Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat — unlucky for the bird but good for the farmer whose busiest time of year is nigh as households stock fridges and larders to treat family and loved ones over the festive period.
But while getting the Christmas shop in is high on most people’s agenda, not many will be thinking about where their food has come from.
With the current focus on the climate crisis adding to the already important need to buy local and support small producers, we spoke to three artisan producers who are busy preparing some of the components for your upcoming festive feast.
Having studied Agriculture in Cavan before going on to specialise in poultry management at Loughry College in Cookstown, Co Tyrone, Kenneth Moffitt set up Thornhill Duck Farm in Blacklion, Co Cavan, with his wife Sorcha two decades ago.
The family-run business (the couple together with their four children) specialises in duck, but they also rear geese, most of which are currently getting ready for the Christmas market.
“I spotted an opening for free range geese and duck and was lucky that I could start rearing the produce from my family farm, supplying local butchers and restaurants during the Easter and Christmas period,” says Kenneth.
“For me, the key for a sweet-tasting and full bird was a specialist diet and farm ground. Thankfully, I had huge support from local businesses and started to distribute to the wider north-west area with demand going beyond the Easter and Christmas seasons.”
Lisdergan Meats is its main distributor in Northern Ireland, with festive orders coming in since September.
“We are currently rearing 140 geese and they are already sold out,” explains Kenneth.
“Rearing geese to our standards requires a significant amount of time and correct feed so we only do a small amount to ensure we retain the best quality and taste.
“Whole duck is exceptionally popular, followed by breasts and legs. On an average week, we would produce around 250 packaged items and that would quadruple during the peak two-week Christmas period.
“We are a very small operation, compared to others, so it’s all hands-on-deck from early November.
“All our stock is farm fresh, so it is a very short lead-in time from the processing to a customer’s plate. On some days in the run-up to the Christmas period, we could work up to 17 hours a day to ensure it’s processed, packaged, and ready for distribution.”
As with a lot of businesses, getting staff is an issue but Kenneth says they’re lucky their extended family enjoy helping out.
“We will have Christmas Day off, but the New Year will be very busy, so we are straight back at it on Stephen’s Day (Boxing Day),” he says. “As with all family-owned farms and producers, it is hard to switch off as there is always something to be done such as feeding and bedding of the ducks.
“In January things slow down in terms of orders, so I use the time to carry out essential works on the farm or go visit our customers. I am blessed that many of them have been with me for the last 30 years so it’s nice to travel and meet them.
“I still get a great buzz from seeing our duck listed on menus or in a butcher shop. And as well as being stocked in Dunnes Stores, it is available in a number of hotels and restaurants across Northern Ireland.”
For many people, Christmas just wouldn’t be the same without a big selection of cheese — and outside the village of Park in Derry, Julie and Kevin Hickey are busy finalising their artisan produce (which includes five cow’s milk cheeses and three made from goat’s milk) at Dart Mountain Cheese which is located on the western slopes of the Sperrin Mountains and has been in operation since 2010.
“We are a family business, and all our milk is sourced locally. With regard to the Christmas market, we begin making extra cheese in June as our cow’s milk cheeses take a minimum of two months so whatever is made by the end of October is what we will have to sell, so it is always a bit of a guessing game as we don’t want to over or under produce,” says Julie. “We make around four batches of cheese per week which is roughly 16 large wheels each day. These can then be broken down for retailing in small shops or sold as full wheels to specialist cheese stores — and we also make a range of chutneys and drizzles.
“Demand has been brisk all year and we expect this to continue into 2022. Our Sperrin Blue cheese is our biggest seller and at Christmas our unique hampers fly out to homes across Ireland and Britain.
“We stop the actual cheese production at the end of the first week of December to free up time to ensure our orders are met in time. So we focus on hampers, our own and others we supply to, and there is always a Christmas wedding which needs us to provide the cheese for their unique wedding cake.”
The company’s quiet time doesn’t happen until after the first week in January, and after a short break they get back into it. “We have a great local interest in our produce and provide cheese tours around this time to family who have come home for Christmas,” says Julie.
“At this stage, we have been in operation for 11 years and our business was established from a desire to create beautiful cheeses using some of the best cow’s milk in the world — and our sheer love of the magic of cheese making.”
Christmas is a time when most people throw their calorie-controlled diets to the wind while they enjoy a little bit of unbridled indulgence — it is the one time of the year when we can tuck into cakes, chocolates and sweet treats without (too much) guilt.
So when Sarah Jane Carville, who works part-time in an accountancy practice, started creating delicious bakes and other goodies in Crossmaglen, the word got out and it wasn’t long before Carville & McGrath Speciality Confectionary, which she set up with her dad and uncle in 2019, was born.
“I enjoy the creativity and flexibility of producing customised products for my customers and offer gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free and vegan options on all my bakes and desserts,” says Sarah Jane.
“We also produce a range of jams and chutneys under the brand Crossmaglen Jam Company as we are very fortunate my uncle, Tim Gregory, grows all his own soft fruits — strawberries, raspberries and gooseberries — and then we forage the hedgerows for the blackberries and damsons.
“Our Christmas range includes classic Christmas cakes, suet puddings, mini mince pies, chutneys, jams, biscotti, shortbreads, and chocolate truffles.
“We will handmake over 1,000 bags of biscotti, which is our biggest seller and is very popular for hampers. We offer three flavours for Christmas, Baileys and Hazelnut, Lemon and Pistachio and Sour Cherry and Almond.”
As it is a family-run business, it’s all hands-on-deck, including her husband and children, for Christmas, especially with the packing, which can take twice as much work as the making.
“Last orders go out at lunchtime on Christmas Eve and then at 3pm we all go out to a local restaurant for lunch and return home around 6pm to light the fire and wait for Santa Claus,” says Sarah Jane. “I usually have a large crowd for Christmas lunch followed by some classic games and falling asleep in front of the television.”