Irish charcoal keeps the home fires burning
What began as ‘complete and utter oneupmanship’ between a group of friends turned into Irish Artisan Charcoal, the only company of its kind in the country
The Irish Artisan Charcoal Company’s kiln in Bruff, Co Limerick
Colin O’Loan of the Irish Artisan Charcoal Company. Photograph: Martina Regan Photography
Charcoal made from ash
There’s a comedy sketch in the setting-up of Colin O’Loan’s business. A bunch of friends get together for a dads’ retreat once a year. It starts simply, with sausages and beer. And then the game is on. The following year someone nonchalantly pulls out a bottle and pours a glass of his own home-made beer. The next year two of the lads unpack a slab of pork shoulder from their own home-reared pigs.
The spark for a plan to start making Irish charcoal was, O’Loan says, “complete and utter oneupmanship”. The idea also came straight out of the book of business plans that starts with the words: I’d like to buy it but it’s not on the market; let’s set up a company to make it.
The annual gatherings “always revolved around the barbecue, so there’d be craft beer and local beers. We started with Galway Hooker, and then Kinnegar and Eight Degrees,” O’Loan says, taking a break from barbecuing at the Ballymaloe Litfest last month as the rain pours down.
“Then the next year we started making our own beer, and after that Mikey [the host] and two of his friends got four pigs and we started doing slow-roast shoulder of pork. So basically we were upping the ante every year. The missing link was the charcoal. We weren’t able to cook on anything other than stuff that was imported.”
O’Loan found a mutual friend who had access to timber and a farm with space. “We went from talking over a pint over to England to look at a kiln, [which], for want of a better term, is a big oven that you cook charcoal in and it uses the methane gas that’s produced in it to cook it.”
O’Loan’s day job is being a stay-at-home dad to his two children, aged four and six. “I love being at home with the kids,” he says. He worked as a car salesman in a Lexus dealership before he had children. He also worked part time in Sheridan’s wine bar in Galway. Teaming up with two other stay-at-home dads, Lazlo Szlatki and James Kinnane, seemed like a good way to make a work-life balance.
“We’ve set up this company; six of us involved and three stay-at-home dads who are kind of running it. So there’s myself, Lazlo and James, and we’re basically making, selling, marketing, PR, cooking at things like Litfest, modelling for our aprons, as you can see,” he says gesturing to his branded barbecue apron.
Szlatki is the charcoal-making master and Kinnane sees to deliveries, sales, logistics and accounts. So how do they juggle? “It’s all about trying to get a quiet couple of hours, put on Peppa Pig for a couple of hours and try to get invoices sent or make those phone calls to the Mews [restaurant in Baltimore, Co Cork] or [chef] John Relihan, or whatever restaurants we’re trying to get into.”
The cooking process
The charcoal is made by taking the prunings from a small ash and oak forest, packing the branches and trunks into the kiln, and turning on the heat. As the methane gas produced from the wood ignites, the temperature goes up to 500 degrees, driving all the moisture out of the wood. At the end of the cook, the wood that filled the kiln now takes up about a quarter of the space and has blackened and dried down to charcoal.
“We want to get the idea across that you don’t need firelighters or lighter fluid to get it lit. So none of those chemicals are going through your food. It’s all about keeping it natural. I suggest just tearing up a little bit of our paper bag, rolling it up tight and putting a little bit of sunflower oil on it and that’s it. Light that, pile up a little pile around it and it’s ready to go in about 10 minutes,” O’Loan says.
Where do the bags of charcoal we buy in petrol stations as soon as the sun comes out come from? “The bulk of commercial charcoal comes from Namibia – about 90 per cent comes from there – the rest from Asia and Africa, and there’s some from Poland.”
Are chefs interested in the flavours that certain woods give the smoke and therefore the food? “Certain trees will carry different things. The maple, apple, cherry are the ones that people go for. I suppose there’s a certain amount of sugars on a cellular level. There was a man from Coillte here yesterday and we were chatting about that.”
They sell through various shops in Galway, Cork and Limerick and SuperValu outlets in the area. “We’ll ship the charcoal anywhere in Ireland for €5.99. We want people to just keep the charcoal there in the garage rather than go, ‘Oh look, there’s the sun out; let’s go and buy a barbecue and charcoal and then never use it again for another year.”
What do his children make of their dad’s new venture? “They love it. They’re getting to test sausages, burgers and lamb chops. There’s nothing like seeing your kid pick up a lamb chop by the bone and just wolfing it. It’s like, ‘Oh, I made that.’ Both. The kid and the barbecued lamb chop. So yeah it’s good.”
IRISH ARTISAN BARBECUE: OTHER INGREDIENTS YOU WILL NEED
Okay, so now you’re burning Irish charcoal. Here is my pick of small-scale food producers to keep the food Irish, too.
Organic lamb, pork, beef, burgers and sausages are all available online from Coolanowle Farm in Co Laois. Order on a Tuesday for delivery on a Thursday, or buy direct from their stall at the Green Door Market, Newmarket Square, Dublin 8, Thursday to Saturday. organicmeat.ie
Go for the sizzle of a sausage from Hicks Traditional Pork Butchers, or seek out Gubbeen Farm meats and cheeses at Mahon Point, Bantry, Skibbereen and Schull farmers’ markets in Cork and specialist food shops throughout Ireland.
It’s a bit early in the year to find Irish-grown sweetcorn and aubergines, but organic vegetable grower Liam Ryan recommends salad greens to serve alongside the meat. He grows rocket, pak choi, spinach and baby lettuce at his farm in Ballitore outside Athy, Co Kildare. His outdoor-grown strawberries should be ripe by now. September will bring his Irish-grown organic sweetcorn to the party. Buy direct from his Moyle Abbey Farm in Ballitore on Fridays or from Carlow Farmers’ Market.
Team your salad with a crumble of Carlow Cheese Company feta, by cheesemaker Elizabeth Bradley, which you can find at Carlow Farmers’ Market. In Clare, Gabriel Faherty mixes dillisk into his Aran Islands goat’s cheese and makes a feta-type cheese that is great for summery salads. And St Tola cheese from Inagh farm in Clare is available in specialist shops and cheesemongers.