Irish Country Living is on the road again for our Dunnes Stores Simply Better #CarpoolintheCountry Series driven by Land Rover.
In this, our second carpool, we traversed the roads of Connemara with Neven Maguire and Martin Kerrigan of Connemara Hill Lamb, a third generation farmer who has helped make the Connemara Hill Lamb brand a European success.
As you drive west past Lough Corrib in the Glentrague Valley in Connemara, the road stops at Martin Kerrigan’s farm. The only way is up at that point, deep into the Connemara mountains and there isn’t a saint nor sinner to be found.
The only sound breaking the silence is the bleating of the lambs and the faint wind that whips through the heathers and grass that give these Connemara Hill lambs their unique taste. It’s calm, it’s serene, it’s Irish nature at its most beautiful.
The scenic journey to Cloughbrak was one of the highlights of our Carpool in the Country series, brought to you in association with Dunnes Stores Simply Better and Land Rover, where we bring the pages of this paper to life, accompanying our article with a video of an Irish producer in action.
And Neven Maguire was on the road with us, committed as always to learn about the producers that supply his MacNean restaurant in Blacklion, Co Cavan, and the Dunnes Stores Simply Better collection.
As we drive, Neven says: “We have really good lamb in this country, from Achill to Donegal and Fermanagh and they are all good, they are very good. But this Connemara Hill lamb is really unique, it’s so tender, it’s so consistent and the flavour is really fantastic. It just ticks all the boxes.”
When we arrive to meet Martin Kerrigan, we don’t have to pry too hard to find the secret to this success. For him, it’s all about the land.
Martin Kinneavy and Martin J Kerrigan.
“The variety of grasses here in Connemara is unique. It’s been scientifically proven that they can’t be found anywhere else in the world, so the heathers, herbs and abundance of wild grasses that these Connemara Mayo black-faced breed of lambs graze on every day results in a taste profile that is naturally succulent with a pronounced sweet aroma.
“On top of that, because the lambs roam the rough terrain, they have a lean carcase and a light cover of fat.”
And it really is consistent. “Farming methods might have changed here over the years but the sheep – the breed of sheep, the way they are reared – that never changes because you can’t do anything with the landscape apart from what’s there. You have to farm what you have, the same way they did generations ago.”
Not an easy road
Recognising the uniqueness of the lambs, a few years ago Martin and 200 other farmers in the area, applied to get a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status on their lamb.
PGI is the coveted European status that promotes and protects the names of quality agricultural products and foodstuffs. It’s why wine from Champagne can only be called champagne, why real Parmigiano-Reggiano is always Italian and it’s how you know Camembert has travelled from Normandy.
Martin J Kerrigan and Martin Kinneavy.
In Ireland, just eight products have achieved the status and for the group behind Connemara Hill Lamb, it took five years of paperwork and hard work.
“It wasn’t an easy road,” says Martin. “At that first meeting, there were just 12 farmers. We had to work together to gain traction and support in the area. There was great belief though that the lamb of the area really was different and by establishing a co-op, we started getting good prices for our lambs. On top of that, we aren’t asking farmers to do anything different, simply to maintain what they were already doing as it’s special.”
The efforts paid off. It meant the lamb had a brand, an identity, a unique selling point, and through that people have seen what a great product it is. It wasn’t long until all their seasonal produce was bought up by Simply Better in Dunnes Stores who now sell the product exclusively.
“It is a guaranteed market, we know how many lambs are needed, where they are going. It gives an added sense of security, not only to the brand, but to the 200 farmers in the area. This year, we have 4,000 lambs, but we want to push it towards the 5,000 mark in the future.”
Martin Kinneavy and Martin J Kerrigan.
Of course, there are a select few that don’t hit the supermarket shelves and are sold on restaurant menus, including at MacNean House and Restaurant.
“Many customers are very familiar with lamb shank and lamb chops,” says Neven.
“We like to give them a different taste experience so we serve our Connemara Hill Lamb as a seared rump as well as a braised shoulder and accompany that with carrots and a rosemary jus which really complements its sweet flavour as well as sweetbread, baby gem lettuce and broad beans.
“It just went on the menu again at the start of August and already it’s a big hit.”
The lamb is only served at its very best, whether in store or on restaurant menus, and that means keeping with its natural seasonality.
“The product is on sale from 1 July until 31 December and doesn’t stay long on the shelf,” says Martin.
Gaining that PGI status really seems to have been a game changer for the success of this lamb.
“What has it really meant to you?” Irish Country Living asks Martin before we leave. “It proves that our lambs are as good as what I say they are,” he says, laughing.