The Dunnes Stores Simply Better team works with artisan Irish producers all year round but the collection really steps up a gear for the festive season.
From much-loved fare like a classic Christmas cake or traditional-with-a-twist delights such as a gin Christmas pudding or chocolate and cranberry mince pies, there’s sure to be something to suit all tastes. We caught up with some of the Simply Better producers to find out more about what’s on offer this year and what they love most about their Christmas products.
Memorable mince pies
Siobhán Lawless, Foods of Athenry
For many of us, the first mince pie of the season is really the start of Christmas and Siobhán Lawless and the team at Foods of Athenry make two types of mince pies for the Simply Better collection. Due to customer demand, they also offer jars of the mincemeat so you can make your own pies at home. It’s the perfect blend of convenience and that homemade taste. “The mincemeat is packed with fruits and nuts,” Siobhán explains, “and we put grated carrot in there too. There’s also apple purée and loads of different fruits - raisins, dates, sultanas - as well as hazelnuts, pecans, almonds and glacé cherries.”
The range features traditional All Butter Mince Pies, which won a Great Taste 1 Star Award in 2020 and a Gold Blas na hÉireann Award in 2021. And, for something a little different, Chocolate and Cranberry Mince Pies too. “We use Belgian chocolate chips but we leave out certain fruits that don’t complement the chocolate and put in things like dried cranberries. It’s kind of semi bitter, semi-sweet,” Siobhán says. The team makes thousands of pies each year and each one is filled and decorated by hand – and the personal touch doesn’t stop there.
“As each packet goes into a case, I picture them arriving somewhere and being taken out and served in people’s homes. Christmas has the power to invoke very strong feelings and I want to make our products part of people’s Christmas memories,” Siobhán explains. “I want to invoke joy and happiness - it’s the best way to touch people’s lives and hearts in a way that’s memorable.”
A cake of quality
Nadine O’Hara and Julie O’Hara, O’Haras of Foxford
O’Haras of Foxford, a third generation family-run business makes Christmas cakes for Simply Better at this time of year. The range comprises two fully iced Christmas cakes - both the traditional round shape and an oblong or bar shape - along with an un-iced cake that you can decorate yourself, and iced cake segments too. While the round cake has typically been a best seller, the new bar shape is catching up as well. “I think it’s growing in popularity because of the convenience of it,” Nadine O’Hara says.
This is O’Haras of Foxford’s third year working with the Simply Better brand and it’s been a really good experience Julie O’Hara says, “We thoroughly enjoy working with the Simply Better team because we would share the same values. They have such pride in the brand and we would feel the same about our own.”
When it comes to making the Christmas cakes, it’s a long and skilled process, as Nadine O’Hara explains. “A lot of time and love goes into the cakes,” she says. “We start at the end of August, soaking the fruit and making the bases and letting them mature. Then over time we inject them with Irish whiskey. The cakes mature with the Irish whiskey and then they go to be hand decorated by our team of decorators.”
The O’Haras bakery has been around since 1951 and Christmas cakes have always been important to both the business and the family over the years. “Collaborating now with the Simply Better team and knowing that they have such an emphasis on quality is something that we’re very proud of,” Julie says.
The perfect pudding
Brian Seery, Seery’s Bakery
This year, Seery’s Bakery in Co Carlow is making five types of Christmas pudding for the Simply Better range. There are nine month- and 12-month matured Christmas puddings, along with a gin pudding, an Irish whiskey pudding and a plum liqueur pudding.
When it comes to making a great Christmas pud Brian says you get out what you put in – and great ingredients are a must. “We’re making Christmas puddings for over 30 years at this stage,” he adds, “so the process has evolved over time. We steam the products gently at a low heat over a very long period of time to try and lock in and enhance the flavours.”
The twelve- and nine-month puddings are then stored until matured, while a second process is involved for the whiskey, plum liqueur and the gin puddings. “The toppings are all made by hand and the cherries, nuts, orange slices and other components are individually placed into the pudding bowls, with the mix applied on top of that. Ultimately it’s still an artisan process just on a larger scale.”
Seery’s has a longstanding relationship with Simply Better, which is something that they value greatly, Brian says. “They continually come back to us and trust us to fulfil their brand values. We’re very proud to be part of that journey.”
And it’s a successful journey too, it seems. “One of the nicest compliments that was paid to us was about a Simply Better pudding,” Brian reveals. “Somebody wrote to us to say that they had transferred the product into a ceramic bowl and pawned it off as their own, telling the family that they made it themselves. That was a huge compliment.”
A slice of Christmas
Doreen Carlton, Carleton Cakes
Co Monaghan’s Carleton Cakes have been working with Simply Better since 2019. “They’re a great team of people to work with,” Doreen Carlton says. “The one thing that I love about Simply Better is that they insist on a good quality ingredients. ‘Proper food’, as I like to call it. They believe in traditional methods with good quality - and Irish-sourced - ingredients as much as possible.”
The Christmas cakes slices they make for the brand are based on a traditional cake like the one you might make at home. “We use real butter and free range eggs,” Doreen explains, “and we’ve also got whiskey from West Cork distillery in it as well and really good quality fruit.” They also make their own roll-out almond paste and white icing from scratch in the factory.
“The Christmas slices are very convenient if you like fruit cake,” Doreen says. “A lot of young people probably don’t enjoy fruitcake as much as the older generation, so you’ve got the convenience of just taking a wee slice.”
If you’re looking for something a little different the Florentine Slices, which launched last year, could be the perfect thing. “The Simply Better Chocolate and Cranberry Mincemeat is the basis of this product,” Doreen reveals. “So that’s mincemeat with chocolate and cranberries over a pastry base and it’s got a Florentine topping which is made with flaked almonds and diced cranberries and oats. It’s a lovely product. You would never have thought chocolate and mincemeat would work together, but they do. It works very well both in texture and flavour.”