Variety is the spice of life and when it comes to food, you can’t beat vibrant dishes bursting with flavour. A product that certainly adds a pop of colour to restaurant dishes is the Violetta potato, which is grown and supplied by Maria Flynn at Ballymakenny Farm.
While trying to get to the heart of Maria’s love of food, she explained: “I have always liked good food and appreciated quality in food, but in all honesty, this has grown into a love of food since I have been working and growing for chefs since 2015.”
For Maria, the path to purple potatoes began more than 10 years ago in 2006: “It all began when I met my husband, a farmer. It’s only since then as I watched the seasons and growing rituals, that I became more and more involved in the day to day running of the farm.”
When the farm was going through a rough period, Maria had an interesting conversation with a vegetable grower, finding inspiration for what would become her new path:
“The farm was going through somewhat of a struggle and I wanted to have a ‘Happy place’ to go to while we were trying to get through what seemed to be a downward spiral. I had a conversation with a local veg grower who supplied the food service industry (we had been supplying wholesalers for supermarkets), and I listened to what he had to say with regards to chefs having to use imported produce.”
“I had no money to invest in a new venture so had to work within the structure we already had on the farm, eg. potatoes. I decided to grow something not already being grown on any scale in Ireland, and the purple potato was about as different as I could come up with.”
She added: “It wasn’t intended as a full on business and I believe that I stumbled upon a gap in the market as opposed to anything else.”
Despite not being intended to become a full-time business, Maria has seen exponential growth at Ballymakenny Farm over the past number of years:
“The business has evolved over the last 2 years, culminating with me setting up my Ltd. company late last year. We are growing monthly and have definitely noticed an increase in interest from all corners of the market of late.”
Describing the one that started it all, Maria explained: “Our flagship product, Violetta, will always hold a special place in my heart. It is a lovely, colourful, great tasting potato. The seed is sourced from Skea Potatoes in Scotland. The colour is in the seed and is produced by a naturally occuring anto cyananin, the same one that naturally occurs in beetroot. And because of the natural purple of the Violetta, it is high in antioxidants.”
As the business grew, Maria added new products to her colourful range, with Red Emmalie Potato, Pink Fir Apple Potato, Yukon Gold, Micro Potatoes and Salad Potatoes all on offer.
She’s also growing Purple Sprouting Broccoli, Frivole, Tender Stem Broccoli and Sweet Stem Cauliflower. For Maria, the chefs in Ireland’s food industry influence what she will grow: “We try to grow produce that chefs would otherwise have to import.”
Speaking of chefs, Maria initially reached out to people in the food industry over social media: “Social media was and is an integral part of my business. I had no budget for a media/marketing company to promote me, so it was my only platform to reach out to chefs.”
Once she caught the attention of a small few, Maria’s business continued to grow, with social media continuing to play a key role: “The first chefs to use my produce were Keith Boyle at The Bay tree Bistro in Waterford and Michael Hunter in Drogheda. I feel that word spread quickly enough for me to handle it at the time.”
“Social media continues to be a very important part of my business and I now get to see the results on plates. I love to see chefs sharing ideas and knowledge.”
With so many to choose from, Maria found it hard to select certain creations she loves, but did have a few honourable mentions to share:
“Keith Boyle currently has a potato risotto which I love. Also Alan McArdle from Aghadoe Heights has done a brilliant potato tower and Eddie Attwell makes fantastic potato puffs. To be fair, the list goes on and on.”
While Maria loves how her product has been received in the industry and is excited for the growth to continue, she is very appreciative of Keith Boyle, the first chef to reach out to her:
“A story that really defines us is our friendship with Keith Boyle in Bay tree Bistro in Waterford. He was the first chef to reach out to me on Twitter when I started tweeting about our first crop of Violetta being planted. He was so excited and it gave me great confidence.”
She continued: “At the time, he was operating a small bistro three night’s a week above a pub in Ballybricken in Waterford. We developed a friendship and when the crop was harvested, he used Violetta and gave us great exposure on social media from April 2015.”
Remembering what is now a few years ago, Maria said: “By the following year, Keith won best newcomer at the 2016 RAI awards 2016 and at the awards ceremony, our Violetta potatoes were served with the main course, courtesy of Rob Krawczyk. It was an amazing achievement for both of us in such a short space of time.”
With so many wonderful moments and experiences, it can be hard to find one stand out moment. For Maria, managing to get her business off the ground without much of a budget was a major achievement:
“I feel my biggest achievement is creating a successful business from my kitchen table without any media or marketing budgets, or any professional branding.”
While Maria could imagine “100 different things to do with my life”, she loves what she does at Ballymakenny Farm, saying:
“The fact is that we are farmers and we need to have a sustainable business and adapt to what I see as the changing landscape for farming in Ireland. Creating and driving forward a new business in our late 40’s was never the plan, but it became the necessity. The joy in it all is the utter pleasure the chefs are taking in what we grow, that keeps me going.”
From the sound of it, it will be keeping them going for a very long time, with Maria revealing some of her plans for the future:
“The future plan for Ballymakenny Farm is to keep growing what the chefs want to cook. We have a 10-year-old who, so far, wants to be a farmer. So the aim is to build something we can be proud of and leave it for him to take into the future, if that’s what he wants when the time comes. We also want to educate ourselves about making the farm more biodynamic and doing what we can to protect our wildlife.”
On a final note, Maria really wanted to acknowledge the impact the chefs of Ireland have had on her business and appreciates their continued support:
“If I can I would really like to take an opportunity to thank the chefs in this country of ours, both north and south, for the unbelievable support they have given us in the short space of time we have been working with them.”
For more information about Ballymakenny Farm and to stay up-to-date with all their latest news, you can visit them on Twitter.
Sarah has always had a great love of travel, food and photography. Following her journalism degree at DCU, she developed a passion for travel writing while living in Spain.
Sarah loves exploring new places and sampling the local cuisine. Working with TheTaste.ie combines her love of food and travel.
A big people person, especially when it comes to hearing other people’s stories, Sarah loves interviewing chefs, food producers and more.