Advent-ilicious

Buyers of the 2020 Cadbury’s Advent Calendar have taken to social media in the last few days to protest at a less than appropriate message featured behind the 4th door in this year’s calendar.

In a year when physical proximity to pretty much everyone outside of your immediate household has – of necessity – been discouraged or forbidden, it’s hardly surprising that exhorting people to “Give hugs at Christmas” seems a little insensitive.

It got me thinking about Advent and the huge seasonal business that has developed around the count-down to Christmas.

Advent is the Christian season beginning on the fourth Sunday before Christmas which involves the annual preparation for the birth of Christ. There are quite a few traditions that mark the Advent season but the one that is simplest and most popular is the Advent Calendar, typically beginning on December 1st and counting down to Christmas Day.

The tradition began when Protestant German families in the mid-19th century started chalking their doors and walls to count the days down to Christmas. Homemade calendars began to appear and by the early 20th century, a few publishing companies produced simple printed calendars.

A German printer named Gerhard Lang then decided to introduce the now very familiar design element of little cut-out doors that could be opened each day to reveal a devotional picture or bible verse. By the 1950s many calendars had started to include simple gifts such as chocolate or a small toy.  

Now though, the Advent Calendar tradition has segued into modern consumerism in a powerful way. For children it’s all about the sweets (with children it’s always about the sweets), for adults it’s a way of self-gifting in the run up to Christmas. And who doesn’t enjoy the indulgence? For many people, it’s been an increasingly weary struggle as this year has worn on and the prospect of a few extra treats in the last lap is a welcome diversion.

We were a little late to the party this year and by the time I got to buying our calendars in the local supermarket, there wasn’t much choice left. I took to the internet to do some research on what might be ordinarily available (as I’m sure I’ll be more organised next year) and discovered that the selection of calendars and brands that offer them is actually quite mind-boggling.

Essentially any product that can be packaged and inserted into a neat-ish sized box is fair game. Beauty and skincare, cheese, gin, wine, chocolate, perfume, nail polish, clothing, even pet treats. Exclusive department stores such as Liberty, Harrods and Fortnum and Mason all have their own versions. Online forums debate the merits and demerits of the various offerings, and offer comparisons with previous years.

The attraction for both buyer and seller is clear. The seller has the chance to introduce a wide range of products (some of which might stick) to a receptive audience; while the buyer gets to try out lots of variety from a favourite brand, without committing huge sums of money. 

In an increasingly secular society, the religious side of all of this can feel somewhat sidelined. We try to broaden things out in our own household, encouraging a moment of contemplation or reflection before the race to open each day’s door. Invariably this is greeted with a groan or two, but it assuages my guilt a little about the extra confectionery being brought into the house and it does allow for extra chat about the meaning of Christmas and the spirit of giving, as well as receiving.

And this year, in particular, that can only be a good thing.

Mickey and Me: Fab Rides, Forgettable Food

To be very frank I was feeling less than magical and closer to a vague sense of grumpiness as we began our recent visit to the huge and sprawling Disneyland complex of gi-normous hotels and theme parks located about an hour northeast of Paris.

A mistake with our online booking had proven very problematic to resolve. Disneyland may do magic and fairy dust, but they don’t, apparently, employ human beings to man telephone lines to deal with customer queries. Or at least, not enough of them. One’s patience wears very thin when waiting in interminable queues for a customer service representative while the same annoying, upbeat music plays incessantly in the background.

Storm Dennis had gifted us the bumpiest flight I’ve experienced in a long time. Hat’s off to the Aer Lingus pilot’s aplomb as he calmly kept us informed about what lay ahead.

And finally, our Magic Shuttle (aka a coach transfer) had failed to materialise in Charles de Gaulle airport, leaving us shivering in a wind tunnel for over an hour.

But finally we arrived.

Our woodland themed hotel – the Sequoia Lodge – was warm and comfortable, if dated. We had upgraded to a Forest Club package which enabled early access to the parks and Fast Passes for selected rides (in my limited theme park experience this is essential to avoid death by queuing). In a nice touch, our package also included a buffet style afternoon tea in the hotel on a daily basis and free (non alcoholic) drinks from midday onwards.

As for the food in the wider resort area, I had been well warned in advance.

“Don’t expect to eat well.”

“It’s burgers and chips all the way.”

“Endless fast food, at really, really, expensive prices.”

All of this was indeed true. At least we were prepared, with our pockets stuffed with lots of healthy-ish snacks to fortify us as we queued for some of the more popular rides, and an acceptance that excellent gastronomy just wasn’t going to be a feature of our few days at the parks.

