A highlight of the autumn festival season, The Westport Food Festival is a lovely event
where quality and encouraging everyone to make a genuine contribution (while having a thoroughly good time) is far more important than attracting huge crowds.
Although many of the scheduled events are mainly for fun (perhaps especially the Secret Supper and Wrap Party, which was a huge success) the festival also has an educational side. I really like that philosophy and was honoured to be invited as keynote speaker at the seminar this year. Hosted by Hotel Westport, the theme was “Food with a conscience”, a good meaty topic that we all enjoyed getting our teeth into.
Niki Henehan Gannon of Bia at Home gave a truly inspirational talk about her family’s personal journey through illness and health, to the point where she felt they must take control of their path to wellness through nutrition. Her passion for the healing power of raw juices has the power to change lives, and her healthy ready meals business revolves around seasonal and mainly home grown produce – much of it grown by her father, a former cancer patient now in the full of his health once again.
Ron Morrison, Second Chef at Hotel Westport and a man of many talents, gave a pretty terrifying presentation on Sugar – The New Cocaine? We may think we’ve heard it all before, but we haven’t heard the half of it. The comparison with cocaine could seem over-dramatic (and Ron was quite upfront about having pinched the title from a newspaper headline) but he had some extraordinary facts to share, notably about the particular danger of sugar when combined with fat. The fact is that sugar – while it has a valuable contribution to make when used responsibly, eg s a preservative – is a major cause of many of our most serious health challenges, including obesity. This, rather than Calories on Menus, is an area that the Department of Health should focus on in order to combat the problems of obesity and its many costly side effects – a subject close to the heart of Adrian Cummins, of the Restaurants Association of Ireland, who was also a speaker.
The main message coming across from all speakers was common sense – avoid processed foods as much as possible; choose fresh local foods in season; and and eat foods as near to their natural state as possible.
The importance of food education was emphasised by all speakers, including myself, and some key message to emerge included:
- Intensive food production methods – ‘mining for food’ as the environmental campaigner John Gibbons calls it – are doomed to failure in the long run and we have no choice but to care for the environment if it is to care for us.
- Given the earth’s finite resources, any policy that assumes that we can provide for unlimited future population growth (world population is predicted to be 10 billion by 2024) is flawed.
- Responsible farming, on the other hand, would allow the population to stabilise at a level that the earth can sustain.
- We can all contribute through mindfulness on a daily level.
- Cheap food is not a right: food is a precious resource to be respected and valued accordingly.
After all this a ‘pot luck lunch’ provided by local producers was a great demonstration of doing it right the Westport way. And an impressive collection of producers they were too, including Kelly’s of Newport butchers, Carrowholly Cheese, Achill Island Sea Salt (with olive oil and gorgeous Rua bread for dipping), Cuinneog butter and dairy products, Westport Grove preserves and honey, West Mayo Brewery craft beer and Fionntan Gogarty’s stunning and beautifully presented fruit and herb infused Wildwood Vinegars.
What a tasty way to end an enjoyable and thought provoking day, courtesy of the hard working organisers. All credit to Declan Heneghan and Eithne Cosgrove, Hotel Westport GM and Director of Sales and Marketing respectively, Sinead Lambert (Sol Rio and RAI) and their committee, supported by Mayo County Council whose Food Officer, Tanya Stanaway, explained the admirable supports available to food producers in the county.
Here’s to next September!