HOW does one go from a sculptural ceramicist to a maker of vegan-friendly chocolates without blinking an eye?
Niamh O’Reilly’s journey from clay to chocolate isn’t as far removed as might be first thought because, in the end, it’s all about creating something that is beautiful.
The only difference is, these days you can eat the pieces of art that Niamh is making!
When Niamh decided that she could no longer sustain her ceramic addiction, (she openly professes that “I bought more than I could ever make”,) little did she know that over ten years later the creativity of this Crawford College of Art and Design trained artist would be resurrected once more for a completely different medium — creating visually stunning and delicious free-from, raw and vegan treats with her business, Hungry Crow.
“I wasn’t sure what to do when I decided to give up sculpture. I became a yoga teacher, eventually taking a job at The Olive Branch Health Emporium in Clonakilty, this was about ten years ago.
“Later we were joined by Rhoda Kingston, a nutritional therapist. I guess that was where I really started to understand the connection of food and health, and how food can be seen as medicinal as well as for fuel and pleasure.”
Around this time, Ireland was seeing an explosion of multiple healthy food and lifestyle trends. People opting to restrict their diets in some way, either through dietary needs or in pursuit of a healthier lifestyle, were finding that in many ways the food industry wasn’t quite at the races to meet the demands of this new group of consumers.
“I noticed that many people were coming into The Olive Branch looking for something sweet they could eat that met the needs of their restrictive diets, but coming up short. There either wasn’t much choice for anything free from dairy, wheat or refined sugar; raw and/or vegan, or what there was, in my opinion, didn’t taste nice,” says Niamh.
“As I continued to learn more about nutrition under Rhoda’s guidance, I started to experiment making my own sweet treats. I wanted to create something that would be suitable for everyone — free-from diets, raw and vegan; but more importantly that tasted delicious!”
Every element that goes in to Niamh’s delicious treats is made by hand, from scratch, sourcing the best possible ingredients she can, including organic and Fairtrade.
“I make my own raw chocolate that I sweeten with mulberries instead of processed sugar. I use a lot of nuts which I ‘activate’ (soaking overnight in water), to bring them back to life; making them easier to digest and taste sweeter. I also make my own nut butters.”
In 2015, Niamh began selling the first of her creations at The Olive Branch. In a town as progressive and openly embracing of new foods as Clonakilty, word started to spread rapidly and with it came a fast-growing, loyal fan base.
Soon after, Hungry Crow produce started appearing in Clonakilty and Skibbereen Farmers’ Markets, plus a growing number of independent food shops around West Cork. By summer 2016, just over a year after start-up, Niamh had to admit it was time to leave The Olive Branch and go into Hungry Crow full time.
Shortly after, Hungry Crow was awarded Best Emerging Artisan Food Product for its Coconut Caramel at the Listowel Food Festival.
“Well, it came as a bit of a shock really,” says Niamh. “The sweet itself was created by happy accident, and I had actually forgotten we’d entered it. I’ve never won anything before — except for a Christmas cake in a raffle once (I don’t even like Christmas cake), so no-one was more surprised than me to hear we had won!
“It’s so great to be awarded something like that because it encourages you to keep going; that you’re doing the right thing. It’s also great for customers too — winning an award like that is almost like a Quality Mark in itself, it gives people confidence in your product.”
Niamh’s partner, Mark Stewart, writer, artist and number one fan, ‘makes things happen’, she says.
“He suggests things that we should try; I respond with “yeah, that sounds good”, and the next thing I know it’s all been done: paperwork completed, discussions had, meetings attended and just like that — it’s ready to go!”
This was pretty much what happened with what will be their biggest challenge to date.
“We’re taking over the start-up stall at the English Market. I can’t even remember how I found out about it, and I vaguely recall having a chat with Mark about it. The next thing I knew, it was all confirmed — we’re taking over the stall for the month of June!”
It seems like the funding from the Local Enterprise Office for moving into their first proper commercial kitchen came at just about the right time. But what of the challenge of having a kitchen in West Cork but retailing in Cork City?
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge. Mark and I will be working around the clock either in production or selling; and of course there’s the whole issue of not knowing what will sell.
"Because of the connection we have to our customers through the market stalls in West Cork, we know what sells and why; but what sells in the City could be completely different. It is a huge opportunity for us and we’re ready to embrace it completely. I’m excited and nervous because it’s such a big move!” The name of Niamh’s burgeoning food business has its roots in a tale from childhood.
“I wanted to choose a name that wouldn’t pin me down to doing any one particular thing in case I ever changed my mind. When I was a child, my grandmother gave me a beautifully illustrated book of Aesop’s Fables for my birthday. My favourite story was always The Fox and the Crow, so I settled on Hungry Crow in respect of it.”
As I ask about where inspiration for new creations comes from, an undeniable misty-eyed look descends. Niamh talks about being fascinated with form right now; and how one thing can become many using the same ingredients but different methods to organically change flavours and textures creating something completely new, yet the same.
For a brief moment, I glimpsed Niamh the Sculptor. Of course Niamh still is creating sculptures but using chocolate, nuts and fruits instead of clay, stone or porcelain.
Visit Hungry Crow at the English Market for the month of June. Find them on Facebook at www.facebook.com/HungryCrow