A Blas-oming relationship

UCC is known as Ireland’s Food University. But the role it has played in contributing to the highly respected annual Blas na hÉireann Awards has enhanced our expertise also. Kate Ryan talks to two of the leading players behind our Irish Food Oscars.

5 MIN READ
12 Dec 2019
Longueville House Beverages were Gold and Silver Award winners in 2019

They are known as the Irish Food Oscars among our home-grown talented producers and this year the Blas na hÉireann awards attracted a record 2,500 entrants, since they were first established in 2007.

It’s a tribute to the high esteem in which the awards system is held; Blas na hÉireann has developed into a recognised and respected mark of quality for consumers, buyers and producers alike, at home and abroad.

Without a doubt, it rests upon the quality of the products that are granted the Blas seal of approval. But what marks Blas na hÉireann out from other industrysimilar awards is its rigorous two-step sensory evaluation.

The judging of the finalists – the biggest blind tasting of produce in the country – is conducted by an extensive panel of experts from across the Irish food industry spectrum, whose feedback determines who is bestowed a bronze, silver or gold medal.

'Three years after the first Blas Awards, Joe’s methodology was recognised as the international industry standard for blind sensory analysis. With every year that has passed since the first awards, the relationship between Blas na hÉireann and UCC has evolved, ensuring a healthy ebb and flow of mutual benefits between the two bodies.'

The awards system – and the science behind it – were developed by Artie Clifford, chairman and founder of Blas na hÉireann, and Professor Joe Kerry, senior lecturer and head of the Food Packaging Research group, in the Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences at UCC.

Back then, when Artie was developing a seafood chowder product under the brand of Ballyhea, at the Dingle plant he was managing, he wanted to figure out how to extend shelf life, so he could enter the retail food market: “That’s when I contacted Joe Kerry and his team in UCC, to help us to increase shelf life through pasteurisation – and Joe and I hit it off from day one!

“I was complaining about not having an Irish accreditation for food, and established Blas na hÉireann, but I wanted Blas to be different from other awards – I wanted it to be all about the product and all about the taste,” says Artie.

“So, Joe and I discussed how we would judge multi-category foods using one system. Joe developed the Blind Sensory Analysis method, and that’s the method we have stuck with.”

Caroline Murphy of West Cork Eggs, a Silver Award winner in 2019 (Photo: Don McMonagle)

Three years after the first Blas awards, Joe’s methodology was recognised as the international industry standard for blind sensory analysis. With every year that has passed since the first awards, the relationship between Blas na hÉireann and UCC has evolved, ensuring a healthy ebb and flow of mutual benefits between the two bodies.

“Working with Blas gives our food science students exposure to the food industry that they otherwise wouldn’t have,” says Joe. “For four weeks every July, they are tasting products and meeting producers as they drop off their products at the university.”

Known as Ireland’s Food University, UCC has for 90 years provided academic study of dairy and food science. Working in partnership with Blas na hÉireann has enabled and encouraged our university to expand and further promote its own academic offering to both students and industry.

“Working with Blas gives our food science students exposure to the food industry that they otherwise wouldn’t have” Joe Kerry

This was copper-fastened last January with the launch of our Food Institute, which provides a single access point for the myriad of departments involved in food in the university.

“It means we can better communicate our message about what UCC does in relation to the various fields of food study and research for anyone wishing to make contact with us,” says Joe.

In recognition of the important role that academia and ongoing learning plays for food producers, Blas na hÉireann has connected with the likes of our Food Industry Training Unit (FITU) and Taste 4 Success Skillnet. FITU specifically developed a series of industry-focused courses and workshops with Blas na hÉireann, with topics based on key points identified by the very producers showcased through the Blas awards system.

Chef Brian McDermott with Green Pastures Donegal Soft Cheese, which was crowned Supreme Champion in 2019 (Photo: Don MacMonagle)

They approached the producers and asked what they would like to know and learn, says Artie. As a result, Blas Backyard was formed: a series of masterclasses, panel discussions and meet-thebuyer events that take place after the judging has concluded. It makes a producer’s journey to Dingle to collect their award even more worthwhile – giving them the opportunity to network, learn and hear from other producers.

Surveys carried out with past Blas winners have shown that receiving an award helps increase sales of the winning products by a staggering 20%. But, as Joe Kerry says, “there are two ways to look at Blas – either as a bunch of awards, or as a dataset for scientists to scrutinise!”

The Blas movement is motivated by different things. It is numbers, it is data – but it’s not motivated by the kind of numbers that are to do with money, or exports, or burgeoning markets. It’s purely about the producers and their products and about taste and quality.

“Blas is a community,” says Artie, “and when it gathers in Dingle, it’s one big business network. Everyone in that judging room will give their time to Irish producers, and most people know each other.

“If you were to look down the list of names of judges – anything that's happening in the Irish food scene right now, they're involved in it. Food is at the centre of who we are. And dealing with people like Joe – that’s why I think we’re successful. We are both motivated by a different path.”

 

Follow this link for more information on UCC's Food Institute.

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