Galway Food Stories; Paula Stakelum – From Thurles to the great ancient Mesoamericans
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Galway Food Stories; Paula Stakelum – From Thurles to the great ancient Mesoamericans

Paula Pastry has a huge cult status in the chocolate world. I’ve watched her career fold out and it’s been hotter than 18 holes with Shane Lowry!! It’s magnificent to see this skill and it has totally been backed up and enormously encouraged by The Red Carnation Group. Her amazing afternoon tea range in Mrs Tea’s on the castle grounds is the ultimate Sunday treat, and as a great woman she always lifts other great women up. In addition to getting Paula’s chocolates online, she also recommends the blooming great Bon Chocolates based in Athlone and Gluten Free Monaghan legend that is Tara Gartlen for ya Xmas boogie choccy gifts and remember kids always buy two! Then no one will ever know that you have eaten a box.. #selfcare #tooblessedtobestressed - Jess Murphy

J. How does one go from being somebody from Tipperary to becoming one of the best chocolatiers and the global directors of chocolate and pastry?

P. Long story. When I was doing my work placement in Transition Year, I went into the local hotel and I spent the week mashing potatoes and chopping parsley. I absolutely loved it. They asked me if I wanted a job so I worked every summer, some evenings after school, weekends, and even when I went to college, I would go back and work my days off.

J. What did you study in college?

P. I went to Cork IT and I did professional cookery. Then during my placement, a friend and I came to Galway for a night out and we had brilliant fun. I said ‘we have to go there for the summer, let's try and get a job!’ I got a job in the Ardilaun Hotel and started there as a Commis Chef. We said we'd stay for the summer, and I'm still here. I worked then as a Commis Pastry, but you’d be doing everything. After a while I really just want to stay in pastry. I went back to GMIT to study a part-time culinary arts degree. I tried pastry while I was there and they supported that, which was really nice. I went from Commis Pastry to Head Pastry Chef. Then when I graduated, Ashford contacted me to take up a role.

J. How long have you worked for Ashford Castle?

P. 13 years this Christmas.

J. Wow! They've really embraced you in taking up this whole role.

P. I'm very lucky. I feel very fortunate to work for them. When I started there as Head Pastry Chef, there were two on the team and then The Red Carnation Group bought us, we built a team, and then my role grew.

J. Was it hard building a team?

P. At the time, yes. Going from working with two pastry chefs to ten at one time, you've all these other people to look after.

J. Is yours a creative role?

P. Yes, which I absolutely love. I have one girl with me now in the chocolate room, Megan, when I'm not there, she works away and makes all the chocolate. It allows me to travel to all the other properties, and create concepts and projects and things like that. It's only the beginning, but it's starting to get exciting.

J. I went to Mrs. Tea’s [at Ashford Castle] and I had the apple dessert. The balance and everything was just mind-blowing. It was fucking phenomenal.

P. We started the Paula Pastry concept two years ago. We started with selling chocolates that we call Paula Pastry - the brand. I still wanted to make pastry, not just chocolate, so that's why we created the dessert counter. And the apple, it's always really important for me that we create something that's true to the estate. There are five or six trees and it’s my favourite thing because I won’t tell anybody where they are.

J. I've walked that estate. I've never seen an apple tree.

P. In lockdown I found them. They're just so good, you can't buy it. You can buy crab apples if you can get someone to get them for you, but they're not the same. It's not the same story. It's not the same romance. It's not the same flavour. It's like things that are cooked with anger would never taste the same as something cooked with love. So now we want the apple to be iconic.

J. That's class because it was my favorite.

P. Everyone kept saying that. We're now preserving all the apples so we'll have it year-round.J. You've got some products here. The Valrhona hot chocolate, that's completely vegan and you were telling me about the almond milk?

P. It's Nyambo, it's a pure origin from Ghana, it's 68 percent cocoa. It's not bitter like you would expect it to be, it's quite balanced, and you can make it with normal milk, or with almond milk it’s even nicer. You wouldn't even know it's plant-based. We've made it with Valrhona and they allow us to co-brand together, which is nice. Pure chocolate, nothing else, no sugar, no additives, just chocolate.

J. If people want to buy these chocolates, do they have to go to Mrs. Tea's?

P. You can buy them online or you can buy in-store at Mrs. Tea's. We are launching the Christmas range soon. We have our legacy chocolates. We have two blends that we made with Valrhona that are bespoke to us. Legend, which is 55 percent milk, all the beans are from Africa, everything is sustainable and ethically sourced, and we use that like in the base of most of our chocolates. Then our newest one is Legacy. We've taken our Legend chocolate and we've added a creamy hazelnut to it.

J. When you talk to other chocolatiers, you're the one that everybody mentions when they talk about craft. You are a hero chocolatier towards all these young women in Ireland. It must be such a proud thing because you really carved your own stone, no one else was doing it in Ireland at the time and now you're one of Europe's best chocolatiers. You've really pushed yourself to get where you are.

P. I mean you have to. People go on about, ‘you must work really long hours’ or something like that. And yeah, I do. I did. And I don't regret one minute of it, what you put in is what you get out of it.

J. Who are the ones to watch when it comes to chocolatiers coming up through the ranks?

P. In Ireland right now, Tara Gartlan. I always admired her work. Tara's definitely one to watch and David and Georgina of Bon chocolatiers.

J. Would you recommend Ashford Castle as a starting point for launching your career either as a chocolatier, pastry chef, or a chef in general?

P. Definitely. Since COVID, they now have a program for students and we make sure that they're actually learning.

J. Tell me about launching in Brown Thomas at Christmas time.

P. We're launching in Brown Thomas on the 1st of November. A chocolate range, the Ashford Castle range, shards of chocolate, and also the full pastry, legacy chocolates. And, we have a chocolate gingerbread man. His name is going to be Rory, so he's for all the kids. It's a collab between Ashford Castle and Brown Thomas - a six week pop up from up until Christmas. I’ve been trying to do this for a few years so I feel very lucky that it’s happening this year.

J. Would Valrhona be considered Fair Trade?

P. Yeah. They're B Corp, which means they've gone through the whole certification of everything is sustainable, everything is ethical. When we chose to work with them, it was important that everything was right the whole way along. Last year they made a chocolate called Komuntu and a percentage of the profit goes straight back to the farmers. That's really important to us and why we work with them. When we made Legend, we wanted to make sure that the profits were going to Ghana and to the people of Africa. So by us buying ethical chocolate, everybody's benefiting.

Words by Jess Murphy.
Photos by Ciarán MacChoncarraige.

Discover Paula's recipe for Chocolate Brownie Trifle Topped with Vanilla Mascarpone and Caramel Popcorn here. (See below for what the end result looks like!)

above: photo courtesy of Paula Pastry.

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