It began with raspberry jam. The jam was deep, dark red, profoundly fruity, with just the right balance of sweetness, and, laid on top of unsalted butter on a buttery croissant like a carmine bedspread, it gave a life-enhancing start to the day. I was staying at Virginia Park Lodge, Richard Corrigan’s new pleasure dome in County Cavan, Ireland. Mr Corrigan has always been something of a stickler for quality, and so I shouldn’t have been surprised; but quality is quality and this was star quality jam.
‘Where does this admirable raspberry jam come from?’ I asked.
‘South Hill Enterprise,’ I was told.
‘May I visit South Hill? And talk to the makers of this sublime jam?’ I said.
‘You may.’ And so I did.
It wasn’t quite the characterful, kitchen-in-the-back-of-a-cottage operation I’d rather hoped. The headquarters of South Hill Enterprise is a cluster of one-story, cream-going-grey, pebble-dashed utilitarian units on one side of and industrial estate on the fringes of Athboy. But from one of these unremarkable buildings comes a stream of remarkable jams, cakes and chocolates made some very remarkable people.
South Hill Enterprise is a subsidiary of the Muiriosa Foundation. It was set up in 1993 to provide employment and training for people with disabilities when they leave the education provided by another part of the same organisation.
The place is run by Maura, a woman of formidable energy and cheerfulness, who guides her charges with a mixture of firmness, understanding and sweetness. The atmosphere was one of an extended family rather than a conventional workforce. In a world of brash commercialisation, of corporate ‘values’, corporate ‘responsibility’, and corporate ‘targets’, where the words ‘human resources’ means looking on employees as ‘units’ rather than people, such principles seem quaint, antiquated and generally wonderful.
It would be easy to be sentimental about the nature of the set up, but the place – factory doesn’t seem to be the right word – provides a shape and rhythm for people who might other wise have little or none. It gives a value to them and their work. South Hill may be a refuge, but it is a refuge with a purpose and a function.
While the commercial priorities that guide South Hill may not be exactly conventional, it still has to abide by the rules and regulations that any food producer must satisfy, and these have to be reconciled those that apply to these particular employees.
Maura and her other two supervisors have mastered this tricky balancing act with magnificent aplomb. The chocolates, cakes and jams they produce are of a uniformly high quality. Whether by accident or design, the standards of their products put most other commercial versions to shame. The jams sparkle fruit and the levels of sweetness beautifully judged. They used to pick the fruit for the jams themselves, but the demand had grown so much that they now buy it from Boylan’s Fruit in County Kildare. And all they add is sugar, and lemon juice in the case of strawberry jam, and that’s it. The cakes are of that kind that one slice never seems quite enough. And the chocolate section was set up with the help of Martin Van Der Berg from De Werkgaard in Ghent, who introduced the exacting Belgian traditions for high grade chocolates – they use the classy Caillebaut chocolate from Belgium to make them.
Any ardent consumer of jams, cakes and chocolates can revel in the character of South Hill’s jams, chutneys, scones, cakes and chocolates, but in the final analysis as Maura put it ‘It’s not the products, it’s the people who make them that are important’.
South Hill Enterprise, Townspark Industrial Estate, Cloran Road, Athboy, Co Meath, Ireland
Tel & Fax: 046 943 2899