A unique partnership between an organic vegetable grower and a leading restaurant is something worth celebrating, writes Joe McNamee
The Road Less Travelled – Part Three
It is really only in the last five years that fresh vegetables such as Ballymakenny Heritage Potatoes or the myriad wonderful vegetables and salad leaves grown by McNally Farm, in Co Dublin, have come to be accorded the same intrinsic value as a premium food product as say, Achill Island Lamb or Glenilen dairy products.
Many of our very best chefs have long realised the difference in quality to be had when sourcing seasonal produce from a gifted local grower but the consumer has been much slower to arrive at this destination, most probably because the bulk of consumers source their vegetables and fruit from supermarket shelves.
There was once a thriving horticulture farming sector in this country but a combination of EU and State policy largely eviscerated the sector from the ‘90s on, and we now import the bulk of our vegetables and fruit, including produce traditionally grown in Ireland for centuries, even millennia, such as carrots, onions, apples and potatoes.
Almost all of the independent fruit and veg grocers, many of them family businesses for generations, vanished within a short few years, replaced by supermarkets, so, other than those who frequent farmers’ markets buying from small local growers, several generations of Irish consumers have now grown up unaware there often exists a far superior vegetable or fruit to that found on supermarket shelves and. what’s more, it happens to be local, seasonal, and is superior, both nutritionally and environmentally.
The New Grower
But the demand for premium fresh local, seasonal produce never disappeared entirely and a new breed of grower stepped into the vacuum, often coming from a non-farming background, uninhibited by some of the more conservative practices of conventional or mainstream farming, unafraid to try something new.
One grower in particular especially encapsulates this new breed: Ultan Walsh, who with his partner Lucy Stewart, owns Gort na Nain farm, in Nohoval, Co Cork, and which, in 2019, was awarded the Collaboration of the Year for their partnership with Paradiso restaurant at the inaugural World Restaurant Awards.
This symbiosis between Paradiso and Gort na Nain is an innovation of long-standing rather than yet another iteration of recent locavore trends in world dining, with the judges noting that while there were ‘countless [worldwide] examples of close chef-farmer collaborations … [Denis] Cotter and [Ultan] Walsh’s is marked out by its longevity and synergy.’
“Paradiso seems to me to be one of the most interesting places in working for the future,”
says World Restaurant Awards Co-founder Andrea Petrini (one of the world’s most influential food critics and also a keen champion of Irish cuisine and hospitality since the 1980s), “a future with closer and more prolific collaborations between chefs and suppliers. When I go to a restaurant, I want locally sourced, the best you can find, that supports the local farmers, growers and producers and is an expression of the region.”
Paradiso was very firmly established, both nationally and internationally, by the time Ultan Walsh emailed Denis Cotter in 2001 to enquire whether he might be interested in his produce. Ultan, a post-doctoral zoology researcher in UCC, had quit his job to grow vegetables on a leased acre of land in Minane Bridge, 25 minutes drive from Cork city.
“I had other suppliers and there were only so many I could take on board,” says Denis, “but he did say he was interested in produce that I was interested in, that I couldn’t get or would have to import. I was very hung up on organics at the time and was having to import poor quality organic stuff, so he said he could grow it.
We started with simple stuff, a mutual interest in particular vegetables and how to treat them. It gradually changed, quantities were small at the start, but it changed the way we worked from ‘recipe driven’ to ‘produce driven’, a response to produce rather than coming up with a recipe and sourcing the ingredients.’
“I was kind of chuffed and a little bit surprised that he liked the things I liked,” recalls Ultan, “and then that summer his main growers were emigrating and there was an opportunity for me to supply far more to Paradiso the following year. I became the main summer supplier for the following year.”
The Concept of Imposed Seasonality
The collaborative nature of their working relationship was obvious from the off.
