo instead of spiced beef, anyone?
More than 40 years after Katherine opened her business, O’Mahony’s butchers has truly become a family affair. The stall was opened by Katherine O’Mahony in 1974 and her son Eoin and daughter Eimear are now at the helm but, Eoin explains, the butchery trade runs far deeper than that.
“My great-grandad was a butcher from Co Limerick, a Bresnan,” he says. “Paddy Bresnan was my grandfather; he wasn’t left the farm because he wasn’t the first son. My uncle Michael Bresnan still has his stall on the other side of the market here. Bresnan’s butchers in Douglas are my cousins, and O’Flynns on Marlborough Street are my mum’s cousins.”
Eoin never intended to follow in his mother’s footsteps; although he sometimes helped out at her stall at the entrance to the market as a teenager, he went to UCC and got himself a degree in Geography and Economics with a view to building a career away from the family business.
Then, Katherine fell and broke her leg and Eoin was drafted in to help out while she recuperated. Now he’s become a passionate advocate of whole-animal butchery, re-instituting a four-year apprenticeship to pass the trade on to others, and a vocal advocate of sustainability in his trade.
“I never would have predicted that I’d still be in this business,” he says. “But I realised there aren’t enough people caring about stuff like this. I wear my heart on my sleeve when it comes to sustainability: there’s a lot of lip-service being paid to these things and it drives me crazy.”
Sourcing his meats as locally as possible to eliminate food miles is one way Eoin shows his commitment to sustainability, and it helps when the family farm is in Ballea in Carrigaline; Eoin’s uncle raises all the lamb sold by O’Mahony’s, and some of the beef, just 15km from the city.
Many modern butchers rely on large wholesale distributors; Eoin says that not only does this erode the butchers’ skills, make them produce more packaging and making traceability harder, but that due to centralised slaughtering systems it can mean an animal from 30km away could have journeyed 800km of food miles before arriving on your dinner table.
“If you buy in a box of something for grinding for mince, that meat can come from any number of animals,” he says.
“Here, it’s going to be from the one you see hanging up. Also, when you have a good bit of skill you can use every single part of the animal from the nose to the tail, so that’s what whole-beast butchery means.
“When you throw something in the bin, not only is it expensive but it’s a waste of the animal’s life and what the animal has done for you. You’ve sacrificed it, at the end of the day.”
But the butchery trade is under pressure, from supermarket chains offering more competitive prices, from the growing trend for plant-based diets, and, Eoin says, from people’s need to re-learn how to cook.
“There used to be three generations in a house,” he says.
“If you looked at what we were selling on our counter ten years ago compared to now, it’s unrecognisable. People used to be much more comfortable with looking at meat and knowing what they wanted: they came from a generation where the meat was hanging in front of them. You’d go in as a child with your mother or your grandmother and you’d be looking and she’d be choosing pieces: that’s been broken a little bit. Now, the cooking skills just aren’t there anymore. Everything’s presented to them in beautiful packaging and they don’t know how to cook.”
Combining respect for tradition with innovation is the key to keeping the business thriving, Eoin believes. He’s recently launched a new click-and-collect service on the O’Mahony’s website for his time-poor working customers, and he’s signed up to the city’s new NeighbourFood scheme, where customers can do their weekly shop from a range of local producers to collect in Barrack Street’s former apple market.
Innovation is about more than getting online: every time he holidays, Eoin takes a day to investigate butchery traditions on the continent and abroad, bringing home value-adding recipes and techniques; on his stall he’s selling a tray of Crepinettes: little fresh French-style sausage patties wrapped in caul fat instead of sausage skin for added succulence.
And then there’s the seasonal specialities; as well as spiced beef and locally sourced turkeys, Eoin is selling epicurean fare like spiced buffalo, with meat sourced from Johnny Lynch’s famous Macroom buffalo herd, and spiced tongue.
Sourcing local for his business isn’t always a smooth ride; low-intensity artisan rearing is still subject to the vagaries of the elements. This year, Christmas may be coming, but the geese haven’t gotten fat.
“We won’t have goose this year,” he says. “Geese only lay once a year and this year, my local supplier’s eggs were laid right at the start of ‘The Beast From The East’. The birds didn’t sit and the eggs didn’t hatch.”
See www.neighbourfood.ie and www.omahonysbutchers.com