Behind every good product lies some kind of drama. Clodagh McKenna seeks out a couple who have turned a remote location to their advantage.
Connemara Smokehouse is remote, literally perched an a cliff above the sea with stunning views over the Connemara Mountains and wild Atlantic. Owner Graham Roberts lives and works here with his wife Saoirse and their four children. It is a remote location, but the family does not seem in the least isolated; there is a buzz and energy in the house.
The reason for my visit was the delicious Connemara Smokehouse wild smoked salmon and tuna. The gravadlax melts in the mouth -the best I’ve have ever tasted. But it was Graham Roberts, as well as the smoked and honey roasted fish, who left the lasting impresslon. Graham is one of a new breed of savvy lrish producers. He understands marketing; he knows how to raise his profile and the importance of publicity and awards. It’s not just bluster, Graham is bursting with enthusiasm, energy and pride in his Connemara products: he doesn’t just think it’s the best in the world – he knows it. Somehow this is very un-Irish; but I believe it is what many of our producers are missing. I see that same savvy, marketing sense in the Italian producers that I see in Graham. So many producers have great products so why do they fail to market it? What is it that Graham and the Italians have that others don’t? What can we learn from them?
One thing is his passion – many producers have it but Graham is alive with it. From the quality of the wild salmon, every one of which passes through his hands, to the environmentally fishing method for the tuna which he developed with The Irish Fisheries Board (BIM) and his dad. For every product he has a unique selling point.
He tells me with pride that there are no preservatives, additives or colouring in the products; he tells me about the beech shavings he uses in the smoking – how it gives a lighter and sweeter flavour. He is completely in touch with every stage of the smoking process and can talk with great knowledge and insight about it.
I asked him where this passion came from. When he was a child his Grandmother Molly and his aunt used to come from England to Ireland for the summer months and open a small restaurant. Graham used to go shrimp fishing – he would sell some down at the harbour and he would supply his aunt’s restaurant. He got a taste for it and he never looked back.
And there’s another thing about Graham; he understands the value of a good story in marketing. He knows that family, history and tradition matter to the public. Even the windswept, wild location has a sense of drama and story about it. it is all there on the website.
His parents, Bridget and John, started the business in 1979 and used the a existing smoker that was first commissioned in 1946. Now the business is run by Graham and his wife Saoirse.
Graham is still very hands on and uses many of the old traditional methods while keeping up with new developments and technology. Once caught the fish are rapidly cooled, gutted, cleaned, hand filleted and boned. Graham actually does the filleting himself. The fillets are sprinkled with salt which is rinsed off after 8-10 hours. Then the fish is laid out on wire racks ready for smoking.
The beechwood smoke is fanned through the fish for a further 8-10 hours, then they dry for another 8-10 hours. Graham decides when the fish is ready to come out of the kiln. It is the original 1946 kiln, by the way, and holds about 90 fish.
Graham checks the fish at every stage – deciding when it is ready to move on. He actually tests each fish before it is sliced. He slices 25-30 sides of smoked salmon per hour and so if there are only 50-100 pieces to slice it is quicker to slice by hand. With a skilled slicer like Graham there is no difference between hand- and machine-sliced.
The marketing is run extremely efficiently and effectively by Saoirse. The website is fun, informative and accessible. On the homepage a leaping salmon leads a rollcall of the company’s many awards across the page. Rick Stein upgraded Graham from Food Hero to Food Superhero; the seafood circle award 2007; The Bridgestone Guide Best in Ireland six years running – the salmon keeps swimming and the awards keep coming.
On the press and news page there are photos of Graham with Rick Stein, with Jean Christophe Novelli and with the largest salmon of the season (46lbs). There are interviews, appearances listed, articles pasted, talks announced and reported on. This man is out there! If there is a fair or a function or a festival, Graham makes sure the Connemara Smokehouse has a presence there.
In addition the website has recipes from celebrity chefs; Thane Prince and Tony Tobin for example. Thane had prepared a wonderful watercress pancake with wild Irish salmon; the food styling and photos make you want to reach into the page and grab it.
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