Tuam Herald by Fiona McGarry Thursday July 15th 2010
WITH ITS golden beaches and sparkling blue-green seas, the pirate queen Granuaile knew what she was doing when she built a fortress overlooking Ballyconneely Bay. Today the ruins of Bunowen Castle form a dramatic silhouette on the skyline where, on a clear day, you can also see the Aran Islands stretching out into the Atlantic.
This is the stunning view that greets Graham Roberts and his team when they arrive for work every day at Connemara Smokehouse on Bunowen Pier, Being an early riser and something of a workaholic, Graham often gets to enjoy dawn breaking over the bay.
“I could be at the smokehouse as early as five or six in the morning and the sunrise is amazing. If I’m inside, I’ll know it’s a beautiful dawn when I see the orange light seeping in under the door and up the wall.”
Of course, it’s not just the sunrise that motivates the thirty-something father of four, but a passion for producing some of the country’s best speciality food.
“If I ever sat down and worked out how much I earn per hour, I just wouldn’t do it. You do it for the love of it. There’s nothing else like it.”
With energy and drive like this, it comes as no surprise to learn that Graham isn’t an ordinary mortal. In culinary terms, he’s a super hero. Honoured as one of celebrity chef Rick Stein’s “food heroes”, Graham’s reputation now extends well beyond these shores. Thanks, in no small part, to his motto:”Stick to what you do and do it well”.
Graham’s passion for food is probably matched only by his dedication to his family, and to the culinary tradition they have built in Ballyconneely over the last 31 years. “My parents John and Bridget are English. My dad’s sister was the first in the family to discover Connemara. She and my grandmother used to run a restaurant from their house. The place used to be heaving. The road down was a sand track. Mum and dad then began to take their holidays here and fell in love with the place. Coming to live here was a leap into the complete unknown.”
The move also gave Graham the opportunity to immerse himself in the family business. “I spent my time following dad around watching what he was doing, soaking it up like a sponge. I started washing fish boxes when I was four. I was paid one penny per box. Then that went up to two pence, so I thought I was going to be rich! Still washing boxes, still not rich, but what can you do?”
Graham was in his teen when his entrepreneurial streak first made an appearance. He set up his own shellfish business with the aid of his then girlfriend and now wife Saoirse. “Saoirse and I are school sweethearts. We’re 12 years married. I used to pick mussels on the shore and sell them to local hotels and restaurants. Saoirse would come out with me until two or three in the morning , scraping mussels on a concrete block. I realised that if she was prepared to do that she was a keeper.”
Now the parents of four children – Amy (9), Keith (8), Ethan (6) and Katie (5) – Graham and Saoirse are delighted to see their love of the business passed on to a new generation. “The kids are very interested in the business, but they’ll never be under pressure to take over, because it was never like that for me. Ethan wants to open a restaurant – Soccio’s at the Connemara Smokehouse. He has it all planned out, and who knows? Someday it might go ahead, I would love to do it.”
The winner of accolades from the Then Bridgestone Guide, The Guild of Fine Food, The seafood Circle, Bord Iascaigh Mhara (BIM), The BBC Good Food Show and other top culinary titles, most of the Connemara Smokehouse business is done through it’s factory shop. Select delicatessens, including Enjoy in Moycullen and Rua in Castlebar, also stock the Smokehouse’s famous smoked salmon, tuna, kippers and other fish products – all cured with beech wood and produced according to a range of unique recipes. For those who want to see the smoking process first-hand, tours are available on Wednesday afternoons from June to August.
People across North Galway will remember the quality of the Connemara Smokehouse smoked salmon and particularly their honey roast tuna which was sold at Tuam Farmer’s market.
With contracts to produce fish products for Harrods and Harvey Nichols, and a thriving mail order service, Graham is already developing new business avenues. “I’m working on something at the moment, which could mean working with a very high profile company – we’ll wait and see.”and it seems that with every new venture comes a new award.
On the day of my visit, Graham has just received news that the Connemara Smokehouse has scooped the prize for top food stand at the Feile na Tuaithe Festival run by the national Museum of Ireland.
“We’re all very involved in developing the product with makes it hard to get out and about to shout about it. On the flip side, if you keep the quality high, over time and by word of mouth, the reputation gets out there and it keeps grown.”
More information on Connemara Smokehouse products and tours is available at www.smokehouse.ie.
” A great starter, Really easy and people will think you’re a god(ess) in the kitchen,” by Graham Roberts
Honey roast tuna with pears and blue cheese
Connemara Smokehouse honey roast smoked tuna
Some blue cheese or parmesan
Pears (1 per person)
Cut the tuna into pieces
Crumble the blue cheese or grate the parmesan
Tumble the tuna and cheese together (about 80 per cent tuna to 20 percent cheese)
Peel and core the pears and cut them in halves
Put the tuna and cheese mix on top of the pear halves and put them in a warm oven for five to ten minutes.
Serve on a white place with some balsamic vinegar drizzled around the edges
Sprinkle some chopped walnuts over the top
Serve and enjoy!