“We began a dialogue about varieties, size, length of season,” says Ultan, “Eventually, we came up with the concept of ‘imposed seasonality.’ If something could be grown for seven months, and you have a continuous crop for seven months, it might suit a restaurant that laminates its menus but it doesn’t suit a place like Paradiso where they want to change menus regularly. So there was imposed seasonality—so what if we can do seven months, let’s just do it for seven weeks, so they don’t get bored cooking it in the restaurant and so the regulars see the changes in the menus.”
Within a few years, Ultan and his partner Lucy Stewart bought a smallholding, in Nohoval, a few miles from Minane Bridge. A bare field formerly used to grow sugar beet and comprising some ten acres, they spent the first three years living in a mobile home on site, gradually turning it into a hugely impressive and entirely self-sustaining organic farm, that included an award-winning vegetarian B&B.
The Importance of Variety And Quality
At one stage they were producing over 100 different types of vegetables each year. Though that figure is now closer to 70, Gort na Nain continues to produce a whole list of exotic or unusual vegetables to rank alongside the more prosaic staples, growing many of them for the first time ever in Ireland despite a preponderance of ‘experts’ saying it couldn’t be done.
Told almost 20 years ago that he couldn’t grow aubergines in Ireland, Walsh’s response was to produce ten different varieties the very next season, all quite exquisite.
“I need to be doing veg that is more challenging, less common, for me to be intellectually stimulated,” says Ultan, “I need to be experimenting. When I first grew the aubergines, a chef visited the farm and asked, what’s that, what would I do with it?
“With my particular model, I am trying to offer produce that commands a premium. regardless of the way, I grow it, even though I grow organically and am very proud of that. My asparagus is the best example of that: customers are going to buy it and many wouldn’t know or care whether it is organic. All they really want is a premium local product, that is ‘fresh’— something flown in from Peru is never going to be ‘fresh’.”
Ultan, a vegetarian for decades and a vegan for the last seven years, acknowledges the Gort na Nain model is geared towards smaller yields of multiple crops rather than the intensive farming of a handful.
“Our model will never feed the world but we are topping up and adding flavour to your basic staples, rice, potatoes, plant-based protein or meat if you eat it. Pragmatically, there are certain areas of the globe that are really good for growing bulk crops such as wheat or soybeans and I’d support continuing in that vein, because remaining habitats, pristine land, rainforest and so on, is being encroached upon to produce these crops or other crops such as palm oil, for industrial use. For now, it is a better use of these prairies to supply basic crops—but to feed humans, not animals,” he maintains.
“Globally, 200, 300 years ago, meat was rarely eaten, and now we consider it a daily necessity: that is not sustainable. Also, the majority of produce from these prairies, soybeans, wheat, is going into animal feed—that is not sustainable.”
But while Ultan recognises the need to dramatically increase Ireland’s food resilience and sovereignty, in other words, our ability as a nation to feed ourselves should the import chain be disrupted, he is wary of the extremes of the locavore philosophy, of using only Irish produce.
“I don’t like the idea of a siege mentality, of closing off from the world. We are interconnected with every other country in Europe. I want to have olive oil and coffee. I think it is very important that we think of sustainability in European and even global terms and enhance those connections.”
While their crops may be unusual in an Irish context, Ultan and Lucy are firmly embedded in the local farming community, conventional and otherwise, and can see the gap between conventional and organic closing.
“I know conventional farmers going down an organic route not because they are environmentalists but for the cost savings, once you stop paying out for herbicides, fungicides, fertilisers, even the diesel costs for spraying machinery,” he explains. “‘Conventional farming’ is only an idea of the last 50 or 60 years—before that, we put nothing on the land that wasn’t natural. Once you remove these added costs and the real cost of environmental damage, your yields will not increase but they will be comparable depending on your treatment of the land and profits will definitely increase—it’s a no brainer.”
It is a common practice nowadays for Irish restaurants, good and otherwise, to namecheck their suppliers, including produce growers on their menus but there remains a uniqueness to Gort na Nain’s relationship with Paradiso.
