With the implications from Brexit and Covid-19 likely to be lingering for a good while yet, there has never been a better time to support Westmeath’s artisan food producers. These delicate small-scale operations use tried-and-tested methods to produce foods of the finest quality that are healthy, nutritious and supremely delicious.
According to Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Authority, the artisan industry in Ireland generates over half a billion Euro each year – a figure that can’t be sniffed at. There are approximately 300 artisan producers across Ireland that contribute to this significant figure, in an industry that only took off from the 1980s in Ireland.
Nestled away in the small village of Milltownpass, in the south of County Westmeath is Tara Jams. This family-owned business produces a variety of the most delicious and tasty jams, chutneys and relishes. Only the best Irish ingredients are used to fill the glass jars that bear the Tara Jams label and no artificial flavours or preservatives are used.
I went to meet William McCormick, who has been running Tara Jams for the past 15 years to find out more about his business.
For the past thirty years, William has been steadily running his other business venture. He supplies free-range eggs, packed for his Barrow Valley brand, to a customer base of supermarkets, small shops, cafés, filling stations, restaurants and factories across Westmeath, Offaly and Kildare. So, I wondered how he ended up with a second business.
“I was delivering eggs to a butcher’s shop in Enfield when I noticed a little sign saying ‘Mrs Murphy is retiring from Tara jams and the round is for sale.’ After some negotiations, I successfully acquired the round from Mrs Murphy. However, I had never made a pot of jam in my life and then existing Tara Jams customers started phoning me to place orders.”
At first, you might think that what William did was quite foolish and rather impulsive, but it wasn’t. He had a ready-made network of customers who regularly bought eggs from him. Tara Jams was simply another product he was going to offer. But first, he had to learn how to make the products he was going to sell.
“My cousin Margaret, a home economics teacher in Dublin, came down for one day and showed me the basics of making jam. It was trial and error for a while until I perfected the process. Now we patiently stir the preserve mixture for as long as is necessary to achieve the desired consistency, which then gets poured directly into the jars.”
Over the years, William has adapted and tweaked some of the recipes he uses for both his sweet and savoury assortment of jams, marmalades and relishes. He makes the traditional jam flavours such as strawberry, raspberry and gooseberry, as well as, more unique ones such as brandy marmalade and blackcurrant & rum – all by hand. The Tara Jams best-sellers are marmalade, raspberry jam and tomato relish.
William’s believes that his Polish wife has had a major influence on the relishes that are available from Tara Jams. “In Poland, there is a wonderful tradition of relishes and chutneys going back for centuries. One of Tara Jams most popular products is our hot tomato relish. That particular product is based on a recipe from my wife’s family. Her family live right beside the border between Poland and Ukraine and it’s a recipe that has been passed down from many generations. She is delighted that her family recipe has been adapted for the Irish palette to be now enjoyed by so many of our Irish customers.”
Festivals, fairs and food markets are a great way for small artisan food producers to meet the trade buyers who can get their products onto the shelves of the big retail chains. But, also, artisan food producers can use high profile and well-attended events, to sell directly to the general public who might be enticed by the range of delightful aromas and pop along and visit the stand itself. William has tirelessly marketed and promoted the Tara Jams product range for many years by exhibiting at all the major events that are organised. He also has exhibited his Tara Jams range at many of the Christmas markets both in Ireland and across the sea, in the UK. On many occasions, he even had a stand at the famous Craft & Design Fair held at the RDS in Dublin each year.
2020 was an interesting year for William, despite 60% of his regular café customers having to close their doors due to Covid-19, his turnover increased dramatically. “You see, while the country is under lockdown, families who are stuck at home, just started baking. But baking requires eggs and so I was able to supply eggs regularly to the supermarkets which had to remain open, together with my Tara Jams range.”
William is cautious about the future and his industry during these uncertain times. “I would be concerned about the future. I meet people every day while out delivering and the public confidence is waning. Small business owners like me need the public to support us as much as possible. Artisan producers very rarely enter the business to make huge profits, we do it because it’s a labour of love for us and every pot of jam I make is special.”
If you’re a food lover then there is no shortage of exquisitely produced artisan food products available all year round. Products that have superior tastes and textures are made by local people who care about how ingredients are sourced and combined. Artisan producers can be considered perfectionists because they choose to make foods that will both indulge your taste buds and will be good for your whole body at the same time. The next time you are looking for a good quality jam, marmalade or relish then why not treat yourself to a jar of Tara Jam.
This article was published in the Westmeath Examiner 23/02/2021.