What is a little weird about the food on offer is that the restaurant facades within the parks are often different, so as to give the impression that there is some variety. Really there isn’t, with pricing and menus pretty much homogenous across the whole resort. There is a strong emphasis on menu deals consisting of drink, main meal and dessert at fixed price points.

Some of these are eye wateringly expensive such as in the Café Mickey, with menus priced at €65 for an adult and €35 for a child. This does however include a guaranteed meet and greet with Disney characters at your table. In truth the food is probably not the highest priority here. We did catch a glimpse of Minnie Mouse sashaying through the restaurant and high fiving some very excited children.

Here and there, there are pockets of hope in the form of street style vendors. Alas the queues were so long (and the weather so chilly) that we quickly abandoned these as an option.

As I mused over all of this, I reflected on the very different experience we had had in another theme park in France the year before. Puy de Fou is perhaps Europe’s best kept theme park secret. It is the second most visited park in France, but is virtually unheard of outside of the country. There are no rides, but historically themed shows or “spectacles” that are quite breathtaking – real chariot rides in a Roman colosseum, Viking invasions, feuding knights at the round table. And we found the food on offer to be far superior. Still expensive, but authentically French and more than decent quality.

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Le Signe du Triomphe, Puy de Fou

I’m also told that the food at Europa Park in Germany is reasonably priced and good quality. So too in Efteling Park in the Netherlands, the third most visited theme park in Europe. It’s clearly possible, with a little imagination and will, to provide good value and healthy food to the masses.

Disneyland please take note.

Jameson Serves up a Clever and Creative Pop-up

With just a few shopping hours to go until Christmas 2019, the Jameson Black Barrel Pop-Up Experience in Dublin’s south inner city is well worth a visit, particularly if you have a whiskey lover in your life.

No ordinary pop-up, Jameson has set out an impressive set of creative credentials with this effort, offering up a carefully curated series of artistic workshops, cultural commentary and whiskey tastings, as well as a performance space.

While you can certainly buy whiskey gifts here, any which way you want them (this includes a limited-edition bottle engraving experience), the emphasis is far more on a cultural “discovery” experience.

Jameson

Running since December 11th, the events focus on cultural connectivity and feature some of Ireland’s most prominent creative leaders including comedian Blindboy and spoken word performer Natalya O’Flaherty.

Additionally Jameson is facilitating local collectives, collaborators and creatives to use the space and host their own events. A master cooperage demonstration showing the sense of craftsmanship that goes into making the barrels completes the picture.

introducing-the-ultimate-whiskey-experience-the-brand-new-black-barrel-pop-upTickets to the various events have “popped up” quite literally at a variety of locations across Dublin city throughout the month of December, which has only served to add to the “boho” feel and sense of exclusivity associated with the series.

The Jameson Visitor Centre in Bow Street in Dublin is a key attraction in the capital, contributing a sizeable proportion of the more than 600,000 tourists who pass through Irish whiskey visitor centres every year to experience first-hand the heritage behind this time-honoured spirit and hear the stories of established and emerging distilleries. The Irish Whiskey Tourism Strategy aims to treble this figure to 1.9 million visitors by 2025.

It might surprise but Irish whiskey is actually the fastest growing premium spirit in the world, with sales growing at more than 10% a year in more than 75 countries. Here in Ireland, the shift in image from it being perceived as a “dad drink” to a younger, cooler profile has been sure and steady.

The Jameson Black Barrell Pop-Up is open until 4pm on Christmas Eve, an excellent option for a seasonal toast.

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Happy Christmas

 

 

Eat Your Way to France

As an island nation, it takes a little more effort to exit (and indeed enter) Ireland. Not too surprisingly, the vast majority of people transit in and out of the country by plane. Since airline travel became affordable, and then cheap, it seemed a clear cut choice and people’s appetite for quick and inexpensive holidays overseas has increased exponentially. According to Failte Ireland statistics, over 90% of visitors to Ireland in 2018 arrived by air.

But. There is the small matter of a climate crisis. And flying is the single most climate-polluting activity an ordinary person can do with even a single flight dramatically increasing your carbon footprint. Unless we see some major technological breakthroughs, people will ultimately have to fly less to reduce carbon emissions.

It’s not always possible to avoid flying but what are the alternatives?

We first dipped our toe into travelling by ferry a couple of years ago, making the short (3 hour) trip from Dublin to Holyhead and onwards to a well known theme park in the UK. It had been quite a number of years since I had last travelled by ferry, and for some reason I expected major differences in the experience. Apart from the quality of the coffee, however, nothing much had changed at all.