“No other restaurant that we have supplied in the past has any relevance or comparison to what we do with Paradiso. Some restaurants—and I won’t mention who they are—would ring you up in February asking whether the tomatoes are ready yet! It’s just wild to me. It shows a total lack of understanding of ingredients, there’s not that real curiosity about ingredients. Even in the last couple of years, it’s bizarre, these are trained chefs—and I’d tell them about the seasonal aspect but are they listening? They are kind of listening, then they’d ask if we had any of a particular bean that is a summer crop!”
No other restaurant has any sort of an influence on what they grow. “We have a market and that is largely Paradiso and, if we have a surplus that they can’t use, that gets farmed out elsewhere, including to our farm stall at the gate.”
Like all farmers, Ultan and Lucy are facing some universal challenges, climate change being the biggest of all. “It has been a very challenging year,” says Ultan, “an incredibly hot spell in July—we literally had tomatoes cooking on the vine in the tunnels. After that, we had a very wet and dull August and a lot of the plants just stopped producing.
The tomatoes decided to produce fruit the size of your fingernail. Lucy had to pick every single tomato to allow them to start producing again.” Conversely, it was a great September. “That was a fabulous month for us. It’s been a mixed bag, the most important thing is, we don’t just grow one thing, we grow many, many things and every year some things will go wrong or grow badly while other things will grow well.”
And was this a conscious choice to engineer a road map for true resilience, more essential than ever in the face of the multiple challenges to modern farming?
“Actually,” laughs Ultan, “it stems from my constant desire as a horticulturalist to avoid boredom! No, it does, it does give us resilience but it is also very much about me constantly providing myself with new challenges and interesting new crops to work with.”
But for all the exotics, Ultan and Lucy also grow their fair share of the more traditional crops, not least, that iconic Christmas staple, Brussel Sprouts.
“A sprout really is the Christmas vegetable”’ says Ultan. “When you see a sprout on a plate, especially alongside roast parsnip and roast spuds, you just know it’s Christmas!”
“Seasonality is at the very heart of our menus,” says Denis Cotter, chef-proprietor of Paradiso, “and is guided by the produce we get from Ultan and Lucy in each season, and of course as winter comes and with it, Christmas, our menus will change to reflect that. We will definitely be putting a Christmassy twist on certain dishes, the sprouts, in particular, reflecting tastes and flavours and memories associated with Christmas.”
And, in that humble sprout, it is possible to arrive at the essence of what is so unique and special about the relationship between Gort na Nain and Paradiso.
“Sprouts is one of those curious crops—and broad beans are definitely in there as well—where it just shows the commitment of Paradiso to supporting smaller growers. They are both so common and so widely available and very labour intensive to pick.
Most commercial growers who grow sprouts intensively use special machinery whereas we handpick them so it would be so much easier and cheaper for Denis to get sprouts from a wholesaler. It is very easy for some chefs to work with growers if they are producing things perceived as ‘fancy’ or not freely available – scorzonera, aubergines, certain types of squash that have become quite trendy, even good tomatoes – but it is so different when you have a restaurant that will support you even by buying your onions, sprouts and cabbages.
That just shows an incredible commitment, having that close bond between a restaurant and farm, even crops that they can get elsewhere so, so much cheaper. My sprouts are five times the price from a larger grower specialising in them,” Ultan shares, “but when we are picking them we are picking the best. There is that other layer of selection that you wouldn’t get from a machine picked crop.”
Ultan values the give-and-take nature of their Paradiso relationship. “There are times when I can supply good quality high-end stuff at a ridiculously good price to Paradiso—asparagus at €15 a kilo, for example when British asparagus is at between €25 and €30 at the same time. I’m delighted to sell at that price but Paradiso still buys the sprouts, when they know they can get them way cheaper from larger growers specialising in sprouts. It takes real commitment to a grower—providing a grower can justify the price and I can because ours are very high quality. So Paradiso in a way is not a model that is replicated enough throughout Ireland, where restaurants namedrop producers, they talk the talk but don’t always walk the walk.”
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