Speaking on a slightly distorted phone line between Dublin and Wicklow after the effects of Storm Ophelia, I chatted to Willemien Rust, owner and creator of Miena’s Irish Handmade Nougat.
A South African native living in Ireland for the past 17 years, Miena is instantly likeable due to her bubbly personality and the passion in which she describes her product.
Always fond of creating things, Miena developed her creative love of food from her mother, who used to prepare a lot of their food from scratch:
“I grew up with my mum making everything we eat and so I really grew up with that tradition of making everything from scratch. I still do that now, I make cordials, chutneys and more. I just love making things from scratch. I also love eating food as well.”
After moving to Ireland, Miena worked as an architect until that job came to an end in 2010. While pursuing this career, she realised that Ireland had nothing similar to the style of nougat found in her native South Africa:
“I worked as an architect and we could never find proper nougat here. The nougat we make would be very similar to the nougat in South Africa. It’s natural nougat without gelatine, with just the flavours you get from the fruits and nuts we use. We couldn’t get anything like that here and we used to bring bags and bags back with us from South Africa.”
Inspired by her love of the product and with her husband’s encouragement, Miena decided to try her hand at making nougat her fulltime job:
“I knew I had to do something with my life, I couldn’t just do nothing. I didn’t want to go away from the children either and tried baking etc. but there was already too much out there. So I decided to do something I really loved – nougat.”
Miena began her business in her kitchen at home in 2012, selling her nougat at Marlay Park Market. However, it wasn’t all smooth sailing at first as people didn’t seem overly eager to sample her nougat, assuming that they just wouldn’t like it:
The first day that I was selling it was so awful that I came home in tears. I had been asking people if they wanted to try some of my nougat and everyone said no. They said they didn’t eat it. But I decided that I wasn’t going to give up that easily.
“Out of the ten people who tried it, five bought it and this improved every week. I had other confectionaries too at the time. I made marshmallows, Turkish delights and others. But of all the things I made, the nougat was the most difficult to get perfect every time. So I thought that would be a good challenge for me and stuck with the nougat”
In 2013, Miena decided that she wanted to make her nougat into a “proper business”, so she set converted her garage into a little factory: up a little factory in her garage
“It was great because with the little nougat factory in our house, I’m still able to see the children and I can work any hours of the day and night that I need to.”
From there, her business began to grow, with Miena’s Irish Handmade Nougat being stocked in Avoca and SuperValu. It was in 2015, however, that she had the experience of a lifetime:
“I was very lucky with European Microfinance Day, it was a wonderful opportunity. They took me to Belgium and I met the Queen of Belgium. It was awesome, everything just happened so quickly. I even presented her with one of my nougats. That was definitely one of my highlights from 2015.”
As things seemed to be going very well for the business, Miena was hit with a devastating diagnosis a week after returning from her Belgian adventure:
Just a week after that I came back home and was diagnosed with breast cancer, so that brought me down to earth quite quickly. It was the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced but I kept going.
Determined to make her business work while she underwent treatment, Miena made the necessary arrangements: “I had a lady helping me out, helping me so that I could continue my business. I cut back and just made three flavours, just to keep the factory going.”
Always remaining positive, Miena went through her treatment and surgery, thankfully making it through to the other side: “The whole cancer thing just left a positive impact on me and my family. I think I’m an even happier person now and I just enjoy things so much.”
I used to stress over everything but now I just enjoy things so much more and I appreciate things more. I just love my nougat and job so much more because there had been a big chance that I was going to lose everything.
It was around this time that Miena met the Simply Better team while selling her nougat at Bloom 2016, just six weeks after her surgery:
“I looked quite blue in the face and the Simply Better team were just amazing. They said to give them a call when I felt better and when I had the energy.”
Since starting to work with Simply Better, Miena’s Irish Handmade Nougat has grown drastically, so much so that she’s had to hire another person and order in a special oven capable of making higher quantities of nougat:
“With Simply Better, the possibilities are unlimited and working with them is just a pleasure. They are so kind and understanding. I don’t think it’s that easy to be nice all the time if it’s not something you enjoy. I love working with them and they have opened so many doors for me. They have just made my business so much more.”
Simply Better are equally excited to be working with Miena, commenting: “We are delighted to launch our new range of Handmade Nougat bars with Miena. We met Miena at the Bloom Festival in June 2016 and we loved her range of handmade nougat.”
We could see how popular her products were with the visitors at Bloom so we decided to list her brand in our stores and began looking at developing a range for The Simply Better Collection. Miena’s passion and enthusiasm for producing her products is infectious and it has been a pleasure to develop this new range.
As well as increased demand, Miena has also received a number of awards for her nougat, with one of her biggest achievements coming at the Freefrom Food Awards this year, where her nougat picked up the gold, silver and bronze awards in the confectionary category.
Laughing as she remembers the moment, she says: “You should have seen my tears when they announced that bronze goes to Miena’s nougat. I was so happy and then they said silver goes to Miena, and then when they said gold…oh my goodness, it was just, my mascara was all over my face.”
On the topic of Free From, Miena mentions how important it is for her that her nougat has been certified gluten free: “It’s extremely important to me. I know a lady who is a very sensitive coeliac and knowing the side effects she gets, this certification is very important.”
Nougat is naturally gluten free. I make it with honey, egg whites and nuts and then we use a little bit of sugar and glucose to stabilise it, otherwise it wouldn’t keep its shape. I also keep my work area gluten free so nobody is allowed in the kitchen with even a sandwich.
Miena has six different flavours of nougat, a nut range and a fruit range, with her almond and pistachio nougat the definite best seller. Each of her nougats were inspired by something or someone in her life, with the berry nougat (her personal favourite at the moment) getting its inspiration from summer.
Her almond and fig nougat was inspired by a dessert her mother-in-law used to make in Dubai and the coconut and lemon took its inspiration from Miena’s battle with cancer:
“When I was going through Chemo I used coconut oil and lemon on everything and I had such a craving afterwards, so that’s how that one came about.”
Three of Miena’s Irish Handmade Nougat flavours are available in Simply Better: Almond and Pistachio, Almond and Fig and Coconut and Lemon.
She’s also working on a Christmas Log for the festive season, something she is very excited about: “I can’t wait for my Christmas Log to hit the stores. I hope it’ll be a nice thing for people to enjoy.
“It’ll be made with the almond and pistachio nougat and drizzled with Belgian chocolate. There’ll be pistachios on top of the log, which is sliced into thin slices. It has rice paper on each side so it’s easy to take off an share.”
Looking back on her journey so far, Miena couldn’t imagine doing anything else with her life and feels so lucky to have the opportunity to do something she loves so much:
“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else with my life. I love it so much and I love being able to work at home and being near the kids. The two ladies working with me are great, we get along so well. They are amazing and we have such a wonderful time, the atmosphere in the kitchen is really fun, light and easy.”
While she loves meeting her customers and hearing about their experiences with the nougat, Miena is at her happiest when she is in the kitchen doing what she loves:
“I love the smell of honey when it cooks and the nuts roasting. I just really enjoy everything about working in the kitchen. My favourite part of the business is definitely making the nougat, it’s the absolute best part of my job.”
For more information about Miena’s Irish Handmade Nougat, the flavours in the range and different treats you can buy, visit mienas.ie.
Sarah has always had a great love of travel, food and photography. Following her journalism degree at DCU, she developed a passion for travel writing while living in Spain.
Sarah loves exploring new places and sampling the local cuisine. Working with TheTaste.ie combines her love of food and travel.