• Roll on
• Find somewhere – preferably beside a window – to plonk a swaying self (and family)
• Roll off

(Tip: don’t spend the time queuing to get onto the boat draining the car battery and then having to sheepishly ask port officials for a jump start. Happens to the best of us.)

The food offer? Rather forgettable. Overall though, a really pleasant experience, and a way of travelling that is actually very satisfying. Slow travel, perhaps?

Our second trip by ferry was somewhat further afield as we ventured to the continent on the comfortable Oscar Wilde vessel via Rosslare last year. Now this was fun; exploring the ship, enjoying getting lost and figuring out how our compact cabin worked (took about 5 minutes).

I recalled how way back, a college friend and I had met the late Michael and Jane O’Callaghan of Longueville House, Cork on the same crossing. Sensing our impoverished student status, Michael kindly bought us drinks and told us to visit sometime. A few years later I was able to return the favour when I brought a group of customers from the UK to the southwest and we overnighted and dined in the rather wonderful Longueville.

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WB Yeats ferry

Another year on, and the luxurious WB Yeats ship has finally entered into service, following the debacle of cancelled services and huge traveller frustrations in 2018. Departures ex Dublin port offer up huge convenience (well for us city dwellers, anyway).

This well designed €144 million “cruise ferry” is a treat. The décor is muted and calming. Everything is fresh and new. Quotes from the many wonderful poems of WB Yeats are dotted around the ship – “Poetry in Motion”.

We travelled on the first weekend of the school holidays, on what was probably one of the busiest sailings of the year. But we and our fellow passengers were all handled efficiently and our car was smoothly shepherded into its place within the 3km of car deck.

And so to the all important on-board dining experience.

What is most notable is the changed tiering of the food offer. On the Oscar Wilde this included Casual Dining (Pizza, Self Service), a Mid Market offer (Steak House) and Fine Dining. The WB Yeats has just two tiers however – Casual Dining (Boylans’ Brasserie, Café Lafayette) and Fine Dining (Lady Gregory).

Not everyone is a fan of these changes, as the price for a 3 course meal in the Lady Gregory is a rather eye watering €59 (before drinks & gratuities), putting it beyond many budgets. Breakfast is more affordable at €20 and features some healthy options (I opted for the light omelette). I’m afraid to say that I audibly shuddered when the waiter presented me with a pot of Yoplait yoghurt to accompany a plate of impeccably cut fruit pieces. No offense to Yoplait (we buy it regularly), but fine dining it isn’t.

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Lady Gregory Restaurant, WB Yeats (Irish Ferries website)

Boylans Brasserie serves fairly standard buffet food. The bigger challenge here is managing to queue and pay for your food before it has gone stone cold. Timing is crucial! A staff member shared with me the differences between French and Irish passengers, noting that the Irish tend to favour heavier meat based dishes such as ribs and pies, while the French prefer pasta dishes and fish.

There is also a small ice cream station under the “Glenowen” brand (serving ice cream made in Cork), which is a nice touch and a big hit with the kids.

And, somewhat of a surprise, there is a self service Mexican restaurant tucked away in a less visited corner of the ship. This was actually my favourite option with a hot main and soft drink priced at €15 which is decent enough value.

I left the WB Yeats feeling well fed and thoroughly rested so it’s a win from me. There is something hugely appealing about this slow, considered, method of travel. A welcome change from the frenetic pace of modern airports. And eco-friendly to boot.

Passenger travel by sea has declined by about 20% over the past 20 years particularly between Ireland and the UK but will this now change as people seek travel options that are kinder to the environment? Will the nature of travelling itself change? And our perceptions of holidays? Will restrictions be placed on personal travel?

Only time will tell …

(As a complete aside, since my return from France, I have been prompted to revisit a couple of my favourite poetry books.)

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What is Your “Mont Blanc”?

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Mont Blanc, France

This question arose during a recent family holiday in the smart alpine town of Chamonix in the French Alps.

The town sports a number of high end shops specialising in outdoor wear, equipment and accessories. With its proximity to the Mont Blanc Massif it’s a natural mecca for climbers, winter sports enthusiasts and lovers of the outdoors. Almost every hotel promises an amazing view of the mountains and when you get there you understand why. The Massif towers over the town providing a jaw dropping spectacle which feels almost too close to be real.

Also in Chamonix is a small chain of confectioners Aux Petits Gourmands which makes the most of its adjacency to Europe’s highest mountain. The menu for the sit-in café features a selection of Summit Chocolates dedicated to the famous peaks nearby, all with heights over 4,000m. There is also a retail range of chocolates branded 4810 (the height of Mont Blanc) which are in the shape of mini-mountains and impress in their detail, memorability and uniqueness.

