IT’S hard to believe that there was once a time when Cork did not have a thriving farmers’ market scene.
The revival started in Cork with Midleton Farmers’ Market in 2000 after the tireless campaign of one Darina Allen who did, and still does, fervently believe in their necessity.
Since then, markets have popped up across Cork, some at the same place and time every week, all year around, rain or shine; others seasonal, while some happen just once a month.
Our own English Market and Coal Quay markets have seen a revival, albeit to varying degrees, as local people and visitors alike are drawn towards them as flag bearers of the city’s cultural identity. These pop-up centres of trade and moveable feasting are, however, more than just a tourist experience. For those that are found trading through hurricanes, downpours, snow and heatwaves, the market is a source of income, yes; but also, and more importantly, a community.
Gerald Kelleher, Gik to his friends, is the owner of Olives West Cork. His stalls are immediately recognisable for their wooden drums full of olives, pickles, dips, pesto’s and pastes. Olive oils, dried fruits, charcuterie and cheeses are all to be found gracing the table tops of his stall.
Since first opening at Bantry market in 2005, Gik and his team can now be found in 10 markets around Cork, (Bantry, Macroom, Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Bandon, Kinsale, Schull, Wilton, Douglas and Blackrock), and also in Limerick too.
“Markets are my business,” says Gik, “and I’ve built a way of life around them that I am passionate about. Markets are a community and build communities around them. They are a lifeblood in small towns, and it’s been shown over again that money spent locally stays in that region and is spent seven times over.”
When speaking with Gik, it’s not hard to see that Olives West Cork and the farmers’ market community are inextricably linked. I guess it’s hard not to when the evidence of their value is plain to see from behind the market stall.
Gik set up his original market stall in 2005. From that initial base in Bantry, the trade has grown steadily as new markets and products are added.
For many years, Gik was also the Chairman of the Clonakilty Farmers’ Market during a period of time when the popularity of the 200- year-old market was resurgent.
“Local and artisan produce has gained momentum, but we shouldn’t lose sight of its value: the quality of the food we are eating, the regionality of both food and the economy.
“I sell cheese products from Macroom Buffalo Mozzarella — primarily because it’s an extremely high quality product that I want to champion, but also Johnny Lynch is a good friend of mine so I want to support him.”
That’s the Johnny Lynch occasionally seen riding Water Buffalo and chasing habit-clad Vespa-driving Nuns on our television screens!
“Small food businesses can launch themselves into the retail space with few overheads from the very beginning if they trade at a market,” says Gik. “The opportunity for small food producers to deal with the public, look them in the eye and get immediate feedback on their produce is essential. Producers may do this for up to two years while they tweak, re-tweak and get things right.”
Where producers are encouraged to skip that step and enter the mass retail sphere as soon as possible — maybe before they are even ready for it — is an annoyance to Gik, because, he says, it creates a perception that farmers’ markets are inconsequential.
“Not so much in Cork,” says Gik, “but Cork is not indicative of the rest of the country, and unfortunately something has to disappear before you miss it. Darina Allen knew that; she understood the value of markets and has never lost that vision.”
Market politics aside for a moment, our chat precedes the real reason I am here: Gik’s smoked sun dried tomatoes. Sweet, smoky, umami-filled pockets of joy, lathered in the best quality extra virgin olive oil and marinaded in garlic and basil. I am unashamed in my praise of them and have longed to see where and how they are made.
A petit, purpose built food processing premises with two units sits in, basically, Gik’s front garden. Not any front garden though. This is nestled down a little back road somewhere in the Rosscarbery hinterland, surrounded by rolling green hills and the whispering leaves of trees next door to the birthplace of General Michael Collins.
From within one unit, a cheery ‘hello’ is greeted with a waft of dark chocolate: it’s Niamh from the Hungry Crow!
From the other unit is the deep, yearning aroma of the smokehouse. Smoking has finished, but after a number of years’ use the pervading sweet smell of oak has permeated the wooden interior so that, even after the wisps of smoke are long gone, the tantalising sensation still flirts with your emotions.
The smokehouse is a modest size, decked out in marine plywood with several tiers of racking running U-shaped around the walls. There is just enough room for one person to comfortably move around inside, and yet it produces a vast quantity of the smoked tomatoes that I have an obsession with. A flue pipe runs along the back near the ground, punctuated with holes. Outside the smokehouse is a semi-enclosed white washed space where a small domestic stove sits.
“That’s the smoker,” says Gik. “I use oak, burn it up and when it’s down to embers and any acrid smoke has burned off, I shut it down and open the flue.”
The pipe from the stove to the smokehouse has a run of around eight to 10 feet. As the smoke travels along the flue, the smoke cools.
“I cold smoke the tomatoes, they don’t need to be cooked so it’s just all about imparting that oak smoke flavour instead.”
The tomatoes are imported from Puglia in Italy where they are sundried for at least two months and then salted.
“The salting is an important part of the process; without it, the smoke flavour would not permeate the tomato nowhere near as well.”
Gik layers the tomatoes out onto the smoking racks, loads up the oak and gently smokes slowly.
“Even after the smoking is finished, I keep the tomatoes in the smoker for another day or two to capture as much of that important flavour as possible.”
After, the tomatoes are rinsed just enough to bring the salinity down, sorted, rinsed again and then covered generously with extra virgin olive oil, garlic and basil.
“It’s slow and traditional, the whole process takes up to three months to complete from sun-drying, smoking and marinading. The tomatoes are well preserved at that stage and will stay fresh for up to a year.”
They are Gik’s biggest seller on his stall by far, along with the sun dried tomato paste made from the same product. The paste adds an unbelievable rich flavour to sauces or paired with a tart cheese.
“I don’t like to over-smoke the tomatoes,” says Gik, “it’s more about accentuating the flavour of what is already an amazing product. There is a meaty characteristic to the smoked tomatoes.”
Gik’s 10 year-old son Aran pops into the kitchen. He’s following in his dad’s footsteps with his new business venture, “A+ Nuts” — freshly honey roasted almond and cashew nuts. He has a funky sign but the pattern needs a bit of work, according to his mum. Originally, it was to raise enough capital to buy a fancy Lego set, but now the goal is a computer.
A+ Nuts sell for €3 a bag at the local market and are sold out by about midday. Sounds to me like the next generation of small market holders is well underway, and thriving!
* Next in the series, Kate talks to Avril Allshire of Caherbeg Free Range Pork.