Cork pioneer food artisan wins an award for her life’s work

A prestigious award was given to a pioneering Cork artisan at the 2022 Irish Food Writers’ Guild Awards this week, writes KATE RYAN, who tells us about this year’s big winners
Cork pioneer food artisan wins an award for her life’s work

Sally Barnes, of Woodcock Smokery, Skibbereen, Co.Cork with her Lifetime Achievement Award at the Irish Food Writers Guild Awards. Picture: Paul Sherwood

THE global pandemic of the last two years has required Ireland’s food producers and food businesses to innovate on a scale and speed never seen before. But, despite this, there is one standout quality that links the 2022 winners of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild awards – tradition.

Caroline Hennessy is the Chair of the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, (IFWG), the all-Ireland body that represents a voice for better eating in Ireland.

“The pandemic changed the very nature of consumer behaviour and in turn, forced Ireland’s food producers to change the way in which they operated. 24 months since we first heard the term Covid-19 we are today celebrating the artisan producers and food businesses that stepped up to the plate, continued to serve communities and dug deep during the pandemic, despite all obstacles. We are recognising those who kept moving, got creative, started new ventures and found new ways of reaching their customers,” said Caroline, announcing the winners of the 2022 Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards.

“Many of our 2022 winners are traditional products, but with a twist. From fishmonger to baker, cheese maker to the Galway duo who have played with the traditional Irish love of tea, innovative producers are putting their own stamp on things, creating something unique and something quite delicious,” Caroline says.

The winners of the 2022 Irish Food Writers’ Guild Food Awards are:

1. Food Award: Bread 41, Dublin

2. Food Award: Calvey’s Achill Mountain Lamb, Mayo

3. Food Award: Coolfin cheese, Galway

4. Irish Drink Award: All About Kombucha, Galway

5. Notable contribution to Irish Food Award: Stefan Griesbach of Gannet Fishmongers, Galway

6. Environmental Award: Rock Farm Slane, Meath

7. Community Food Award: Our Table, Dublin

8. Lifetime Achievement Award: Sally Ferns Barnes, Cork.

Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery, Skibbereen, Co.Cork. Pictured: Sherwood
Sally Barnes of Woodcock Smokery, Skibbereen, Co.Cork. Pictured: Sherwood

This year, five of the awards were presented to some of the food industry’s most inspiring women; fitting as the 2022 announcement came on International Women’s Day – including Cork’s very own Sally Ferns Barnes and one of Ireland’s pioneer food artisans.

Since 1993, the IFWG Food Awards have celebrated local producers and food heroes who have nourished and brought pleasure to the lives and tables of so many.

“We are honouring eight outstanding winners who represent what is great about the food and drink industry in 21st century Ireland. 

"From embracing sustainability and innovation to keeping age-old traditions alive, each recipient has been singled out because they can inspire us to think outside the box, do more and do it better,” Caroline explains.

The IFWG’s 2022 food awards are sponsored by Bord Bia, a relationship the reinforces the pride in Ireland’s artisan food industry.

Una Fitzgibbon, Director of Marketing and Communications at Bord Bia, said: “ We are fortunate to have a rich and evolving food culture in Ireland and these awards play an important role in celebrating the people who drive this thriving industry, locally and nationally.”

The IFWG Food Awards are unique. No business or individual can enter, nor do they know if they have been nominated or shortlisted for an award. The Guild is the sole nominating and decision-making body whose members nominate and anonymously buy products for tasting. Proportional representation voting is then undertaken at a Guild tasting meeting. Winning products must be produced in Ireland and the main ingredient must be Irish grown or produced.

Above all, the IFWG Food Awards continue to be inspired by and inspire those who dedicate their lives to the craft and skills of producing exceptional food and drink.

Once such devotee is Sally Ferns Barnes, founder of Woodcock Smokery. Sally has been smoking exclusively wild fish at her smokehouse near Castletownshend for nearly 40 years, and particularly famous for her cold smoked wild salmon. She is the recipient of the IFWG’s prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award and insists that she’s not done yet!

