Meet Paul Clarke of CRAIC Foods, Great British Food Awards Grand Champion 2021
We spoke to Paul Clarke about CRAIC Foods, the innovative producer that scooped this year’s Great British Food Award Grand Champion accolade
John Gill, Head of Marketing and Trading at Booth’s supermarket, judged CRAIC Foods’ Pickled Gooseberries in Apple & Elderflower Vinegar as the Grand Champion of 2021’s Great British Food Awards.
“Craic Pickled Gooseberries are a taste sensation,” he enthused. “A perfectly balanced, great tasting product. The sharpness of the gooseberry is evident but beautifully complemented by the sweetness and complexity of the pickle.”
We wanted to find out more about the man behind the brand. So we spoke to founder Paul Clarke, a former professional chef who set up this innovative food business.
Can you tell us a little bit more about your background as a chef and what made you decide to move into food production instead?
Initially, I saw food production as a way out of the pressure and long hours of the professional kitchen; I had a young family at the time, and like many chefs I was struggling to obtain a work-life balance. I was running the kitchen at a renowned Irish castle. It was a busy, growing, and exciting business but being set in rural Ireland, it had staff sourcing problems and I couldn’t get the chefs I needed for the job in hand. The workaround was to simplify the food style and maximise the prep, working ahead in any quiet period to cope when busy.
Preparation before service is classically known as “mise en place”, and we were utilising the concept to the full, making flavoured oils, vinegar reductions, chutneys, dressings, pickles, preserved fruits, cured fish and meats; anything that we could prepare ahead and that would benefit from the ageing process. What I didn’t know then was that these products would later become the foundation of a business.
Things developed when a chance conversation with one of my suppliers confirmed what I already knew - other local restaurants were under pressure and were looking for ingredients to save time in the kitchen; this was all the market research I needed and I stepped from behind the stove to form En Place Foods, a business with the concept of preparing high-quality ingredients for chefs to save time in a professional kitchen.
What’s the story behind CRAIC foods?
In 2017, En Place Foods was now so busy supplying chefs and restaurants that it became increasingly difficult to find time for new product development. I had a backlist of product ideas that I wanted to investigate, and some space was needed, so CRAIC Foods was born. Essentially CRAIC is an innovation business, an outlet for my overly creative culinary mind.
We produce for our brand, but we also work with many small local brand owners and artisan start-ups I have met, helping them develop new products and bring them to market. We have gained a bit of a reputation for pushing culinary boundaries in what you can offer for speciality retail, but I believe we have only done this by understanding where the boundaries lie. The most significant ingredient we have is often restraint, and where we can marry quality and simplicity this usually gives us the best results.
How has the organisation changed since being set up in 2017?
Like everyone in speciality food, our biggest changes have been forced by the arrival of COVID-19. Pre-pandemic, most of our development and supply was for food service, but we had to adapt when hotels and restaurants went into lockdown. The priority became an e-commerce site to reach new customers seeking speciality food online, initially offering some of our freeze-dried fruits, black garlic products, fruit vinegar and seaweed ingredients that had previously been directed to chefs.
As we adapted pack sizes for home use, we added lines such as our salted miso caramels and other condiments. Ironically some chefs found us through the website during the lockdown and then started to buy from us directly when their restaurants could reopen. This, coupled with new business supplying to the retail trade, means we are now busier than ever.
Your pickled gooseberries won the ‘Pickles’ Great British Food Award and also Grand Champion, with judges Santosh Shah and John Gill unanimous in their approval. What do you think made this product stand out?
It was wonderful to get such great feedback and the judges picked up on what I feel is the product’s key attribute, the sharpness of the gooseberry against the complementary sweetness of the pickle. There is also a flavour synergy between the apple-elderflower vinegar and the gooseberry; if we had got the sweet-sour balance wrong this would be lost, so I’m delighted that they noted the complexity in the pickle liquor.
They also highlighted its uniqueness which was great, gooseberries go so well with oily or smoked fish, cheese, or rich meats, but they often don’t get used as much as they could. Hopefully, having a jar of our pickle in the cupboard might help fix that.
Aside from gooseberries, what other products do you sell? Have you got any personal favourites?
Lots! Our first artisan development project at CRAIC was making black garlic. Once we mastered the production, this led to our black garlic ketchup, black garlic BBQ sauce, a fermented plum sauce and black garlic miso. We also produce an award-winning black garlic sea salt and black garlic & porcini mushroom sea salt, which is my go-to seasoning for everything.
We have a range of “Islander” seaweed products developed for an amazing organic sea farm business from Rathlin Island, and the salsa verde in this range is a particular favourite, especially with grilled lamb.
On the sweet side, as well as our jams and preserves, we have a range of salted caramels, all with added miso which gives an umami boost to the buttery sweetness; they are addictive. Everyone here has their favourite; the chocolate and Irish stout is very popular, but for me, it’s one we do with kalamansi fruit that has an extra dimension.
There are also two other fruit pickles in the range along with the gooseberry, a pickled blackberry in balsamic and thyme vinegar that is great with cheese or charcuterie and a pickled sour cherry that makes a fantastic sauce for duck or game. Our latest product introduction is a Melilot vinegar. It’s a honey and apple vinegar infused with Melilot sweet clover, which adds a subtle tonka bean-like flavour. It’s great in dressings and sauces, but also as a drinking shrub or cocktail addition.
What does the future hold for CRAIC foods?
We have several product development projects for other artisan producers that have been on hold due to COVID. These are now back on the table, and we have been doing some work on fermentation for our foodservice range. Not everything makes the cut, but something is always learned along the way, and that’s what makes the process worthwhile. We are a small team but happiest when innovating, so there will always be new things ahead. So long as our customers enjoy what we offer, we will keep exploring and having fun along the way.
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