Ireland's image as a clean and green food producer is the envy of many countries and there's a desire to further refine its offer. But it's not on the big conglomerates that the authorities in the Republic are pinning their hopes ­ it's on the small, local producers. Bord Bia chief executive Michael Duffy says its research shows that consumer influences and past traditions in Ireland are pointing speciality food producers towards a return to their culinary roots. And there's now a push to support this sector which was very apparent at the recent Speciality Food Symposium in Kinsale, County Cork, which brought together 100 Irish speciality food firms. The market is already valued at E250m and is expected to grow by about 65% over the next 10 years; Bord Bia's Duffy even reckons that speciality food can increase a jaded category by up to 30%. And it's all down to what he believes is a rediscovery of the simple pleasures of cooking. "The home is more a refuge and food a reward," he says. "However, because of eating out experiences and media influence, premium food is increasingly in demand. Retailers, attracted by the increased margin contribution of speciality food, are meeting this demand and these trends point to promising opportunities for speciality food." Duffy says food trends are moving away from fusion ­ seen in Australian cuisine ­ to the more simple tastes which Irish cuisine embodies. He adds: "It's not just the preserve of small companies, medium and large firms which are committed to authentic processes are important and this mix will help maximise our competitive advantage in this market." Darina Allen, who runs the Ballymaloe Cookery School in County Cork, believes there's no point in trying to compete on the commodity market. "The only way forward for Ireland is to produce top quality food and to charge more for it. "Specialist producers have helped change the image of Irish food and it's now vital that we deliver on the Island of Ireland' name, not just trade on it." Allen believes consumers have a real desire for locally produced food but that it can be hard to access without a farmers' market. She says supermarkets need to stock these products. Celebrity chef Paul Rankin agrees and says they're losing a battle. "I have access to fewer small producers than I did 10 years ago." Rankin believes presentation, concepts and food ingredients are being overdone. "Less is more. Simple ingredients are ones that are caught locally, such as broccoli from my local organic farm, not mange tout flown in from Africa. Chefs aren't close enough to people who produce food." He believes Ireland needs to get its own kind of "food philosophy" so that tourists find simple, good food that reflects the country. "I don't think we have a modern Irish cuisine yet, but it's coming." It's a simple point that leading specialist food retailer Peter Ward makes when he labels it a "treasonable offence" for bed and breakfast owners to buy food from local German discounters. "We can't process tourists and line them up at carveries. Tourists come to Ireland for a real Irish food experience in a real Irish environment. We're selling a particular lifestyle product. We must take care that the real food is getting to these people." The message from most key industry players seems to be ­ keep it simple, local and special. And that's something the beef industry is struggling to come to terms with in an atmosphere of suspicion between consumers and farmers and shoppers' penchant for putting more trust in chicken bought in from Thailand than local beef from a neighbourhood butcher's shop. Broadcaster John McKenna go so far as to say that Irish beef has become demonised. "There's an atmosphere of danger around beef tied up with people's fear of blood and food scares such as BSE. "Coupled with this, everyone feels like a victim ­ the supermarkets are pulling on the processors and the processors are pulling on the farmers." McKenna reckons the solution is to think about beef as a gourmet food stuff rather than a commodity. There is also a general feeling that the meat industry needs to promote its health benefits. As one farmer says: "The dairy industry took out half the fat and put in water and made a fortune! "We feed grass to animals and are getting wonderful results in terms of nutrition but we're not telling anyone about it, whereas the milk industry talk about their low levels of fat. The meat industry is not listening to messages from them." One message that is getting through however, is the idea of putting more information on packaging to create a gourmet product which consumers would pay extra for, on the basis of provenance and security. More pack information, such as colour coding for tenderness, and cooking method and instructions, would help local butchers promote their product, believes John McDonell, a meat trade expert from Umanzon consultancy. "Labels propelled the Australian revolution. Labels make things comprehensible ­ something like Jacob's Creek is reassuring ­ they conquered the wine industry in a decade by making things simple." n {{FEATURES }}