Artisan food and crafts from Connemara took centre stage in France last week, with a number of local producers exhibiting at the Wine Festival Chalonnes-sur-Loire.
Graham Roberts, co-proprietor of the Connemara Smokehouse, was promoting his company’s smoked salmon at the annual festival, which is organised by the Brotherhood of Fins Gousiers d’Anjou.
What he didn’t know was that as well as giving demonstrations on salmon slicing, he was also about to join the brotherhood – a select group, known for their exacting standards in wine and food.
Graham’s wife, Saoirse, kept him in the dark until a few minutes before the ceremony, so it was, he says, a ‘great surprise’.
Describing his induction to the brotherhood, Graham said: ‘You’re asked about who you are, what you do, and about your passions. An enormous wine chalice is then presented, and each of the new inductees – there were eight of us – is given a wine glass, which is filled from the chalice. The brotherhood then sings a ceremonial song, and you have to drink your wine before the song is complete.’
A ceremonial sash is then placed around the new member by the Grand Master, who then lays a cutting blade over the inductee’s left shoulder before one final, all-important question is asked.
‘Being passionate about wines, the brotherhood want to know what each new inductee’s favourite wine is – and I suppose the tradition is that you’d say your favourite is a wine from the Anjou region.
‘But in my best French, I told them I’d go for Crémant – because it goes so well with our smoked salmon!’
Members of the brotherhood visited Claregalway Castle last September as part of the Galway Oyster Festival, and this return visit was part of ongoing efforts to build links with French food and craft buyers.
‘The Anjou region alone has a population of one million – so, given that the French love smoked salmon, building links there is potentially massive.’
Among the other Galway traders represented at the festival were Marty’s Mussels (Killary), Sandra Shattock (Clifden), Sheridan’s Cheese, Kelly’s Oysters (Clarinbridge), Galway Hooker Pale Ale and several other crafters from the ‘Made in Galway’ organisation.
The brotherhood may make return trip to Connemara in May for the Mussel Festival in Tullycross, though this has yet to be confirmed.
‘The trip was really worthwhile,’ Graham says, ‘not just in terms of creating commercial links and giving exposure to the fantastic products we have here in Galway, but also as a means of promoting the area to foreign visitors.
‘In a sense, our businesses were acting as ambassadors for the region.’
Locals were treated – quite literally – to a taste of Connemara during one of the demonstrations, which saw turf from Maam Cross being used to smoke an oyster.
Graham also came away with a positive impression of his hosts: ‘We stayed with host families, who really were so good to us. They showed us around the area and were up first thing in the morning to bring us to the festival.
‘Our connections with these people are connections for life.’
Tony Kiely – Connemara Journal