It’s exciting times at La Cucina at the moment, I spoke here about the problems with expanding the business with the high overheads that still exist here so opening more shops is just not a risk I’m willing to take at the moment. I know they would be successful but I’m not prepared to kill myself again to pay for rent, rates,wages and everything else that goes with it so we had to come up with another way to expand. We sell some of our pasta sauces in the shop to take home and we’ve noticed the sales of them have been steadily increasing over the last year, likewise with our lasagna to take home to cook in the oven. It seems that people are looking for home-made good quality sauces made with the best ingredients to take home so that’s where we are going…..

We’re currently at the branding stage which is a very detailed process, I presumed you hired a graphic designer, they design a logo and there you go!! Ah no sireeee!! The brand has to represent what we stand for – family, culture, Italian lifestyle, passion, natural, local,  good quality etc etc and it is pretty difficult to get all this into a couple of words and a graphic, we are on the way though and get closer every meeting we have with the designers but it is all I have been thinking about for the last couple of weeks, we’re off to London soon to see if we can get any inspiration over there, they market artisan food very well in the UK and I think Ireland should look to them on how it is done….

There is a lot of talk at the moment on Ireland becoming a food island and that this is the future for the country, I think this is a great idea, we are a tiny country with amazing countryside inhabited by lots of passionate farmers and food producers and this is definitely the way to go BUT so much has to change first! I can only compare to what I see in Italy and the Uk when I go to visit my sister in Canterbury, our red tape strangles us here. There are so many rules and regulations I don’t see how this will happen??? I think a big opportunity here is the setting up of farm shops and farm cafes similar to the “Agriturismo” in Italy and which you see all over the UK countryside. There isn’t a hope you could set one up here at the moment between insurance and health regulations, planning restrictions etc etc! These cafes would be very simple places and there should be regulation about what is sold in them if grants etc are provided like in Italy, only local produce should be allowed used and everything should be made on site, no buying salads from Pallas Foods etc but the health regulations need a complete overhaul for this! They would probably only open 3 or 4 days a week and serve simple food using meat from the local butcher, veg from the local farms, the focus should be on simple food using Irish produce – soups, pies, breakfasts, Irish smoked salmon on brown bread, home-baking, Quiche with farm eggs, nothing fancy just good wholesome food.

 I spoke about a farm cafe I ate in just outside Canterbury and it was one of the nicest experiences I’ve had, the owner and staff were fantastic as they were so passionate about what they do, it came across the minute you walked through the door, you felt you had entered something special. The farm shop beside the cafe was a haven of local produce where you would browse for ages and pick up things you knew you didn’t need but had to buy. I loved it! There were 3 other units too selling local art and crafts and it really had such a nice little community spirit and character, we’ve lost that here. The small guy got lost in the Celtic Tiger and we need to bring him back, nurture, encourage, develop and take advantage of the beautiful countryside we have. A prime example is Caroline Rigny up in Curraghchase, we went up there last summer with Mini Italian Foodie, she has a little farm shop and you can wander around her farm and see the pigs and her veg patch, it’s a little piece of heaven. The place was empty and she was working herself, we bought some of her sausages and vegetables which she plucked straight from the garden in front of us, we then went down to Curraghchase park and it was packed down there with families. There was nowhere in the whole area to have a cup of tea or get a drink for the children, imagine if Caroline had a cafe on her farm it would be packed in the summer! I would go out there a lot more if I knew we could pop in there for home-made scones and tea, you would make a day of it, if she had a small play area even better!! I’m sure there are lots of places like this around the country that have huge potential???

 It would also bring the younger generation back to nature, city kids wouldn’t see an animal from the day they are born unless they go to the zoo. Mini Italian Foodie loved the pigs that day and it was the first time she had ever seen one that wasn’t called Peppa or George. Even ourselves as adults we are completely removed from the land and I would love nothing more on a Sunday afternoon than heading off for a drive to the local farm shop and cafe and picking up my veg and stuff for the week and having a bite to eat while I’m there! I know we have farmers markets but this just isn’t the same thing and to be honest I’m not a big farmer’s market fan, I would much prefer to go to the farm and buy it there. We have so much Irish produce between cheese, butter, salmon, sausages etc but it isn’t showcased like it should be, it’s all exported! If we had these kind of places we could really promote Ireland as a food destination which it really isn’t at the moment, ok we have good restaurants in the cities but go to the Cliffs of Moher or any destination in Kerry etc and you will eat muck, there are no local cafes showcasing Irish produce, we could have a food trail around Ireland which might be of interest to tourists! When I go on holiday abroad where I eat is as important as where I visit and this should be the same for Ireland if we are to become this “agri country” that everyone talks about….

