This month we caught up with Dermot Walsh of the family-run Walsh’s Bakehouse in Waterford, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary as a businesses this year. He told us more about the history of the bakery and Waterford’s famous blaa.
“We’re third generation bakers,” Dermot explains. “The business was started by my grandfather, taken over by my father and his brother and is now run by myself and my brother Michael. We were able to bake bread and work the ovens before we were 16 or 17 years old.”
The brothers were encouraged by their mother to go to college but, as Dermot puts it: “Professional life was not to be for us. This is what we wanted to do - bake bread.” It was perhaps no coincidence then that the brothers studied bakery production and management when they did go away to college in Dublin. “Whether we came home or not, we were always going to be in the bakery business,” Dermot notes. “But Waterford beckoned, so back we came in 1985 and we took over the reins at that stage, more or less.”
The bakery was well established locally but in recent years it has expanded into other areas. Dermot does a lot of work with Bord Bia and Good Food Ireland and in pre-Covid times was involved in food festivals around the country. It was at one such festival, Dublin’s Bloom in 2019, that an initial chat about a possible collaboration with the Dunnes Stores Simply Better collection came about.
However it wasn’t until a year later that the relationship developed, resulting in a bread range which landed in Dunnes Stores in 2020. “We launched in March or April last year just as Covid-19 hit so it was very timely because we needed it,” Dermot says. “It was a godsend and the Simply Better team is great to work with. If there are any issues, you just lift the phone. The communication is very good and for a small producer communication is the key to a lot of things.”
At the heart of the range Walsh’s makes for Simply Better is the famous Waterford blaa which dates back to the late 17th century. The blaa, a type of soft white bread roll, obtained Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status in 2013 following an application by the Waterford Blaa Bakers Association. This marks it as a food of cultural importance and only blaas made by specialist bakers in Waterford city and county can carry the name.
The PGI status has been significant for Walsh’s bakery too. “The aim behind PGIs is to protect regional producers of regional and localised foods so the granting of that protection has been hugely important for us,” Dermot explains. “It’s been the platform that we’ve used to launch ourselves nationally and Dunnes was the first to bring our product to national prominence on the retail stage. We were delighted to do that and we’re very proud of it. The packaging is beautiful and it sells really well too.
I suppose that’s really the measure of any product – whether or not people will buy it repeatedly.”
Along with two sizes of blaa, Walsh’s also provides Simply Better with soft bread rolls, and the range is made with Co Louth’s Oriel Sea Salt, which itself has Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.
The blaas and rolls are strong sellers but Dermot is expecting them to be more popular than ever this summer when people start barbecuing and dining outside at home – particularly now that many consumers are focusing on choosing Irish products and seeking out quality. “We’re very much hoping that the Waterford blaas and lovely bread rolls we do will be high on their lists for carrying their burgers and hotdogs and all that good stuff that people can’t wait for this summer,” he says.