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Chocolate Summit Menu, Aux Petit Gourmands, Chamonix

It got me thinking.

Could this work for a topographical or cultural heritage site in Ireland (or any other country for that matter)? Is there an opportunity for one or more of Ireland’s unique and ancient features to be fashioned into a commercially viable food product that people (particularly visitors) would like to buy?

Some years ago while working in food exports I was approached by someone who mooted the idea of developing a soda bread baked in the shape of the island of Ireland. Which could be served at ambassador receptions and gatherings of the Irish diaspora around the world. At the time it was difficult to think beyond the practicalities of devising a suitable loaf tin that would be able to effectively carve out Ireland’s craggy coastline in all its glory. The core idea, though, of using Ireland’s distinctiveness as a key selling point and a basis for product development, was pretty valid.

A number of food and beverage companies have used their connections with mountains and the outdoors to convey brand credentials, a point of difference and sometimes health cues. Toblerone and the Swiss Mountains. Alpen and the French Alps. Coors Light and the Rocky Mountains. All brands with longevity.

Perhaps one of the most famous foodstuffs to be associated with high altitude is Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay ate at the summit of Mount Everest during their successful ascent in 1953. The “cake” is still popular with mountaineers and is widely believed to be the world’s first energy bar.

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Some Irish chocolate companies do make good use of Ireland’s landscape and cityscapes in their branding and packaging designs. Skelligs Chocolates branding reflects the famous Skellig islands; Butlers Chocolates has a range of Dublin (and other cities) branded chocolate boxes and tins; and Clare based Hazel Mountain Chocolates has recently launched a new Burren Truffle Collection gift box, with the brand design highlighting aspects of the Burren landscape.

But what is Ireland’s Mont Blanc? My thoughts below, and please feel free to add your own suggestions …

 

 

 

Branding – how Irish can you be?

 

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This is a question that I have been asked on a number of occasions.

It’s a tricky subject. Irish is our native language and we are of course justifiably proud of our culture and heritage. Also, Irish identity is indelibly linked with our nomenclature. The reality however is that some Irish names just don’t travel well. My own name which might seem straightforward to most was subject to much mangling – always unintentional – when I lived abroad.

This leads me to the Strictly Business series currently running on RTE where Sonya Lennon has been taking on business challenges with a diverse range of small companies.

These types of programmes can be somewhat formulaic but there is a lightness of touch about Strictly Business that appeals. Sonya is a good presenter and not overly preachy; her feedback to the companies is succinct and straightforward and delivered with great style (I would tune in just to see her dresses).

The participants in the series have been well chosen, all small businesses from different sectors and with engaging personalities at the helm. The story arc tends to run as follows:
• Company has a business issue that needs addressing
• Swift diagnosis of problem by expert
• Company is brought around to the proposed solution
• A challenge is set which the company meets admirably
• A bright future lies ahead

The third episode features the highly telegenic Jenny and David O’Halloran from the Aran Islands who have returned from New Zealand with their young family to take over the family seaweed company Blath na Mara. With backgrounds in agri-food and marine biology respectively they are well qualified to take the business to the next stage. Specifically, their plan is to evolve the product range into a prepared food offering, starting with a seaweed pesto made with hand harvested organic seaweed.

So far so good. Seaweed vegetables are full of nutrients and have been heralded as the new super-food. More usually packaged and sold in dried formats, an easier to eat presentation sounds like a winning formula. However, there is a slight problem. The new brand name being proposed for the food business – Eilír – doesn’t seem to be a good fit. Sonya has reservations. Consumer research affirms that this name just doesn’t work for a food brand (cosmetics maybe?).

Taking the feedback on board the company speedily rebrands to Aran Islands Seaweed Pesto proving that, sometimes, simplicity just works. The brand design also incorporates Bláth na Mara which ensures that the company’s uniquely Irish identity is not lost.

Aran Islands Pesto

Coming up with a good brand name is far from easy. Ideally, a brand should be a short-cut for customers and tell a story about the brand’s personality. It should be short, easy to pronounce and memorable. Ultimately, the aim is to make a meaningful emotional connection.

This piece wouldn’t be complete without a review of the pesto. I made a quick detour to Fallon and Byrne in Dublin’s city centre during the week to pick up a pack and in a happy co-incidence I bumped into the radiant Jenny (baby no 3 due in May) making sure the pesto was in stock. Nothing like some TV exposure to shift product off shelves!

While I’m not usually a fan of ocean derived foods, I can share that the pesto is delicious, with a sharpness that adds to its authenticity. A wake up call for the palate and a true taste of the sea.

Strictly Business is on RTE 1, Wednesdays at 7.30pm and RTE Player