Is it even St Patrick’s Day if you don’t enjoy a massive fry up for breakfast? On our farm, we always include juicy local sausages, crisp rashers, a soft fried egg, brown bread with lashings of creamy butter and – my favourite part – some savoury black pudding.

Many consumers enjoy black pudding, but not everyone knows exactly how it is made, or the history behind this iconic Irish delicacy. For the squeamish, perhaps it is better to not know and just enjoy, but as with anything agriculturally-related, the more the end consumer understands, the more they can relate to the challenges facing farmers and food producers.

Blood pudding

Irish black pudding is special, but there are similar foods found all over the world. In eastern Canada, they fry up large slices of marag – a type of blood pudding brought over by Scottish colonisers in the 1800s. In South Korea, they eat sundae – a type of thin blood sausage made with glass noodles. In Spain, it’s called morcilla and in France, boudin noir. All blood puddings are unique in terms of ingredients and preparation, but they were created for a similar purpose: to avoid waste.

In the past, when a pig was butchered, it was a community event. As Máirín Byrne, who owns and operates Inch House Black Pudding, tells Irish Country Living, all parts of the pig were shared and utilised.

“When a pig was killed, nothing went to waste,” she says. “It would be shared with neighbours as there were no freezers or refrigeration [at that time]. Then, a few months later, when the neighbours killed a pig, they would share it again. Black pudding wasn’t an everyday food; it was made when the blood was fresh.”

As time went on and subsistence farming became less common, fewer Irish families kept their own pigs. Pork became more widely available within supermarkets and regular demand for black pudding meant a need for consistent supply.

Inch House Black Pudding is a small-scale operation, producing up to 400 units of pudding per week. \ Odhran Ducie

Inch House Black Pudding

Máirín and her mother, Nora, started Inch House Black Pudding to diversify their business during the recession of 2008, when they were still operating a restaurant at Inch house in Co Tipperary.

They closed the restaurant in 2018, but the black pudding business has gone from strength to strength; winning awards, accolades and even an online shout-out from celebrity chef Nigella Lawson. To them, black pudding is more than just an ingredient – it is their heritage on a plate.

“In 2009, we started making the pudding,” Máirín says. “It was my granny’s recipe. I don’t exactly remember how we decided to start the business; I suppose people were always admiring it [when it was served at Inch House] and we had to think outside the box.”

Máirín makes all of her puddings with fresh pig's blood by hand. She uses her grandmother's recipe. \ Odhran Ducie

At first, Máirín and Nora sold the pudding locally in butchers’ shops. Their restaurant was open five days a week, so they would spend the days they were closed making the pudding. However, in 2016, the HSE told Máirín she would need to find a new premise if she planned to continue working with fresh blood.

“[At the time] they had put us in the same category [of risk] as Nenagh hospital because we were using fresh blood,” she recalls.

As a result, she rented out a small butcher’s shop in Templemore where she still makes the pudding today. She works with the local vet from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (DAFM) and the county council, both of whom she says “have been fantastic” in supporting her business.

“In Ireland, it sometimes feels like we’re over-regulated – most smaller abattoirs have closed down. Of all the places making their own pudding, you can count on one hand the number using fresh blood.”

Imported blood

Máirín is referring to the fact that many puddings are now made with dried powdered blood. There are many practical reasons for doing so – dried blood is easily accessed and purchased.

It won’t congeal, as fresh blood does.

Really, though, this is a result of our changing food system – an example of how a food which was borne of necessity and practicality evolved to suit modern consumer demand.

“I’ve been through a number of fresh blood suppliers and currently have a great one, but some days you just don’t know. The local vet could decide ‘no’ and that’s it; that’s me gone,” says Máirín.

Máirín is processing a maximum of just 400 puddings per week. Like every other small producer, she has been faced with an increase in costs – everything from packaging to ingredients – in recent years.

She says that although her cut is probably “that little bit less”, she doesn’t mind as her business allows her the flexibility to spend time with her children. To her, making the pudding in smaller amounts isn’t such an uncommon thing.

“Granny would often say she always made so little of it – that was normal; that was the way it was,” she says, smiling. “She would say, ‘we just had to do it and get on with it.’ In that sense, there was very little fanfare about it – now we have to try to make a fanfare about it, because the heritage has been lost.”

Safe harvesting

Ned Crowe of Crowe Farm in nearby Dundrum, Co Tipperary, used to supply Máirín with fresh blood. He and his brothers used to operate a small abattoir on their farm, where they would process their own pork products from pigs reared on their holding.

Ned tells Irish Country Living that their business, which started in 1981, is still going strong but due to economic reasons, they shut down their abattoir five years ago.

At the time, however, they had invested in a piece of equipment which makes harvesting blood an easy and food safe process. To harvest fresh blood, you need a Slaughterman’s License, which you get through the DAFM.

“We invested in a machine from Germany oddly called a ‘vampire knife’ for extracting blood from pigs,” he explains. “It’s a specialised machine – for lack of a better word, it’s like a vacuum with a knife on the end which removes the blood from the pigs. It’s more humane – a quicker process – and it harvests blood hygienically.”

Ned says, at the time, they would harvest approximately 150L of fresh blood per week. While he feels there is a market for smaller amount of blood, he didn’t feel there was enough to invest in making it a larger part of their business.

“There is a time element involved and if you’re in a busy abattoir it can be too time-consuming to harvest the blood,” Ned says. “In the end, economics determines everything.”

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Safety challenges

Dr Micheál O’Mahony is the FSAI’s chief specialist in veterinary public health.

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has an online advice page for those in the business of black pudding. Dr Micheál O’Mahony is the FSAI’s chief specialist in veterinary public health. He says that the FSAI do not categorise particular foods or processes into risk categories – it’s up to food business operators to assess the risk of their own particular activities.

“A producer who wishes to produce fresh blood puddings should ensure that the blood harvesting at the pig slaughterhouse is carried out for the purposes of human consumption and therefore, is carried out safely and hygienically,” he says.

“In particular, the blood procured should bear the identification mark showing the approval number of the harvesting establishment. Nothing is absolutely risk free.”

Fresh blood

When it comes to using dried or fresh blood for puddings, Micheál says there are some “safety challenges” with fresh blood, but when handled correctly it is perfectly safe.

“Dried blood lacks moisture, so is less susceptible to bacterial growth, but is certainly not a zero risk ingredient,” he explains.

“Many of the food safety risks with pudding manufacture [for example, potential for bacterial growth during the cooling phase], arise irrespective of the blood type used.

“The FSAI is aware of small operators, without elaborate systems nor scale, who safely harvest fresh blood and safely produce pudding from fresh blood. The FSAI is also aware of operators who simply prefer the process of using dried blood.”

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