By Tadgh Byrne
Can we all take a moment to appreciate the work being done to raise the profile of Irish Food by our state agencies?
Since Failte Ireland’s formation in 2003, the country’s National Tourism Development Authority has been working to bolster Ireland’s international reputation as a tourism and food destination. It could be argued that Failte played a crucial role in Ireland’s economic recovery since the 2008 crash – creating initiatives such as The Gathering of 2013 and the Wild Atlantic Way in 2014 and supporting the expansion of the St Patrick’s Day festival. In 2018, €6.1 billion was generated from overseas visits – a new record for the sector – and 2019 has shown growth also.
“Food is a central part of the visitor experience – 35% of average tourist spend is on food and drink, making it worth over €2bn to Ireland’s economy every year so it’s clear that it makes a considerable contribution to Ireland. Fáilte Ireland’s research tells us that the quality of our food offering is repeatedly called out by visitors after they have experienced it. They leave Ireland with a hugely positive experience and view of our food and drink offering and leaving rating it much higher than on entering”
With this in mind, our national institutions have been putting much funding and energy into the promotion of Irish produce; the most recent example being the current ‘Taste the Island’ initiative, which will give visitors “access to authentic food and drink experiences and high-quality local ingredients” across the 32 counties, each autumn for the next three years. The campaign is boosted by €1.5 million worth of advertising from Fáilte Ireland.
The Emerald Isle now boasts an array of food festivals – A Taste of Donegal, A Taste of West Cork, Listowel Food Fair, Savour Kilkenny and A Taste of Dingle to name but a few, some of which fall under the Taste The Island time frame. These events give exposure to Irish chefs, producers, and ingredients and are backed by funding or partnership from state bodies. Credit must be also dished out in volume to private sector sponsors and to the hardworking festival organisers who make them happen.
Food trails are another feature of Taste The Island, with up to 30 of them now active across Ireland. these trails are vital for bringing visitors and food enthusiasts off the weathered tourist trails and out to some of Ireland’s lesser-known regions.
To promote Taste The Island, a group of eleven international journalists and twelve of Europe’s most influential tour operators were invited to imbibe “Ireland’s seasonal ingredients and unique food and drink experiences”. It is estimated these journalists have a combined circulation of four million people across Australia, the UAE, and Europe.
Inviting high profile visitors to Ireland and giving them fodder for their chosen media platform is an effective strategy and is one employed by Tourism Ireland of late. Four French journalists, with a combined audience of more than 4.4 million readers, were recently brought to the West of Ireland, courtesy of Tourism Ireland, to experience local food and tourist attractions. A popular Norwegian TV food channel recently filmed an episode of travel and food show with an estimated 600,000 viewers in Ireland visiting the Guinness Storehouse, Griffin’s Bakery in Galway, the Burren Food Trail, Clonakilty Brewing Company and the Midleton Farmers’ Market. The program, which also features an interview with Michelin star chef JP McMahon, is due to air in November.
McMahon’s passion project Food on the Edge, a recent two-day symposium in Galway has been a great resource for chefs and food enthusiasts wishing to promote sustainability and wellbeing within the food sector, whilst also promoting Ireland as a culinary destination. Launching in 2015, any excess costs were initially funded by McMahon and his wife, but F.O.T.E. now receives key support or partnership from Failte Ireland, Bord Bia, and other state and private sector bodies.
Starting a food or beverage company can be daunting but the good news is that, in Ireland, it has become easier in recent years. Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board, will soon be taking grant applications from food, drink and horticulture producers under their Marketing Assistance Programme for new businesses and The Step Change Programme for expanding businesses. If unsuccessful, businesses can avail of the free online resources or make an application to the Food Academy – a mentorship programme by Bord Bia, Super Valu and Enterprise Ireland.
If that’s not enough, Enterprise Ireland, or rather their subsidiaries the Local Enterprise Offices (LEO) around the country, currently offer a ‘Food Starter programme’, which helps entrepreneurs with a food business idea to get started and also provides training and guidance as to where to seek funding. While this does not cover cafes and restaurants, LEO also provides mentorship for people wishing to go down that route.
In Budget 2020, Teagasc, Ireland’s Food and Agriculture Development Authority, was allocated €8 million to boost innovation in the Food Sector and a further €9 million to proceed with the development of The National Food Hub in Moorpark. The agency helps food companies through collaborative and contract research as well as technology transfer. Also, it provides the food industry with specialised laboratory equipment and unique food processing facilities. Tourism was allocated an additional €6 million, plus another €40 million in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The agri-food sector will receive €110 million, supplemented by exceptional aid from our friends in Europe should a no-deal occur.
The EU has also been a key player in the promotion of Irish food of late. Our regional food festivals and cultural events have been supported by it’s European Regional Development Fund and the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development. Our farmers are currently in receipt of EU funding under the GLAS scheme to aid the transition to a low carbon economy.
Ireland has also been successful at tapping into EU funding – €14 million since 2017 – for the promotion of meat to new international markets under the slogan “Enjoy, it’s from Europe”. Similarly, the EU is co-funding a campaign over the next three years which aims to convince domestic millennial consumers to “Love Lamb“. Sheep farming often takes place in more mountainous or rugged regions and provides employment to these parts of the country, supporting the local economy.
If we step back and acknowledge the efforts made by both the Irish government and the European Union to promote it, we can see that the time for Irish food is now, regardless of what happens with Brexit. The only question that remains is: what part are you going to play in this story?
Tadgh Byrne is a Wicklow-based chef