Meet the makers: Mince pies and Christmas cakes from the west of Ireland

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It’s a busy time of year in the west of Ireland for O’Hara’s of Foxford in Mayo and Foods of Athenry in Galway, who are in the business of making families all over Ireland smile with their traditional Christmas desserts .

Photography: Claire Nash

This article is brought to you by Dunnes Stores Simply Better and appears in the December 2019 issue of Irish Country Magazine.

Almost 70 years in business, O’Hara’s of Foxford have been supplying bread and cakes to the west of Ireland for decades, and for the very first time this year their much-loved Christmas cakes will be making their way to shelves all over the country through the Simply Better range in Dunnes Stores.

For decades their fruit-laden cakes have been enjoyed in many family homes in Foxford, Co Mayo, and beyond, and this year they’ve made four Christmas cakes for Simply Better. So, what’s the secret of their high quality taste? “All of the cakes are handcrafted and hand finished here in Foxford, there are teams of people working on them right now,” explains Julie O’Hara.

“That’s important because it keeps that traditional bakery feel, and being handcrafted is what sets us apart to other cake manufacturers, which is really important.”

Julie is part of the third generation of the family business, which was started by Michael and Maureen O’Hara who “founded the bakery after a sweepstake win in 1951”. “It’s been in the family ever since,” says Julie, “over the years there’s been over 20 members here, my eldest daughter, niece and nephews are working here now – the next generation are spending their summers working here so it’s super to see that it’s still in the family.”

Pride of place

As well as the family ties, O’Hara’s is a huge part of the Foxford community, proudly employing approximately 160 staff, many of whom are second and third generation , too. Sean Trayers says that provenance and pride of place is incredibly important to the company:

“We use West Cork whiskey and free range Irish eggs in our Christmas cakes, which are very heavily fruited and really luxurious. Where we can use Irish we do, because it gives provenance to the product which is really important.”

“This is our first year producing cakes for the Simply Better range and we’ve found the process wonderful,” says Julie. “The team has been down to see the plant. They’re very hands-on and really interested in the product, they want to know every detail, which is really enjoyable for us because we look for that quality in our own range so the fact they look for that too is really great.”

Making mince pies

Foods of Athenry founder Siobhan Lawless absolutely loves Christmas, which is important seeing as she’s surrounded by mince pies this time of year. Her Simply Better All Butter Mince Pies have become somewhat of a cult product for Dunnes Stores customers, and she believes the secret to that success is in the high quality of the tasty treats: “We use Irish flour and Irish butter,” says Siobhan. “To be fair to the Simply Better team they are of the thinking that quality runs hand in hand with taste, so when they’re exploring a new product, it has to taste fantastic but it also has to be of the best quality in terms of ingredients.

“We have our own Foods of Athenry range for people who are dietary restricted – wheat and dairy intolerant – so that’s an easy marriage because we have the same ethos on what shouldn’t be in a product, so I enjoy working with them from that point of view. There are no preservatives, no artificial flavours, or anything like that.

“There is a lot of taste and pleasure and calories, but it’s a magical time of the year so calories don’t count!”

Superior taste

Foods of Athenry create two products for Simply Better: an all-butter pastry mince pie filled with fruit and nut filling, and the second one is an all-butter pastry with mincemeat but it also has chocolate and cranberries in it. “It’s probably my favourite of all the products we make,” says Siobhan, “it’s still mincemeat which is essentially a mix of dry fruit and sugars, but we substitute out nuts for cranberries and chocolate chips which melt into it when you bake it, so you don’t feel chocolate when you bite it but you get a lovely after taste of it – it’s chocolatey joy.”

Siobhan and her husband Paul started Foods of Athenry, in 2004 when they “sold the cows and moved into the milking parlour” on their family farm. “We manufacture all of our products in converted agricultural buildings in rural east Galway. When we started out we had five children under 12, so we were very interested in the relationship of food versus health. Our ethos was if we wouldn’t feed to our own children, we wouldn’t sell it.

“Luckily for us, Irish food was coming into a time where consumers were also starting to feel the same way, that the quality of what they were eating was important to their health. By 2010 we added a gluten free bakery because we felt people who were dietary restricted had lesser choice so it became a mission to provide those people with the same level of choice.”

Joyful time of year

“We’ve been overwhelmed with the level of success of the mince pies.”

“We got into this business because we love to spread a little bit of food joy, and being a part of Simply Better means our pies are in so many households over the Christmas season. That gives us great satisfaction because you feel like you’re involved in a very special time for families.”

This article is brought to you by Dunnes Stores Simply Better and appears in the December 2019 issue of Irish Country Magazine.