It’s only when you show people your home that you begin to appreciate the uniqueness of what you’ve got. We were reminded of this on monday when we had guests visiting from Dubai and Riyadh.
Chefs Saradhia and Praba had travelled from Dubai and Chefs Wed and Anas all the way from Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. It was an absolute pleasure to host them and a delight to see how engaged they were with what we had to show them.
This was the first time our visitors from Saudi Arabia had been in Ireland. This knowledge made us more conscious than ever of our cold, grey summer weather. When the day started sunny we thanked them for ‘bringing the sun’ with them. When it turned wet and the temperature dropped, apologies were muttered and excuses made – it’s not always this bad, we said. Of course, they weren’t here for sunshine; they were here to see just why Irish beef is so good. In this, the rain became an ally.
It did rain on monday, thank God. Not much, mind you, just a shower here and there, just enough to make a point. It would have been off-message if it hadn’t. We needed wellies on the farm. The long grass was wet, the gateways into fields churned with soft mud. The cattle, on the other hand, seemed fresh from the salon. Black angus seem cleaner than other breeds. They are quiet, reserved, small, curious, and they do seem more fastidious than other cattle.
So they really did us proud. They gathered round, posed for pictures, got close enough to lick our elbows, seemed to listen curiously as our guides talked about their cushy lifestyles.
Wed Saleh and Anas Alsulayyim were our guests from Saudi. They happily trudged through the mud, took selfies with the cattle and fired questions at us just enough to reassure us that they were getting real insights from the tour.
Like the rest of us, they were later amazed by the display of shepherding skills put on by the farmer. The five year old collie (‘my worst dog’, the farmer insisted) zipped down the field, circled a flock of about twenty sheep and brought them back up the field to the precise position the farmer intended – all in a matter of seconds. “He’s my worst dog because he’s too nice,” the farmer elaborated later. He was indeed adorable and clever enough to do the job at hand.
Once we had learned everything we could about these animals’ rather pleasant lifestyles, we got back on the bus and returned to Ballymahon for lunch. Here we began to learn a little more about our guests.
Lunch was in Skelly’s pub. Irish pubs serve food now, of course, and some of it is very good. It wasn’t always like that. “We used to sell groceries from a shop at the front,” our host told us, “the pub was originally behind that and we ran a funeral home from the back.” It was a backstory few restaurants could match.
The chef, we learned from Tim, was intimidated by the quality of chefs she was cooking for. We began to wonder about our guests. John Stone only supplies the best and Saradhi, Praba, Wed and Anas are some of the best chefs in the UAE and Saudi Arabia. Some of the best known too; it was only later that we realised that those selfies might be seen by some of their hundreds of thousands of followers. So, no pressure.
Of course the chef in Skellys had little to fear: She was serving John Stone beef, we were in a country pub in Ireland on a lovely summer’s day. Our guests may have been high-powered influencers but they were in holiday mood. Pints of Guinness were raised in toast, Irish stew was enjoyed by all, potatoes in various forms were relished. It wasn’t five star, it was better than that; it was an authentic experience.
Warmed by the stew, we were ready for the factory. New, spotless white wellies were donned, white coats and trousers over our own clothes. Hairnets and helmets completed the picture. We scrubbed up and followed Jonathan into the plant. It was a pleasure to see Jonathan in the zone. We started with selection area. This is often one of the big mysteries to John Stone customers. “We only select the best,” we say. “How do you do that?” people wonder. Its only when they visit the site and understand that the facility is shared with Kepak that it becomes clear. We select the best, Kepak take the rest; that’s the deal. Wed and Anas followed all of this with interest but it was the dry-ageing room that caught their imagination. Here they came to life as chefs. Anyone can enjoy a visit to a farm. Only a chef can thrill to sight of so much high quality food. They beamed for the camera, hugging the hanging meat like this was a chance encounter with a celebrity. We couldn’t hear a thing above the fans but I imagine they were saying something like, “Of my God, look at all the fabulous beef.”
Later in the relatively quiet surrounds of the John Stone processing area, they continued to fire questions at their guides. Jonathan was in his element. You could see it in his eyes. It’s customers like this that make it all worthwhile, he seemed to be thinking.
We spent an hour and a half on the factory floor somehow. It was cold, we had been waddling along in strange boots, straining to hear above the din of fans and knives, the hiss of vacuum-packing machines and the toot-toot of forklifts. We didn’t mind. Wed and Anas were smiling. This was fun to them. Jonathan relaxed. He had put on a good show but, in the end, it had been easy. We were all invested in the same thing – good food.