“I am so honoured to be awarded this accolade,” Sally says. 

“It has been my life’s work. Many times, it felt that I was pushing a huge stone uphill, but my mother gave me belligerent genes! I have always striven to do justice to and protect our precious fish. I have had experience of catching fish in my younger years and witnessing the shrinking stocks over this time.”

In 2020, Sally launched The Keep, a place where she can teach masterclasses in fish curing and smoking, to pass on her knowledge to as many people as she can. Of all the foods of Ireland, the salmon is the one that reaches farthest back into ancient folklore where man, fish, and landscape are as one. Like the magnificent salmon of Irish folklore, Sally is a modern day Fionn brimming with an excess of knowledge. In The Keep, she invites us to devour the salmon and receive all the knowledge of the world.

“I am trying to pass on all the knowledge I have gained about these issues via my teaching courses in The Keep. I have worked hard to establish myself in a male-dominated industry, whilst bringing up my two beloved daughters,” one of which, Joleine was Sally’s production manager for fifteen years.

“I hope that my efforts might encourage others to be brave and begin their lifelong journey of discovery. Life is for learning, good and bad, overcoming obstacles, and gaining confidence in your chosen field, and I owe debts of gratitude to many other women who gave me their time and encouragement when I really needed it.”

They say it takes a village, and as Sally begins to roll off the names of those who have helped her in any number of ways, including those no longer with us, the circle of influence becomes great indeed.

There is Max Jones, her apprentice of recent years and who helped Sally establish The Keep and often records her artistry through his unique eye for photography; and Caroline Knight “who is my right-hand woman these days.”

“Alan Murray, Stephen Walsh, Mikey Walsh and Eamonn Uniacke – my current salmon men, Donal Finn (former salmon man, now supplier), the Crowley Family, Pietro Fumagalli, and all my Slowfood University interns. Darina Allen, Jeffa Gill and Giana Ferguson. Neil Grant, Alex Petit, Ahmet Dede, Barry Busteed, Adrian Honan, Bernard Grandejean. Sally and John McKenna, Joe MacNamee, Michael Quinn, and Will Peers. Mark Boyden, Streamscapes Educational project; Derry Clarke, Paul Currivan, Robert Heaslip. Glenmar Shellfish staff. Mike and Anne Casey. Stuart and Evie Fuller; Carol Gilbert, Stephen Sage, Gill Boazman, and Anthony O’Toole.”

“Much-loved and respected late friends, Myrtle Allen, Danette Milne, Veronica Steele, Iris Diebrok, Mary Kelly Critchlow and Toni McDermott.

“It’s been a long life full of many memories, but I am not done yet with learning every day!”

Sally is one of the original pioneer women of West Cork food, settling in that rugged land in the 1970s and going on to create delicious things of true artisanship that shine brightly in the firmament of Ireland’s most iconic foods.

Sally is the last person in Ireland that exclusively handles wild fish - not just salmon, but mackerel, pollock, haddock, and tuna are all transformed in her hands through the careful application of patience, time, a little salt, and gentle smoke.

She is a keystone in the age-old traditions of our Irish food culture. 

Those closest to Sally knows her best. It seems fitting, then, for the final word to go to her apprentice, co-founder of The Keep, and friend, Max Jones.

“I’m really drawn to authenticity, particularly in food because it contextualises people, their food and where they dwell. 

"Amongst a heap of artisan this and hand crafted that, Sally is remarkably true. She was a fisherwoman, married to a fisherman; she understands the sea, she understands the fish, and is totally in tune with how to process it. It’s not just about smoking fish, it’s this intuitive understanding of what food is.

 “When I came to Ireland to meet Sally, I wanted to find out what I could to somehow keep alive the smokery and the tradition of smoking wild salmon. But what I discovered was more than that; working with Sally exposed me to one of the most bubbly, creative, honest, amazing brains I’ve ever come across. We’ve become great and close friends.”

See www.woodcocksmokery.com

A special Ezine was produced by IFWG to commemorate the 2022 winners, see https://issuu.com/irishfoodwritersguild/docs/irish_food_writers_guild_2022

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