What do a Michelin- starred restaurant in Galway, an open prison on the Cavan-Fermanagh border and an urban farm in northside Dublin have in common?
Not a lot, at first glance. But each of these operations is working to build a better future for their communities using a farm-to-fork ethos and a healthy dollop of imagination.
The farm-to-fork movement took root in 1970s California – where else? – when chefs like Alice Waters of Chez Panisse restaurant first championed the idea of sourcing directly from local farmers, fishermen and food producers.
The core idea is simple: when we close the gap between primary producers and end users, we reap many benefits. We minimise food miles, maximise freshness, embrace seasonality and encourage a greater understanding of where food comes from. We nurture small businesses, support local economies, strengthen communities and foster alternative food systems.
Four decades later, the movement has gone global. Neighbourhood cafés proudly namecheck local ingredients while elite restaurants anchor reputations on their sourcing credentials. And some are taking things to the next level. New York’s philosopher-chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill restaurant argued in his influential 2014 book, The Third Plate, that we now need to remodel what and how we eat around making the best possible use of our resources. “Our job isn’t just to support the farmer,” he writes. “It’s really to support the land that supports the farmer.”
Here in Ireland, one forward-thinking chef has been quietly forging his own way to do just that. Enda McEvoy of Loam restaurant in Galway city talks not of suppliers but ‘collaborators’. He lists them on his restaurant’s website, with heartfelt profiles of the likes of Ballyhoura Mountain Mushrooms and Gannett Seafood that speak of long-term friendship and mutual respect.
If a supplier is someone with whom you place an order, a collaborator is someone you might have a conversation with to figure out what your order will be. In the case of Manu (Emanuela) Russo and Fergal Anderson of Leaf and Root Farm, who supply over 80pc of the restaurant’s fruit and veg – no mean feat given Enda’s veg-centric menus – that conversation started long before Loam even opened.
Enda struck up a close friendship with the couple while working alongside Manu in the attic kitchen of Sheridans Cheesemongers back in 2006, when Fergal was studying human rights. “We used to joke that, one day, we’d grow veg for him when he opened his restaurant,” says Fergal. “And, look, here we are.”
Life took them elsewhere first – to Belgium, to work for the international La Via Campesina organisation, which supports small farms, peasants’ rights and people’s food sovereignty. They returned to a few acres of inherited farmland in Loughrea, Co Galway, just as Enda was opening Loam, and the friendship turned into a collaboration.
Leaf and Root operates as a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project, which Fergal describes as “an agreement between a group of people and a farmer (or farmers) where the risks and rewards of food production are shared”. Thirty-five families have signed contracts with the farm and set up standing orders for the full growing season; in return they receive a weekly share of the harvest based on what’s ripe and ready. “It means a guaranteed income for us,” says Fergal, “and a guarantee of great veg for them.”
Part of the challenge for Fergal and Manu is to maintain a continuous and well-balanced supply of vegetables. Some of the produce, such as salad leaves, scallions, garlic and herbs grown in polytunnels, is available throughout the farm’s harvest season, which in the case of the veg-box scheme runs from June to December. Other vegetables have shorter seasons co-ordinated to overlap, so that the spring cabbage of June and July is replaced by round cabbage, then Savoy and eventually winter cabbage from October on. An early season fix of greens is provided by arroche, an unusual leaf with a salty, spinach-like flavour, before the chard and spinach come into play, to be replaced later by the hardier kale. A typical weekly share might also include courgettes, bunches of beetroot, green beans, tomatoes and romanesco (a rather gorgeous-looking relative of the cauliflower) and costs €18 for a family box or €15 for a smaller version.
The system is not without its challenges for the recipients of the produce either, but for Enda that’s part of the attraction of what he sees as “a less passive version of a veg-box scheme”. As well as being encouraged to get involved and help out on the farm, scheme members must actively engage with the seasonality of the weekly share, which is not supplemented with imported produce.
For a Michelin-starred restaurant, that takes a bit of planning. “We meet three times a year and decide what seeds we want to grow, what plants we to see on the menu,” explains Enda. “And then we hope they grow!” If there’s a problem with a crop, it’s a case of being extra-creative in the kitchen – and then putting their heads together to figure out what the soil needs to remedy the problem next time around.
Enda says it suits him to have to decide so early on what ingredients he’ll build his menu around. He likes having a say in when the crops are gathered too, and having access to parts of the vegetables that wouldn’t typically reach a kitchen – the white, bitter roots of lettuce or the leaves of pumpkin. And he likes that “you know where everything comes from” and that it has been been produced without the use of pesticides or F1 hybrid seeds. Fergal likes that they “can treat the farm like a bit of a laboratory” and experiment with different varieties. “Of course, selling direct means a fairer price for us – and the restaurant or CSA member – as there is no wholesale margin.” There is little waste as they can plan the harvest around the required quantities. “Enda is very good about using up surpluses too,” he says, “and processing things which we might not otherwise have a use for.”
That no-waste philosophy is a defining feature of the cuisine at Loam. Alongside using every part of the animals and fish that they work with, making stocks from bones, rillettes and pâtés with trimmings, Enda’s team of chefs use as much of each plant, root, stem, leaf and flower as they can to highlight each ingredient and show its full potential. To complete the loop, they also send suitable food waste back to Leaf and Root Farm in Loughrea to be composted, helping boost the growth of future crops.
But for both parties, the biggest benefit of their system lies in supporting what Fergal calls “a better model of food production”, one in which a mutual commitment between food growers and end users helps to protect both against the increasing uncertainties of food security and sovereignty.