A heartwarming tale from the Emerald Isle demonstrates the increasingly close trading relationship between Ireland and the UAE – and their common interest in setting and adhering to the highest possible standards in the halal food industry.
Ireland is a massive exporter of all foodstuffs, with about 90 per cent of its produce going for export. (It was always thus, even – tragically – during the years of the Irish famine in the mid nineteenth century).
The UAE, on the other hand, is a huge importer, with a similar proportion – about 90 per cent – originating outside the Emirates.
It’s all to do with climate. It’s hard to grow much in a desert, whereas Ireland’s all-year “soft” weather (ie, rain) grows the grass that grows the grain, cows, lamb and dairy for which the country is famous.
Irish food producers had been increasingly catering for the Emirati appetite for good, grass-fed beef which, despite the claims of the grain-fed brigade, is much more succulent and juicy than any other kind in the world.
One chef based in Dubai, Reif Othman, was especially aware of the appeal of Irish beef, and exploited it to great effect when he was head chef at Zuma in the Dubai International Financial Centre. He was aware of the renown of wagyu, of course, which many customers asked for, but he was slowly converting them to the Irish cause.
When he left Zuma last year to take over at the Play restaurant in the H Hotel on Sheikh Zayed Road, he took his taste for Irish beef with him, and continued to be supplied by one producer in Ireland – the firm John Stone, based in Ballymahon, County Longford.
(As an aside, my father was from County Longford, a place called Ballinalee, and liked a bit of steak, but I’m certain he would have been unschooled in the attractions of halal food or wagyu).
John Stone, run by affable managing director Allan Morris, was the only halal beef producer in Ireland certified by the Emirates Authority for Standardisation and Metrology (bewilderingly known by its near-acronym Esma) as adhering to high UAE standards for food production.
It was a sound arrangement for some time, and John Stone ended up supplying some of the best known restaurants in Dubai – like Seafire in Atlantis Hotel, Atmosphere in Burj Khalifa and Rib Room in Emirates Towers.
Then, earlier this year, out of the blue, imports were abruptly halted. The mosque in Ireland that certified John Stone beef was delisted as a halal authority (for reasons unknown, although there have been mutterings of extremist involvement) and without that, the beef could not be sold as halal in UAE.
Mr Morris leapt into action. “We invited the men from Esma over and showed them our facilities, which are among the best in the world. They were obviously impressed, because we got the accreditation back, and now we’re back in business,” he told me. John Stone is once again the only beef importer in the UAE that has the national halal mark.
“It’s a testimony to Irish standards, our quality and our procedures. Halal standards are very high, but for us, it’s just a normal specification,” says Mr Morris.
He thinks that grass-fed beef will become the norm in the UAE because of its lower fatty density, which carries less risk of diseases like diabetes, a real threat to the well-being of people in this part of the world.
For my part, I’m looking forward to a good Longford steak at Play, secure in the knowledge that it’s Irish, and halal.