Beth-Ann Smith and brothers Owen and Ken Madden, three artisans with impressive family lineages in food, have combined their collective experience to launch The Lismore Food Company. Based in the historic Waterford town, their new venture is located in The Summerhouse, home to the brother’s family business for almost two centuries. Beth-Ann talked to us recently about biccies, the beauty of a ‘hot orange’ eureka moment and Lismore’s connection to Boyle’s Law.
Had you always planned to work with food?
Our family backgrounds are completely about food. Career-wise though, I took a very meandering route to it! My grandfather set up Smiths Stores over 50 years ago in Cork, a beautiful delicatessen, a bit like Fallon & Byrne, while the Lismore building that we work in now has been in the family of my partners Ken and Owen Madden for almost 200 years. It was a bakery and a bar and it’s now a café, so we bake there when the café is closed. I was always trying to strike a balance between business and being creative, but it wasn’t really working out. I studied Business and Politics at Trinity and then everything from stockbroking to radio presenting to working in internet start-up companies to face painting! Eventually the dots connected when I finally went back and trained as a chef and now, with the biscuits, there’s a really nice balance.
What sparked the idea for your biscuits?
We’d been talking for ages about creating something to do with food and we’d tried out a few ideas that didn’t work out for us. Then Ken came to dinner in my house a few years ago and brought me some biscuits from the East India Company. They were so beautiful; we were both just ooh-ing over them. Making biscuits doesn’t have to be complicated, and we realised that this was something that we could probably start doing ourselves with very little outlay. We’d worked on another idea previously and learned a huge amount through the Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland Food Works programme. When we came back to biscuits about a year and a half ago we were able to quickly get all the wheels in motion and move on it.
What inspires the flavour combinations?
I work as the head chef in Lismore Castle, and you can’t roll out the same homemade biscuits for afternoon tea every day. As a nation, we have these amazing influences coming in from all over the world and these days, in Irish restaurants, you could be transported anywhere in terms of what’s on your plate, so we wanted to express that a little bit. We’ve played with different recipes and combinations so that when you sit down with a lemon polenta you can close your eyes and imagine that you’re on a terrace in Italy, while chocolate and cardamom brings you to Asia. Our biccies are hand-rolled, baked and cut and we wanted them to feel elegant so we made them really thin. The ingredients are really simple, just butter, sugar and flour. We use Kerrygold, which gives a rich butteriness you can really taste, particularly in the shortbread ones.
The packaging is beautiful.
Thank you! We wanted to present something that looked sophisticated and professional but not like it was being churned out of a factory. After all there’s only the three of us involved, we’re not a big operation! We’d been trying to work it out for months and then one sunny evening we were doing a dessert at home and Ken caramelised some sugar and dipped hazelnuts into it. The sugar set in beautiful golden strings and swirls reflecting something orange in the light. We thought it looked really cool, so it was one of those amazing eureka moments, ‘That’s it – hot orange!’ I love the colour because it reminds me of the covers of the Penguin classics and the gold disc was inspired by the beautiful work of the artist Patrick Scott.
There’s a lot of information that comes on that packaging too.
We were really jostling for space because you’ve got to get all the nutritional stuff in and we also wanted to include some facts about Lismore. Ken thought it would be fun to play with the bar code so if you look closely you can see the skyline with the castle and the cathedral in it. Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, grew up in Lismore so right above the bar code we have ‘PV = K’ or Boyle’s Law. One for the science geeks!
Your biscuits have been described as very ‘moreish’. Have you future plans to expand?
We’ve been blown away by the reaction, but a year before it may not have worked. The recession really decimated places like Lismore and I’m not sure that many people would have had the money to spend on luxury biscuits. Our launch coincided with this great surge of optimism and it was unbelievable the way it took off. We believe we have a future in export but for the moment we’re working on adding three savoury biscuits and two more sweet ones, so feet firmly planted!
For further information and a full list of stockists visit www.thelismorefoodcompany.com
Words: Martina Murray
Pictures: Beth-Ann Smith