Tuesday, 12 March 2013

It’s Not Just “Horse Play” in The Meat Business You Know!

Firstly, being Irish means the first thing to happen when any big news story breaks is the joke texts start to fly. My favourite text arrived the same day that Tesco was reported to have a problem with some of their beef products. And then the text “News Flash…Traces of Zebra found in Tesco barcodes….” And I still giggle at that one.

But seriously, I think it would be fair to say, where you have opportunities for big volume business you are always going to have a few unscrupulous people. Remember the Pollock being sold as Cod in the chip shops story? Who was making money behind that story? The horse meat scandal was the most public example (so far) of what can go on and how some people are prepared to do just about anything to increase profits. In the case of beef, some would argue that the public demand for cheap beef was to blame but the truth is, its all about greed.

When it comes to wine I am certainly not an expert. In fact, I consider myself a non-drinker. I would maybe have a drink three times a year and when I do take a drink it would be things like Baileys or Cointreau, anything that doesn’t taste like alcohol. Last year I went to southern France on a wine buying trip (I had two really good wine guys with me, (Gabriel Cooney of On The Grapevine & Ouzos Head Chef Raouf Djeffal) the first day we visited six wineries and tasted some thirty wines. To say I got pissed would be an understatement, I slept in the car all the way back to the hotel and I’ve been at the butt end of their jokes ever since.

I was recently sitting with a group of wine guys and our Ouzos restaurant managers discussing our wine list. We were talking about importing more wines directly for Ouzos. The discussion turned to Pinot Grigio and what these wine guys told me left my hair standing on end.


According to Tom Doorley
Pinot Grigio is the Italian for Pinot Gris, made famous by Alsace but traditionally grown in NE Italy too. Pinot Grigio was made famous (so I'm told!) by Sex in the City in which it became shorthand for "white wine" - hence vastly increased demand for the stuff from Italy. A bit confusingly Pinot Gris used to be known as Tokay d'Alsace in Alsace. In other words, Pinot Grigio became the new Chardonnay, but Chardonnay has more character.

Pinot Grigio is drunk by people who either (a) can't think of anything better to do or (b) are terrified of finding themselves drinking a wine that actually tastes of anything. In fact, really good Pinot Grigio exists (and tastes faintly of grapefruit zest to my palate) but is very expensive and not really worth it. 

According to Anthony Tindal of Tindal Wine Merchants
Pinot Grigio is bastardised from Pinot Gris originally from Alsace and nothing like the real Alsace deal. Designed for the simple palate without taste buds, to be as innocuous as possible, so as not to disturb rabid conversation, and certainly not to be masculine and aggressive or have character or flavours. There is little control over wine production in Italy. It is commonly known that Italy sells 30% more’ Pinot Grigio than it actually produces.

Here are three facts worth considering;
  1. Import of lesser known white juices from Spain to Italy is very high.
  2. Production of Trebbiano Bianco is as much as 50% higher than actual sales of same. So where does that juice go?
  3. 2012...harvests throughout Europe were disastrous, although Pinot Grigio was only down 5 % on last year’s figures. Spanish whites were down 35%, Trebbiano was down 50 % and the result was an increase in the price of Pinot Grigio with sales also anticipated to be up year on year.

The very big question we are left with is, where is all this ‘Pinot Grigio’ coming from? Drink it if you like Suckers, I’ll be sticking with Pinot Gris from Alsace.

According to Gabriel Cooney of On The Grapevine Dalkey
Here is a good question for your dinner party - what is the most widely planted grape variety in the world? Chardonnay? Merlot? Cabernet Sauvignon? The answer, those wine buffs among you will know, is Airen. Yes, the little known Spanish varietal is grown in vast quantities on the plains of La Mancha in central Spain. So how come we don't see lots of bottles of Airen on our shelves? Well, you can get some in Spain, but in general it is used as a blending wine. So what? Well, that is fine if it is blended in to wine in Spain and is all controlled by the regulatory authorities.

However, when you hear of tankers of Airen making the long journey over to northern Italy for blending in to Pinot Grigio, it makes you stop and think. It's been well known for years that Italy makes more "Pinot Grigio" than it grows, but I always presumed it was being plumped out with the less trendy Pinot Bianco or at worst some sad lonely bunches of Trebbiano, but Airen!?

It does perhaps explain how, with increasing demand and static production, the price is going down instead of up, as would normally be dictated by my rudimentary understanding of economics. So, once again, some unscrupulous producers will kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. Watch out for the imminent demise of Pinot Grigio as the trendy tipple of the day.

So, if you like Pinot Grigio and want to drink the real thing, shun that cheapo bottle for €5.99/€6.99/€7.99, even if it has been "reduced from twice the price (because it hasn't, it was never that price in the first place - do you think supermarkets don't make a profit on wine?). Seek out the Pinot Grigio made by a reputable family producer and sold by someone who knows what they are talking about.

So, the question remains - if they are putting in Airen, how come its not bubbly? Don't get me started on Prosecco.......

