Organic Matters Magazine Mar/Apr 2010
Graham Roberts talks to Cáit Curran about running a family business on the Atlantic Seaboard…
Irish smoked fish products enjoy a well deserved international reputation as world leaders. This is hardly surprising when you look at small family enterprises that continue to turn out a quality product, year after year.
One of the most dedicated I’ve met is the Roberts family, based near Ballyconneely, Co. Galway. Their Connemara Smokehouse set up in business just over thirty years ago and continues to produce great quality smoked fish today. Graham Roberts attributes his success to a family tradition of quality. “My father was a fisherman so I grew up with catching and handling fish”, he says. “My wife, Saoirse, and I took over the business from my parents nearly twelve years ago but really I’ve been involved since a very young age.
Wild and organic salmon makes up a large portion of the smokehouse business and they have recently diversified into smoked tuna which, according to Graham, is a wonderful product, now carving out a name for the company. “My father and I began line fishing for tuna some years ago and decided to start smoking it. Rick Stein promoted the tuna and served it in his restaurant and it became a big success”, In addition to salmon and tuna Graham and Saoirse also produce smoked mackerel, traditional split kippers, smoked eel and a smoked tuna mousse. Always innovative their salmon range includes traditional cold smoked, gravadlax marinated with salt, sugar, dill and Irish whiskey, roast smoked salmon and honey roast smoked salmon. “The hot smoked started by accident and w were the first to produce it.” Graham says ‘We spend a lot of time trying a particular recipe and tweaking it that bit until we get it right”. Winning the BIM best new product award for their organic honey roast smoked salmon in 2003 indicated that they got it just right.
Graham is happy to defend his use of wild salmon. “We liaise constantly with the Marine Institute and I trust their judgement totally. Fishing for wild salmon is the most heavily policed occupation. Draft nets give the fish a fair chance and when the 32 day season ends or once the catch quota is reached, fishing stops.” Graham believes that the decline in salmon stocks is not purely down to over fishing. “Yes, there is a problem with the wild stocks but the fall in numbers is more complicated than that. It has a lot to do with the loss of traditional food sources for salmon.” He made an exciting discovery when filleting a freshly caught salmon. He found tiny crabs in the intestine of the salmon, contrary to accepted science that salmon do not feed on the return journey to fresh water. The crabs turned out to be a rare species whose home ground at sea could be identified, thus giving an indication of where and at what level the salmon had fed. This gives Graham hope that salmon are adapting when their traditional food sources are not available and it may signal a comeback for the species.
Likewise, on the question of farmed salmon, he has definite opinions. “We get asked a lot about farmed salmon. The perception is that it is all bad but, just as there are good and bad livestock farmers, there is good and bad salmon farming. It is important to know where you are sourcing your product. We source our organic salmon from Clare Island off Co. Mayo. Most smoked salmon in shops in Ireland comes from Norway or the Faroes. It is half the price and it shows in the quality.
Quality is a word that Graham gets passionate about. He feels that poor quality imported smoked salmon gives the process a bad name. “It puts people off when they try a slimy, rubbery product and it is more difficult to convert them back again.”
Getting people to try his products gives Graham a real buzz. “I love to see the effect it has on people when they try something new. It’s great to see them eating fish and enjoying it. You have to take the longer view on quality. We source the best quality locally and that has spin-off benefits for the local economy. At the end of last year we won the Best Use of Sustainable Local Fish award at the Good Food Ireland Awards.”
Having confidence in his ability and product is vital to Graham’s business. “Sometimes I forget how lucky I am and the grounding I’ve had in my work. Combining my fathers experience and my own, we have a hell of a lot of years in the business. That knowledge gives you a feel for the process that can’t be taught to a beginner. There is no other smokery that I know of when the owner handles and fillets every fish in person.”
The bulk of business at the smokehouse is done through mail order. “The French market is really good for us, “Graham says. “We were featured on some international TV programmes and documentaries and that helped business a lot. An appearance at the BBC good food show with Rick Stein opened a lot of doors as well. There German market is building nicely and we are getting more customers at home and in the UK.”
It doesn’t hurt that Ballyconneely is the holiday home choice of many wealthy Irish and international professional. Anyone fishing locally has the option to bring their fish to Graham and Saoirse for smoking and they also open for tours in summer.
Saoirse has the main responsibility for marketing, but as anyone running all aspects of a business knows, finding time for everything is almost impossible.
“Physically, we can’t expand and you lose quality when you get too big,” Graham says. “We have four small children and it’s important to find time for family a activities as well. In a small business it just wouldn’t make sense to employ someone to do what you can do better yourself. We never get complacent. Even though we have a top quality product, we can alway improve and it’s good to be open to ideas.”
Maintaining a sustainable business and a future for their children are Saoirse and Graham’s priorities. “I’m lucky that I enjoy what I do and where I live, ” he says. ” I’m never going to be wealthy, just making a living, not a killing.