In this edition of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle learns about one of Achill Island’s most unique products.
“We’ve been on this land since our people first came to Achill,” Martina Calvey tells me. We’re chatting over the phone about the Calvey family, hill sheep farmers for seven generations and more than 150 years. Martina is passionate, articulate and expansive — in short, the perfect interviewee. In the late 1950s, her father, Martin, added the butchery side of the business, officially launching as Calvey’s Achill Mountain Lamb in 1962. The familial land extends over 20,000 hectares — “from the heathered hilltops to the seaweed shores,” to use Martina’s beautiful turn of phrase. The Calveys’ connection to their locality filters throughout every aspect of their business, linking together land, community and history, giving their lamb a deeply layered, complex provenance.
The structure of the business is far from typical, driven by passion rather than profit. “Any revenue we turn is poured straight back into our brand,” says Martina, “and I would forego anything to make sure the business survives. I see Calvey’s as such an important part of the past, present and future of this island.” Despite a full-time role in admin, ranging from website and social media management to recruitment, Martina takes no salary herself. This level of commitment isn’t limited to the family, either — many locals who worked with Martina’s father and have long since retired will still show up to the abattoir and lend a hand when needed. “That’s just the way it is, here. It’s tradition, at this stage.” The Calveys buy lambs from other families on the island in addition to keeping their own flocks, keeping much-needed money in the locality. “In this way, we’re more than just a lamb business; we’re a social hub, a way to maintain connection.” On an island with such a sparse population, it’s easy to underestimate how important this is.
Farming here is in stark contrast to that on the mainland. “Our flocks move around freely all the time,” says Martina. This is completely natural, uncultivated land, running from the mountains through heath, bogland, fertile grassy plains known as machair and down to the sandy shores. With not a fence in sight, the sheep have the run of the place. This diversity of habitats gives Calvey’s sheep an “elaborate multitude” of foods to graze upon, including grasses, herbs, heather and maritime plants, and these contribute a completely unique flavour profile to the lamb. “We like to describe it as ‘heather sweetened, seaside seasoned’.” The Calveys work in tandem with the wildlife and ecosystems supported by the island, and this hands-off approach to farming keeps the land in a natural state of good health.
What makes the Mayo Blackface sheep so special, says Martina, is their adaptability, which allows them to get the most from the rugged landscape of Achill. They are eternal foragers, with athletic bodies that support near-constant roaming. This level of exercise lends superior texture and more definite flavour to the meat. “They thrive here,” she continues. “They are internationally recognised as fantastic mothers, providing a great bag of milk for their lambs.” This generous provision gives the lambs the best possible start in life.
While you may usually think of lamb as a springtime meal, the rhythm of life beats to a different drum here. “Mountain lamb is an entirely distinct product,” Martina is eager to explain. “Lambs in the green fields are born in January or February, ready for the plate in April. If our sheep gave birth at the same time, there’d be nothing on the ground.” Instead, mountain lambs come along in April and May, when nature has begun to provide once again and the sheep have enough grazing to produce milk.
In addition to leaving the land wild and untamed, the Calveys take sustainability very seriously, working to Origin Green targets for conservation of water and energy and allowing carbon-packed bogs and hills to remain in their natural state. They’re in the process of implementing new cardboard packaging, and examining ways to use the wool to create secondary products. “We really have a mantra of minimum waste,” Martina explains, “and that’s why we market the whole carcass. We respect the animal enough to ensure that no part of it is wasted.”
A large part of this attitude is tied to having their own abattoir and butchery; I can’t begin to tell you how rare this is today, and it makes a huge difference in terms of animal welfare, traceability and quality. The lambs are walked to the abattoir, where the team works hard to keep them relaxed. “We have a state-of-the-art lairage where we can ensure they’re not under stress.” This contributes to the quality of the meat and even results in a longer shelf life, due to the absence of stress hormones. “We’re – of course – completely compliant with legislation, but we still do things the old fashioned way wherever possible, without machinery. Everything is done by hand. This is artisanal butchery. It’s very labour intensive, but it makes for excellent quality.” The lamb is then hung for at least one week before being ready for sale. When you order from Calvey’s, you’ll receive a phone call to chat through your order, making sure your lamb is tailored to your specific needs: it will be cut and packaged to suit your household and freezer space.
This lamb is tender and succulent, rosy and pink in colour and with a complex flavour profile brought by the rich variety in the diet of the sheep. “People love to tell me that it was so delicious they sucked the bones clean!” Martina laughs. There’s a reason you’ll see Calvey’s Achill Mountain Lamb on menus in five-star hotels, castles and Michelin-starred establishments across the country. You can order directly from Calvey’s for home delivery across the 32 counties, or buy it from the butcher’s shop in Keel, popular with tourists.
With the world as we know it having shifted so drastically over the past five months, the Calveys have adapted to the unique challenges of 2020 just as their Blackface sheep adapt to Achill’s landscape, and have expanded their offering through a new online shop. In a clever move that speaks to the power of cooperation, they’ve also begun to operate within a hub of local producers; during lockdown, they teamed up with Andarl Farm in Co. Galway to share deliveries across the country, a smart way to minimise costs during a difficult time. This is set to continue, with Martina keen to create and maintain a collective of like-minded producers. Indeed, there’s no rest in sight, as the team is also moving into agritourism by offering farm tours, investigating export potential and planning to increase marketing of their hogget and mutton. Despite living with rheumatoid arthritis and, as she shares with me, currently being treated for breast cancer, Martina remains resolute in her devotion to the family business and her perserverance in the face of hard work, no matter what the climate brings. Resilience, it seems, is as characteristic of the Calveys as it is of their flocks.
After a lengthy and fascinating chat, we start to wrap up. “In an age of adulterated products, I’ve really come to appreciate on a personal level just how pure our lamb is,” Martina finishes. “For us, provenance means more than just the place. We know every single step.”