As to the logistics of this I haven’t a clue, that would be up to the likes of Bordbia etc, there would be lots involved I’m sure but if they can do it in Italy why can’t it be done here? The key is it is affordable too so there should be lots of tax incentives etc, no tax, vat or rates for the first 2 years, ok so the goverment won’t make anything initially but they are investing in the people and the country and most importantly the future! This would allow people to get on their feet, enjoy what they do and re-invest back into the business then if it is a success, it’s a win win for everyone!  The prices could also be kept lower for consumers then, I don’t want to be paying €5 for a scone and tea! In Italy you pay €20 per person for a 3 course meal including wine and there is no menu, you eat what you are given as you get what’s on the farm that day! This wouldn’t work here but the key is value for money as you are eating from the land and you expect it to be cheaper! A local farmshop could also help local people, a lot of stay at home mothers are great cooks and bakers and why couldn’t they supply the local shop with their home-made bread, baking, jams etc, it’s really going back to basics and how it used to be…

Maybe I’m a bit of a dreamer and in reality it mightn’t work and probably won’t if the last few years in this country is anything to go by, all that’s left on our streets is franchises and multiples! Our local community has been decimated and the family businesses are on their knees, local is a foreign word to us now and this needs to change! We need to start thinking outside the box and it’s all well and good talking about Ireland as a “smart economy” or an “agri country” but we need to go back to basics, we have all this fabulous cheese produced in Ireland and I’d say more people eat it in the rest of the world than here, I would be interested to see what are the top 5 selling cheese in Ireland??? It is very interesting following all the “foodies” on Twitter and the passion that comes from all corners – bloggers, Bordbia, Bridgestone, Ireland Guide and other food journalists and contrast it with running a food business and the realities that we come face to face with everyday and that is the majority do not have this passion, food for Irish people is fuel where in Italy food is the main topic of conversation from the minute they wake up until they go to bed at night! We as a country don’t own our food and don’t have enough of a connection with it, the majority would still choose the breakfast roll or plastic ham and cheese sandwich from the Spar deli and why????

 We could talk about education etc but I think the main problem is access, where can you go to have home-made brown bread with Yeats cream cheese and smoked salmon from Kinvara or the Burren? where can you eat sausages from Oldfarm? Nowhere, the Celtic Tiger ruined our connection to food and “dashboard dining” overtook sitting down and eating proper food! The high street cafes & delis can’t do it because they are crippled by rents and overheads so the bottom line is their priority. We need to find a way to bring this Irish food to the people rather than just exporting it, we need to find our sense of community again, get rid of half the red tape that’s out there and start moving forward, there is no point in us all talking about becoming a food island when the majority couldn’t even name a locally produced Irish cheese or food and that is the reality, as a country we need to take ownership of the food we produce and we are a long way from that! 

 One such lady thinking outside the box is Imen who is restoring a beautiful cottage on her farm and is planning on using it for agri tourism projects like farmstays and buttermaking etc, I’m really looking forward to following her progress and I hope we see lots more like her and most importantly that she is supported from the powers that be…..

So back to the recipe, yes it’s basically beans on toast but not like you’ve tasted before:)

what you need:

2 cans cannellini beans

1 can chopped tomatoes

2 shallots or 1 small onion

basil

1 garlic clove

160g pancetta

country style bread or ciabatta

olive oil

sea salt and black pepper

1 tsp chilli

1 tsp sugar

what to do:

heat 2 tbsp olive oil in a pan, add your chopped onions and garlic and cook for 5 mins until soft but not coloured

add your chilli and pancetta and cook for 5 mins

add your tomatoes and sugar, season and cook over a low heat for 10-15 mins! Add a little water or stock if it dries out!

drain and add your beans, season and cook for a further 10 mins, add your basil towards the end

heat a dry grill pan and cook your bread, rub with a garlic clove and drizzle with a little olive oil

serve your beans on your bread and enjoy:)

p.s what is your vision for the future? what would you like to see happen with Irish food?

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