The Irish food market is opening up at last. People are far more adventurous in what they eat and are unafraid of experimenting with different dishes. Silver Darlings is a specialist in the Irish herring industry. Fresh to the industry, Kirsti O Kelly brings the taste of Finland to the Irish palette. She gave us insight into the background of the herring industry in Ireland, understanding the importance of fish in your diet and how to incorporate herring and seafood into your diet.
How did you start?
I started marinating fish back in Finland with my mother and grandmother when I was a school girl. Pickled herring were part of our food culture and a staple item every Finns fridge. My interest for food was huge so I went first to a chef college for 3 years and then for further 4 years to university of applied science to study food science, food production, marketing and international culinary art. I moved to Ireland in Valentine’s day 1999 and started working in the hospitality industry. From my visits to Finland, I often would have brought back some salted herring and then marinated it according to my family recipes for Christmas. Soon my extended Irish family and most of our friends were fans of these treats and I was encouraged to become a food producer.
The idea to have my own food business started brewing in my head quite early on during my college years, 20 years later in 2012 Silver Darlings Seafood was established, and quite soon my product range was in the market.
Can you give us a short introduction to the history of herring?
Herring has a long history of being used as currency in the world along with gold, whiskey, fur and leather. It was salted in barrels, times before refrigeration. It travelled the world in boats and that is how it got married with exotic spices and vinegars was when all these items would have been sold in the same ports from the opposite ends of the world.
Herring is famous for its hundreds of fine bones, but the salt and vinegar in the pickling process dissolves these bones completely. The original pickled herring would’ve been very salty or very vinegary to preserve the fish. You can still find these products in the European market but nowadays with the help of refrigeration it is possible to have lightly salted and mildly pickled herring.
Silver Darlings herring products are a boneless, uncooked delicacy using the finest wild Irish Atlantic herring. The meaty, generous bite size herring chunks are salt cured, then pickled and marinated with fine wine vinegars, crunchy vegetables, fresh herbs and aromatic, exotic spices bursting with deep flavours. The curing process not only preserves the fish it also completely dissolves the famous herring bones. This naturally occurring reaction is one of the reasons why herring is ideal for pickling, the nasty bones are gone but the flesh of the fish is still plump and rich in omega oils, vitamin D and calcium.
What is life like as a food producer?
Developing a product range like marinated herring for the Irish market is a huge challenge, it is also a matter of developing the market for it and educating consumers on how to use the products. Seafood consumption in Ireland is growing and people are more adventurous to try new foods. The artisan food movement, farmer’s markets and importance of buying local food are well understood and supported in Ireland.
I started as market trader and soon started supplying other market traders in Dublin and Cork, then few restaurants and hotels and last year I got into retail market and the Food Academy by Supervalu but now I’m focusing on growing mainly the food service market in Ireland with a nationwide distributor and finding a route to an export market.
So far I have been producing the products myself with some part time help. Soon I learned that in order to grow my business I need to create more time for marketing and sales. To streamline my business model, I am now co-producing my range with my herring supplier in Killybegs. I have trained their staff to my processes, everything is still hand made and I still supervise the production. As the products have a generous 11 months’ shelf life they can be made every few months rather than weekly and now I can concentrate the sales with out a worry of capacity or volume.
What are the challenges and the rewards?
It has been a whirlwind of four years, a mixture of impossibly hard work, imaginable hurdles, lots of new friends and supporters, constant financial instability, great experiences but most of all learning about my own capabilities. The job is never done, you can’t be perfect and you can’t do it alone –the help and support of my family, friends and neighbours is absolutely priceless.
You’ve gained quite a bit of recognition since you began…
Our products are superior and to prove it we have won numerous taste awards in the UK and Ireland. The latest one being very prestigious Irish Food Writers Guild award 2016, which was awarded to Silver Darlings entire range. A producer cannot enter or lobby this award, the guild is entirely the decision making body with 60 guild members, it is a complete honour to receive such a recognition.
Why is herring good for us?
Herring is delicious and when marinated correctly it also is boneless – the bones naturally soften and dissolve in the marinating process. The calcium from the bones stay in the flesh and the fish is ready to eat with no worry of nasty bones. Herring is one of the very best food sources of vitamin D. Our bodies make this vitamin in sunlight, but in our climate, it’s easy not to get enough. There seems to be more to vitamin D than strong teeth and bones. It’s now thought that vitamin D deficiency might be a factor in many diseases, such as multiple sclerosis and diabetes. Atlantic herring is very high in the long chain OMEGA-3 fatty acids EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). These fatty acids help prevent heart disease and keep the brain functioning properly.
How sustainable is it?
The Irish herring stocks are broadly defined as ‘North West Herring’, ‘Irish Sea Herring’ and ‘Celtic Sea Herring’ – scientific advice is that they are all sustainable and are both carefully managed with a total allowable catch (TAC) decided on an annual basis. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has also certified these stocks as sustainable. The herring fishing season is normally from September to January with all landings to designated fishing ports.
Silver Darlings products are produced with renewable energy. The production partner Island Seafoods Ltd was the overall winner at Bord Bia’s Origin Green Awards 2015. Their production facility in Killybegs co. Donegal has its own Hydropower station to supply electricity to its own consumption and to export to the national grid. Hydropower is one of the most reliable, predictable and least environmentally intrusive of all renewable energies.
Can you recommend a favourite herring dish?
The classic way to eat marinated herring is with boiled new potatoes, potato salad, rye sourdough bread, in various green salads or with poached eggs. They also work well with sour cream or soft cheese on a crostini or part of seafood platter. Try chicken Caesar salad with herring instead of anchovy.
Words – Kevin Bolger
Images – Tarmo Tulit