In this edition of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle finds new flavour coming through her letterbox.
It’s safe to say that 2020 is a year we won’t soon forget. As our personal lives continue to evolve in unprecedented ways, as does the food landscape. Small businesses, in particular, have faced overwhelming challenges during the storm that is COVID-19, but amongst much sad news, I’ve found it inspiring to see so many food producers pivot, adapt and find smart new ways to stay afloat. My latest hobby is ordering online from Irish producers, then hovering greedily by the postbox. I regret nothing.
Burren Balsamics have long been on my radar, with their range of infused balsamic vinegars providing a treat for any home cook and inspiration for countless restaurants since their establishment in 2014. “The company was started by me and a friend, Susan,” says founder Susie Hamilton Stubber. “We initially tried selling a few infused vinegars at a charity sale, and they were very well received.” The company is actually based in Co. Armagh; its name was inspired by Susan’s house, Ballyburren, situated on a rocky limestone area in Co. Down. These days, they have a team of four, as well as a wide network of family and friends, “who are pressed into service when the need arises!”.
The core of Burren Balsamics is a range of balsamic vinegars, “naturally infused with no additives using the best ingredients, locally sourced wherever possible.” These ingredients include local fruits such as Bramley apples, raspberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, blueberries and strawberries. The range has garnered plenty of accolades, including UK Great Taste Stars and twice winning the overall Best Artisan product at Blas na hÉireann.
Balsamic vinegar is a dark, concentrated vinegar made from grape must, originating in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. All of the Burren Balsamics vinegars are purchased from Toschi, a highly regarded producer in the Modena area, producing six million litres of black balsamic every year. Burren Balsamics currently imports three different grades of black balsamic, using the level three for infusing and through to level six, “which is a rich and wonderfully dense vinegar.”
Once the vinegars reach Ireland, they’re infused using an innovative method. In the classic infusion technique, the flavouring is added to a barrel, topped up with balsamic and then left to infuse for 4-6 weeks. “The problem with this,” explains Susie, “is that the flavouring ingredients decompose in the acidic solution, rendering them completely unusable.” By contrast, their method involves placing the ingredients into a bag, adding the vinegar and then extracting the oxygen. “A couple of hours in a low temperature thermal circulator results in more flavour, and the integrity of the flavouring ingredient is virtually unchanged, allowing us to make our jams, marmalade and chutneys — zero waste products.” Reducing waste is at the very core of the company’s ethos. “Our story is about sustainable, ethical, local food,” says Susie.
A typical day starts with emails and paperwork. “It’s not really our forte,” laughs Susie, “but we try and sort it.” As the day progresses, they’ll be busy dispatching orders and preparing for shows or presentations to potential customers. “In between all of this, we are hands-on in the bottling department.” And what’s the best part of the job? The people. “We get to meet the most amazing artisan producers and people who supply us with such great ingredients. When we are at shows and festivals, the contact with our customers is just fantastic. We believe that we look after our customers well, and they often get treated with a little freebie!”
Susie’s personal favourite is the Armagh Bramley apple infused black balsamic, while the black garlic balsamic is probably their best-seller. “We do have a couple of surprises in the pipeline that might give it a run for its money!”
With a large proportion of their customer base rooted in the hospitality industry, the pandemic has hit hard for Burren Balsamics. “Quite a few restaurants and hotels who were using our products disappeared overnight. We were also due to launch a zero food waste product into the business class cabins of Aer Lingus.” They’ve been lucky to be part of the Grow with Aldi 2020 programme and now have three products on the shelves, branded as 56 Degrees by Burren Balsamics. “A new and contemporary brand,” explains Susie, “but the same quality products.”
Susie and the team have made the best possible use of this forced extra time by bringing forward the launch of a new range, The Letterbox Larder — impeccable timing for an era in which we’re spending more time at home than ever. As development chef Bob McDonald explains, “We’ve developed a range of balsamic seasonings and rubs that enthusiastic cooks should have in their larder, and vacuum-packed these in eco-friendly compostable packaging. All the products handcrafted by us are completely clean, with no preservatives. Many of the innovative products featured in the launch pack contain our signature Balsamic Vinegar of Modena, which has been dried for us, giving a delicious umami flavour.”
Susie elaborates, “The idea had been on the back burner for quite some time. We wanted to cut down on glass and do refills by post, and it made such sense. This allowed us to be very competitive on price and reduce glass waste at the same time.” The range is constantly evolving, but currently consists of about 18 products, in addition to refills of around 20 balsamic vinegars. “But we have so many ideas,” says Susie, “and The Letterbox Larder is very much imagination-driven, so we are always on the lookout.”
This month, I’ve been happily experimenting with a few of the Letterbox Larder products. When mixed with some olive oil and lemon juice, the Moroccan spice bag mixture used on these prawn skewers also produces a gorgeous marinade for chicken legs; I’ve mashed the soft black garlic cloves into a red wine jus for roast duck, with mouthwatering results; the beef seasoning is perfect for a simple steak dinner; and I’ve genuinely had to force myself to relax around the wild garlic seasoning, as it’s almost too addictive. This is the best thing to come through my postbox in quite a while.