Picnic Times: crunch talks on Keogh’s farm
Tom Keogh of Keogh’s crisps remembers idyllic family picnics on his parents’ vegetable farm in north Co Dublin
Tom Keogh with his brothers, Ross and Derek. Photograph: Eric Luke
Tom Keogh with his mother, Denise, and her homemade brown bread. Photograph: Eric Luke
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TOM KEOGH: Back when we were kids, the farm felt an awful lot smaller. It would be just my dad driving a combine and there might be one other guy on a small tractor. We’d all sit around together and just enjoy a picnic. And you’d have the time to do it. Dad could stop the combine for an hour and sit down with us. The smells coming from the combine and wheat were just amazing. When I smell a field of wheat, that brings me straight back to when I was probably about six years old.
My mam would make all the sandwiches and stuff. She used to bring all the kids to the field. We’d meet Dad at lunchtime and we’d all sit down and have our picnic. They were always sunny memories. We use to flatten out the straw and make almost a blanket out of the straw, throw the plates down and take the sandwiches out. There was always tea.
We stopped growing wheat about five years ago. We also grew barley. The little head of the barley itches your skin, whereas wheat is like a carpet. You can sit down on wheat straw.
The special thing in the picnic would be mam’s brown bread. There’d probably be ham and cheese sandwiches. We definitely didn’t have any crisps back then. And tea and coffee in flasks.
From a really young age we helped out on the farm. We were driving tractors here and cutting cauliflowers from about seven or eight years old. Dad used to get us out of bed at 6am and we’d go to the cauliflower fields and drive the tractors so the guys could load the fresh cauliflowers on to the trailers. You’d probably be driving about one mile an hour.
As soon as you were on holiday you were on the farm. And even after school, if the farm was busy you were straight back into it. Homework was often done very late in the evenings.
Size-wise the farm wasn’t too much different back then, but we weren’t running as many potatoes through the business as we are now. At that stage we didn’t deal with any retailers, we just supplied a few local shops, so it was a much smaller scale.
The wholesale markets in Dublin city are still our biggest customer. We’re market gardeners. That’s what my family have done on my mother’s side and my father’s side. My great grandad did it on a horse and cart. Whatever you grew on the farm was loaded on to a horse and cart (nowadays it’s the truck) and you’re into Dublin city for about 4am. It’s dying off, unfortunately. That Corporation fruit market is due to close shortly. It’s being redeveloped. I think it’s going to be a really nice place, but a lot of the traders are older so it won’t be so much relocating as retiring for them.
In my time on the farm, we’ve grown sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, onions, potatoes, tomatoes and cucumbers. And in that time, all of those crops, apart from potatoes, have gone because imports came in that were cheaper than what we could produce in Ireland.
Cabbage and cauliflower all come in from the UK and France now. Broccoli isn’t produced in Ireland any more. Tomatoes are practically gone. North Co Dublin, especially over to Rush, used to be awash with glasshouses growing tomatoes. You won’t get an Irish cucumber now. Unfortunately, imports destroyed all that. I have memories of my dad returning home from the market with a truckload of cauliflowers because somebody had brought a truckload from France that morning. All our cauliflowers had to be dumped.
The potato has survived because the Irish palate is toned to a very floury potato and we’re unique in that sense. That’s saved our industry: the fact that companies outside Ireland don’t grow the kind of potatoes Irish people like. We’re 3½ years on the go with the crisps now, and we employ 25 people. We’ll be up to 30 by the end of the year.
We have just broken into the Chinese market. So yes, it’s incredible to think that we have gone from sitting down on a bed of straw having a picnic to selling crisps to China. It’s a long jump.
KEOGH FAMILY POTATO SALAD
- Baby potatoes (2 per person)
- Small bunches of rosemary and thyme
- Drizzle of olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves
- 50ml balsamic vinegar
- Flatleaf parsley
- 200g Greek yoghurt
- A pinch of sea salt
Cut baby potatoes in half lengthways. Roast potatoes at 200 degrees for about 25 minutes, with olive oil, chopped rosemary, thyme and the whole garlic cloves. Once cooked, sprinkle some balsamic vinegar on the potatoes and allow to cool. Once the potatoes have cooled down, chop some of the parsley and sprinkle across the potatoes. Mash the cloves of garlic with a fork when they’ve cooled and stir into the yoghurt with a little salt. Put this in a separate pot and serve it as a dip or stir it into the potato salad.
READER STORY: SALAD DAYS IN VERSAILLES, 1989
Life’s a picnic, or so they say, and thus it seemed to us in that hazy Versailles summer of 1989. We were all in our salad days; my now husband and I had given up two permanent, pensionable jobs in Ireland to seek adventure in Paris (much to the horror of our families).
The French adore eating à l’éxterieur and le pique-nique is an art form. Any guest we had (and there were many) was treated to the luxury of a picnic where rain could generally be discounted and the wine was cheap and delicious.
Thus my formula for a great picnic was born: a rug; bottle of red; a fresh baguette; a roast chicken from the charcuterie, oozing a glorious smell; patisserie that didn’t drip or squash; whatever fruit was best at the market that day; and a dollop of good company. We stayed there all day and into the night. There were spectacular fireworks because it was the anniversary of the French revolution. La vie was indeed belle.
Anne Burke Glasnevin, Dublin