FISHING FOR QUALITY
SHOWING Passion and pride for Irish Fish
Perched atop Bunowen Pier, above the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, The Connemara Smokehouse overlooks the waters that have made it the famous artisan producer it is today.
The seafood caught off these western shores have long been sought after from all over the world. The Connemara Smokehouse, run by Graham Roberts and his family, is one particular establishment that continues to showcase the quality of Irish fish, both at home and abroad.
From smoked mackerel to honey roast smoked salmon, the Robert’s family have been utilising traditional methods to produce a vast range of quality products for over 30 years. Their Irish Smoked tuna has even earned that praise from Rick Stein in his guide to the Food Heroes of Britain and Ireland, where he acknowledges the Smokehouse for their quality and rich heritage.
“My parents started the Smokehouse back in 1979. Dad was a fisherman before that and had a lot of experience with fish,” said Graham. “I always had a active role too, I started washing fish boxes for a bit of pocket money when i was four and then at 16, I took a more active role in running the business. I’ve grown up in the smokehouse and I’ve always love it.”
In 1998, Graham and his wife Saoirse took the reins of the family business and began to put their own touch on The Connemara Smokehouse. The introduced new products, oversaw a range of awards and for their hard work they were soon welcoming waves of French, German, Irish, Swiss, Austrian, American and English visitors for the tours around the premises.
It is no surprise that we see food tourists flocking to the West coast, considering Europeans have always had a strong interest in our fish. For most of our history, we have exported the majority of our fish to the continent because Irish fisherman can always guarantee a big demand there. Graham explains that this is down to our neighbours holding our seafood in such high regard.
“When we are sending our produce to customer in France, Germany and Switzerland or wherever, the fact that it is Irish fish carries a lot of weight. Irish fish as a massive reputation for quality because it is coming out of the best waters in the world. If you take the Western seaboard and the Atlantic, it just doesn’t get much better than that.”
Traditionally in Ireland, our fish exports to Europe have left us with the leftovers in terms of quality and freshness. Over the years, this has been a major factor for many people struggling to adapt fish into their diet. And just when our attitude looked in change, we encountered a ‘devolution’ in the form of the Celtic Tiger. Graham explains that during these times, our willingness to pay over the odds resulted in a flow of cheap imitation of products that were once considered luxuries.
“When I was a kid, smoked salmon was a luxury product that people had at Christmas time and as a treat, once or twice a year. Then it became a common commodity and it wasn’t even particularly nice quality. There was a big amount of people who got put off by smoked salmon because it was wet and greasy.”
When the boom times ended, Graham feared the consequences it may have on his business. It was difficult to see whether a modern generation not so keen on fish would be interested in his artisan products. Well, fortunately for us all, he found a new surge in demand for his smoked fish.
“When things get tight, people cut back on luxuries. So we were obviously concerned if we could weather the storm or not, but what we actually found was that people were starting to look at food and say ‘we have less money to spend; we want to make sure we spend it on something good’. I wouldn’t say the recession was beneficial to our business, but it certainly wasn’t harmful to it either,” said Graham.
The current economic situation has continued to shake up our eating habits because people have begun to realise that they were ripped-off on certain items. Nowadays, new artisan products are popping up as more and more Irish people are on the lookout for good quality and local products.
Yet for fish, there is still room for improvement in regards to appreciating what our seas have to offer. Graham predicts we still have some time to go before we truly begin to reap the benefits of our fish industry.
“I think people are becoming more open to eating fish, but I don’t think people are realising that in Ireland we probably have the best fish int he world. It is amazing the amound of fish we import and the amount we don’t process in Ireland. From an employment point of view, there could be ahuge amount of opportunities from processing irish fish at our ports.”
Fortunately, the number of fish enthuiasts is growing which has allowed The Connemara Smokehouse to begin stocking their products in their local SuperValu while luxury hotels like Ashford Castle and restaurants like Massimos and Kai Café in Galway are also serving their smoked goods.
It may seem like a big mission to turn the nation into a true fish eating country, but while The Connemara Smokehouse, and people like Graham, are out there, it surely won’t take long for the country to realise what we have on our own doorstep.
Irish Independent – A Celebration of Irish Food 5/10/12