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With its lush landscapes, rural communities and a unique blend of tradition and innovation, Northern Ireland is fast becoming one of the most exciting destinations for food lovers. The country has long had it all – from meat and dairy from its famously rich pastures to seafood from its dramatic coast – and a new generation of culinary adventurers are making waves, too.
A rich landscape
For generations, Northern Ireland’s natural environment has worked in partnership with passionate producers to create some of the world’s very best food and drink, and this collaboration is still very much alive today. “Northern Ireland still has a real agriculture-based economy, very few of us are more than a generation away from farming stock so there is a real understanding of food and where it comes from,” explains Bryan Boggs, general manager at award-winning Clandeboye Estate Yoghurts.
“We also have amazing raw materials, the best dairy, beef, vegetables and fish. I suppose a lot of rain gives very good grass and growing conditions.”
“In this country we have some of the finest meat, dairy and arable farmers in the world. This allows food business to produce world-class products that really stand out,” agrees Alistair Crown, founder of multi award-winning farm-to-fork charcuterie producer Corndale Farm.
The country’s food professionals work together just as productively. “There is quite a bit of collaboration between food businesses here, Northern Ireland is a relatively small place and we all know each other. There is a lot of know-how and expertise out there and we work well together,” says Bryan.
With so much knowledge and experience on the scene, it’s no wonder that Northern Ireland is a hotbed for exciting new talent – with new businesses launching all the time, there’s a raft of invaluable first-hand experience on offer.
Keeping standards high is paramount to the continuation of this success. “We need to keep standards high, worry about quality not quantity and our reputation will keep growing,” Bryan continues. “In our business we talk about working up to a standard and not down to a price and I think that is key!”
Alistair agrees. “Good food business is built on the fundamental principles of quality and that Northern Ireland is renowned for top quality. We as people are very resilient and will never settle for mediocrity.”
Taste of tradition
Traditions are also of great value to many of the producers of Northern Ireland, and Crawfords Rock – headed up by Michelle Wilson – is a prime example. The small family-run business sustainably harvests a range of seaweeds at a stretch of shoreline called Nicholsons Strand, which runs from Derryogue in Kilkeel.
“Our forefathers as Trustees of the shore had kelp rights historically,” she begins. “They used these for agricultural purposes but they also harvested seaweeds after the first frosts. There is an old Irish phrase ‘pràtaì, pàiste, feamainn’ meaning potatoes, children, seaweed.
“This was the order of care for households in pre-famine times, and as company director I look back on these times with great reflection and know that during those hardships coastal communities survived because of the easy catch (crab, mussels, limpets and seaweed) whereas urban communities perished.”
Now a multi award-winning company, Crawfords Rock – like many other artisan businesses across Northern Ireland – believe in growing sustainably. This involves only taking what they need, educating others on the importance of the health benefits seaweed provides, and working with community and voluntary sector groups across the country.
Education plays a key role in many other food and drink brands, too. Corndale Farm is another such business which provides a valuable experience for the travelling foodie. “We now provide classes and courses for people to learn the basics of butchery and charcuterie and also offer tours of the farm and our production facility,” explains Alistair. “I know many other producers also provide this service.”
A bright future
The future looks bright for food and drink for Northern Ireland – indeed, its reputation is spreading across the world thanks to a developing culture of food tourism. “We get emails from people all over the world saying they had our yoghurt for breakfast in the hotels they stayed in in Belfast, and asking there is any way they can get it where they are,” says Bryan.
“Food and food tourism as well as the economy is growing globally, and we can create a positive future while preserving our past,” says Michelle. The customer focus has changed with an emphasis on local, seasonal and sustainable – this helps us preserve our heritage more than profit-driven companies. Our passion as artisan food producers creates a great platform for our future and that of our province.”
“The only way is up for Northern Ireland Food right now,” concludes Alistair. “We are getting better, more innovative and exciting every year. As food producers we are well supported by Invest NI and Food NI. This gives us confidence to push on, create new products and explore new markets across the world.
“Food tourism is going to be massive in Northern Ireland. It is a growing sector and one that we have seen constant growth in. It is fantastic to see Northern Ireland now being recognised for new innovative food and drink products, and there will be plenty more to come.”