Article appeared in issue 4, 2020
Eye on the prize
The Blas na hÉireann Irish food awards can change the fortunes of an Irish producer. We hear from three of the 2020 winners
Often dubbed the Oscars of Irish food, Blas na hÉireann, the Irish Food Awards, are the largest blind-tasted food awards on the island of Ireland and are designed to recognise and celebrate the very best of Irish food and drink.
The awards use an innovative blind-tasting judging system, developed with the Food Science Department of University College Cork and the University of Copenhagen, that is now recognised as an industry gold standard worldwide. Products entered are blind-tasted, with all packaging and identifying features removed from products before being presented for judging, creating a level playing field for large and small producers. Judges come from a range of food backgrounds, from chefs to restaurateurs, academics, journalists and authors.
Winning an award can yield a number of benefits: research has shown that the Blas na hÉireann accreditation has the highest recognition among Irish consumers, and having the award logo encourages shoppers to buy. A survey of over 100 past winners showed that 81% saw an increase in sales after displaying the Blas na hÉireann sticker, with 28% of those surveyed saying that they saw sales increase by over a fifth.
“We have been told first-hand that the Blas na hÉireann awards have a significant impact on any winner’s bottom line,” says Artie Clifford, chairperson and founder of Blas na hÉireann, “whether it’s raising the profile of a producer’s product, or getting the attention of chefs, restaurants, retailers or general food lovers. The independent endorsement of a Blas award is a recognised quality guarantee that can help get a product onto the shelves of a particular retailer or onto a restaurant menu. It’s also always a huge boost for an individual producer, an appreciation for all their hard work and allows them to savour their achievements which they don’t often have time to do.”
At the 2020 awards, there were 140 categories, covering everything from pâtés and pies to Christmas cake and cider. We met three of the winners.
Irish Gourmet Butter won Best Artisan Product at this year's Blas na hÉireann awards for its Lightly Salted Butter. Irish Gourmet Butter was set up in 2017 by Billy and Mary Sharpe in Dunhill, Co. Waterford. Mary’s grandmother was an All-Ireland butter-making champion in 1936-37 and went on to lecture in dairy science, and Billy remembers helping to make butter as a child. The brand won Silver in the flavoured butter category at Blas na hÉireann for its Garlic and Herb Butter in 2017, and was a finalist in 2018. Churned in the traditional manner, this year’s winning Lightly Salted Butter is made using milk from grass-fed cows with ground sea salt added.
“Our first award with Blas na hÉireann in 2017, soon after we began the business, was a massive boost at the time,” says Mary Sharpe. “It was a vote of confidence and made a real difference to our business for customers to see the Blas medal logo on our butter. It’s such a fantastic achievement to win Best Artisan Product with our Lightly Salted Butter. We have to thank the farmers we work with, who ensure we get the best possible quality milk.”
Cork company Rebel Chilli won a Gold award for its newly launched Korean BBQ sauce, much to the delight of founder Paul Moore. “This is a fantastic boost for the product. Having a gold Blas sticker on the label means a customer is more likely to try it. Our Jalapeno and Raspberry Chilli Jam also won Bronze this year as well, it is a firm favourite amongst our customers!” Paul began making sauces in his mother's kitchen and after graduating from UCC, decided to go full-time with the business. As well as foodservice, he now supplies Dunnes Stores, SuperValu, Aldi and independent retail stores, as well as every Chopped outlet in the country. The range is made using natural ingredients without any additives or preservatives. “We try to link up with local suppliers where possible and are planning a limited edition 'Cork' chilli sauce made from chillies grown in Cork City. We source the barrels for our Barrel Aged Hot Sauce from West Cork Distillers in Skibbereen and this product won a Gold Star at the Great Taste Awards in 2018.”
The Bretzel Bakery was crowned Supreme Champion for its Pain de Maison Boule and at this Dublin bakery, the focus is on long fermentation and excellent ingredients to give great flavour, aroma and digestibility. A previous Blas award-winner for its baguette d’Espard and its San Francisco sourdough, the Pain de Maison Boule is a naturally fermented large round sourdough loaf using both wheat and wholemeal rye flour. “We are delighted to be crowned Supreme Champion for our Pain de Maison Boule,” William explains. “It has been a hugely upsetting time for producers up and down the country, and our own experience echoes that of many others. But with the lockdowns creating a new interest in real bread, and sourdough in particular, our customers soon taught us that even when the economy stops, the demand for good bread doesn’t. By refocusing our hospitality business towards retail, we have been able to ensure that the Bretzel doesn’t just survive this crisis, but is thriving. A Blas Supreme Champion award is a great acknowledgement of the incredible hard work and laser focus of all the wonderful staff at the Bretzel Bakery who have helped make our award-winning breads available in more retail outlets than ever before.”