Where do we go from here?
I don’t think this Pinot Grigio story will ever make the headline but it shows you how big business will sometimes do whatever it takes to make money and how nobody is actually watching. If you think the European bureaucrats will protect us with regulation and labeling then just stop and think of Findus Beef Lasagna in 2013.

The good news is, if there is any, this time it’s about cheap wine so relax this wont kill you (in moderation of course) and remember,” To drink is not the answer; however, drinking will make you forget the question.”

Thursday, 7 March 2013

So Why “Ouzos” and What’s with the Boat?

We are often asked why we called our steak and seafood restaurant “Ouzos” and what made you buy a boat?. Well, back in the early 1990’s Ouzos was based in Baggot Street, Dublin. It started life as a pizza/pasta restaurant and had a real Mediterranean feel; the name Ouzos seemed to fit very well. When we opened our second restaurant in Ranelagh, Dublin, we found it very tough to attract new customers, we were in competition with numerous other local restaurants and we were all serving the same thing. I needed something to make Ouzos special and set us apart from the competition. I always wanted a fish restaurant and I felt if we were serving lobster, crab, fresh Irish fish and steak in a relaxed restaurant we would have that something very special. I very quickly realized that buying lobster and crab was way too expensive for the sort of restaurant we wanted to operate. If we were going to make this transformation we were going to have to think outside box.
Now what are the chances of that?
A couple of days later I bumped into an old friend of mine on Baggot Street. I hadn’t seen this guy in 15 years and during the course of our conversation I discovered he had small licensed lobster boat down in Greystones and he was selling it. Now what are the chances of that? Two weeks later Ouzos owned a fishing boat, the MFV Phoenix. It was a 21’ lobster boat. It was tiny, but I felt we could certainly land enough crab and lobster for our needs. Another friend of mine who was living in Cahersiveen, Co. Kerry and was fishing mad,  offered to skipper the boat. We bought 200 lobster pots, transported the boat to Kerry and went fishing. Our first delivery of crab claws and lobster arrived by Fast Track the following week just in time for the re-launch of Ouzos, the steak and seafood restaurant. The reaction from customers was fantastic and Ouzos Steak & Seafood Restaurant was born.
The scariest moment of my life…
Commercial fishing is a complex business and boats are very expensive to run and maintain. We very quickly learned that operating a fishing boat for Ouzos alone was going to be financially challenging. Within a year we decided to invest close to €250k in a 33’ fishing boat and 2000 lobster pots, turned our fishing operation into a stand-alone business. Ouzos took the crab and lobster we needed and the balance was sold to the local markets.
During our years when the boat was based in Cahersiveen I would talk to the skipper every day. On days when the weather was bad and the boat was tied up, I would jokingly say “come on, this weather wouldn’t stop George Clooney” (in reference to the movie Perfect Storm). I went fishing with the lads many times. While I’m little embarrassed to say it, I got sea sick on lots of occasions and had the pants scared off me on few occasions as well. On one occasion the boat was heading back down into Dingle Bay while trawling. It was a warm summer’s day. There was a big 15’ swell coming behind us off the Atlantic. I was standing on the deck with the skipper, cup of tea in hand while the boat was riding with the waves. Suddenly, the boat seemed to gently slow and sat down in the water. With that, a very big wave came over the back of the boat, knocked both of us off our feet and for a few seconds it was like being in a washing machine. My lifejacket burst open around my neck and I grabbed for anything to stop me going over the side. It was without doubt the scariest moment of my life, I really thought I was going to die. As the water washed overboard the skipper screamed “the net is snagged on the bottom” Then a second wave hit even more violently than the first. As I struggled to catch my breath, Henry (the skipper) had already cut us free of the net and the danger was over.
As we sat wrapped in blankets and huddled around the heater in the wheelhouse with our teeth shattering from the intense cold, I gazed at the boxes of lobster scattered around the deck and I couldn’t help but wonder if people really knew the real dangers fishermen face everyday to bringing fish to our tables. Needless to say, I never used the George Clooney line again.     
In 2009 I decided to move our fishing operation to Dun Laoghaire. The following year we sold the boat but kept an interest and to this day all our crab & lobster is landed by our good friend and partner Ivan Toole on board the MFV Golden Venture.
Ten Years on!    
Over the last ten years I have gained an enormous admiration for the fishermen of Ireland, I could not do what they do every day. I have learned a lot about fishing and how the market works. We’ve learned that Irish fishermen get paid buttons for their catch when compared to the prices charged by middlemen; I have seen processors paying fishermen 0.60c per kg for haddock on the same day that supermarkets are charging €12 per kg for the same fish. I’ve seen figures on Ireland’s consumption of fish and how 80% of the fish we consume is imported. It’s a sad day for Ireland when boats are tied up in Cork Harbour and The Marine Times (the fishermens’ newspaper) recently referred to Cork Airport as the busiest fishing port in the country. We should all strive to protect our Irish fishermen (I will write a blog on this issue soon). In the meantime please buy Irish fish only.   
Ten years on, hundreds of thousands spent and our adventure into the fishing business is still a wonderful experience, we have met wonderful people, made a huge amount of contacts in the fishing community and when we’re not catching our own fish we’re sourcing the freshest Irish fish for our restaurants.