“IT ALL slowly kicks into motion from here on. The spinach is just starting to come to life, and we’re clearing, manuring, that kind of thing. Every season has something to offer, but I’m a summer person.”
Karen Austin, the co-owner of the Lettercollum Kitchen Project in Clonakilty, knows her seasons; for nearly 40 years, she and partner Con McLoughlin have grown produce in the walled garden of Lettercollum House in Timoleague.
Early spring is a lean time for veg producers. “We have spinach, leeks and a few herbs,” Karen says.
“But for quite a long time in the summer the cucumbers, the beetroots, the tomatoes, the courgettes, whatever we can grow, will come from Lettercollum to here.”
Farm-to-fork movements have caught the public imagination recently, with the GIY (Grow It Yourself) movement, based in Waterford but with meetings held regularly in Co Cork, opening a state-of-the-art education centre and café last year and sponsoring a series of educational initiatives.
Worldwide, movements to reduce food waste, to cut down on ‘food miles’ by buying local, and to restore time-honoured techniques of low-density food production, are increasingly being viewed not only as the preserve of rich celebrity chefs, but as essential tools in providing for the world’s booming population.
Karen and Con’s decision, in 1982, to open a hostel and restaurant supplied by their very own kitchen garden, was both decades ahead of its time and evocative of an era when large houses practised self-sufficiency as a matter of course.
The couple, with a group of like-minded friends, first purchased the house and lived there communally before opening as a hostel and then a restaurant, supplied with the fresh produce that developed their kitchen’s reputation for excellence. When the collective slowly collapsed over time and members moved away, Karen and Con sold the house and retained their own living quarters in the former stable block, as well as the two-acre walled garden, which has been farmed without chemicals since their involvement.
“It was seven days a week, night and day, and we could barely pay our tax bill at the end of the year. Even though we got great reviews and everything; making money out of food is quite tricky. We thought, ‘Hey, let’s get our lives back!’ and we sold the big house. Now we have a day job.”
“We don’t pay for organic certification,” Karen says. “We used to, and it was quite expensive and it didn’t really help us very much, but it is how we believe you should grow. We have very clean, healthy land in our garden.”
They opened their shop in Clonakilty, the Lettercollum Kitchen Project, in 2004, following the sale of the house.
“It kind of started because we kept the stable block and walled garden (which has been a kitchen garden for the past 120 years). We were buried in veg, and thought, ‘What the hell will we do?’ so we opened a shop with a kitchen in it.
“We bring the veg from Timoleague to the shop, although now the shop is so successful that we buy a lot of veg in because we can’t keep up with it.”
The bustling kitchen of their Clonakilty delicatessen shop produces a range of tarts, pizzas, soups and salads, as well as charcuterie and other quality local produce. They also run cookery courses and have published their own cookbook, with a strong emphasis on vegetarian cuisine.
“I guess the timing was quite good,” Karen says. “People were becoming interested in healthy eating. It was quite slow to take off, but now there’s a queue every day at lunchtime. It’s certainly very popular.”
Lettercollum Kitchen Project employs 12 people in its shop and kitchen and relies on the assistance of “WWOOFers” (young people on the “World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms” scheme) for help in the walled garden in peak season. They were awarded “Best Private Business” at the first annual Cork Food Policy Council awards, just last month.
Cork Food Policy Council (CFPC), founded in 2014, was inspired by the success of the Knocknaheeney Community Gardens, and promotes health and wellbeing for all, a thriving local economy, food-friendly communities and a reduced environmental footprint.
Karen and Con were “really pleased” with their win at the awards, and they see their business as a good model of the type of sustainability CFPC is encouraging.
“In the shop we have a chicken bucket and a compost bucket, so all the waste food goes back to the walled garden,” she says. “There’s no dirty rubbish coming out of here.”
The shop does sell takeaway coffee, but they encourage re-use by giving a 50c discount on coffee for customers who bring a reusable cup.
With initiatives like CFPC working to raise awareness, is Karen confident that Cork’s food future is both bright and sustainable?
She hopes so, but thinks one of the biggest challenges is to get people to support local producers instead of big multi-nationals in their buying habits.
“When you go to the big supermarkets and they’re selling two mangos for a euro or a box of something for 49 cents, you have to remember that nobody could grow that and make a living, not to mention fly it around the world.
“We keep prices as low as we can because we want to make food for everybody, not only people that have got money. We do a lot of gluten-free and dairy-free products and obviously those ingredients can be a bit more expensive, but we do try to keep the prices down.”
There were winners in two other categories at the first annual Cork Food Policy Council awards.
The Horticulture Local Training Initiative at The Bessborough Centre has been running a QQI Level 4 Major Award in Horticulture and an RHS Level 2 Certificate in Plant Growth, Propagation & Development, for the past three years.
They aim to provide a caring and supportive environment for adult learning, while promoting social inclusion. Working with people who through either social, personal or geographic factors are disadvantaged, including early school-leavers and the long-term unemployed, they try to maintain a learning environment that is “positive, nurturing, inclusive, fun and meaningful.”
Churchfield Community Trust Churchfield Community Trust provides training, employment and opportunities for young men who have battled substance misuse, addiction and offending behaviour.
“Life-long, transferrable skills” are taught in a community setting through mentoring at sites on the Northside of Cork City. Horticulture skills and woodcraft are complemented with work experience in the beautiful “Garden Café” at their site in Blackpool, while 2017 will be an exciting year with the development of a larger growing area and polytunnel at their Farranferris campus.
Churchfield Community trust began supplying Cork University Hospital with their fresh vegetables in 2016, and were also nominated for an IPB Pride of Place Award as well as winning a Community Enterprise Award at the Northside For Business Awards.
ABOUT CORK FOOD POLICY COUNCIL
The Cork Food Policy Council is a non-statutory group of food system representatives working towards an inclusive, fairer, healthier and more sustainable food system.
For more information go to CorkFoodPolicyCouncil.com, or find them on Twitter @CorkFoodPolicy and Facebook @CorkFoodPolicyCouncil