30 July 2021, 07:53 AM
  • Enjoy the region’s cornucopia of delicious produce thanks to Invest NI’s passionate support for connecting makers with discerning retailers
The best of Northern Ireland

Speciality Food caught up with Michelle Charrington, from Invest NI’s Food Business Development Team, about the reinvigoration of the network’s mission

The continuation of global travel restrictions arising from Covid-19 has meant that the exhibitions industry, Invest NI and NI businesses, have had to look at new ways of ensuring that Northern Ireland products and services are still effectively promoted to potential buyers in markets around the world. The answer was to go virtual.

The cancellation or postponement of many major national food and drink events, as well as our own supplier showcases, in 2020, made it a challenge for NI food and drink companies to meet and present to potential buyers. In response, we developed an innovative model comprising the circulation of themed sample boxes followed by a live cookery demo and hosted our inaugural virtual ‘meet the buyer’ in July 2020.

The format proved so successful that the team delivered six more virtual events throughout three lockdowns. Over 70 local food and drink suppliers have presented their products to approximately 180 targeted GB & RoI retail buyers, chefs and speciality food wholesalers. Not only have these events provided a solution to companies not being able to travel to promote and market their products; they have also resulted in sales in both markets. Invest NI plans to maintain its online activities alongside live events in future.

Busy buyers can find it hard to clear their diaries for two days to come and visit us in person, but an hour of online chat on a Friday afternoon is much easier to achieve – especially if it comes with a box of delicious samples to enjoy over the weekend! Getting products directly into home kitchens has encouraged our audience to enjoy NI’s finest products at their leisure and really get a feel for their quality and versatility. We are looking forward to hosting our visitors in Northern Ireland again, but in the meantime we are taking advantage of the opportunity to develop our personal culinary repertoires.

Speciality showcase
In June, Invest NI hosted an online showcase named Picnic Picks which highlighted some of the finest food and beverage businesses Northern Ireland has to offer. Speciality Food was in attendance, and is delighted to present the occasion’s best bites.

Tom & Ollie
No picnic would be complete without a delicious array of nibbles and dips, and Tom & Ollie are perfectly placed to tempt tastebuds with their delicious range of mezze products. Their selection includes Speciality Food-favourite, Chilli Basil & Garlic Hummus – delicious with breadsticks and crudites as well as baked into pastries and used as a flavour-booster in sandwiches – olives and slow-roasted tomatoes, tapenades and pestos, and much more besides, making them a one-stop-shop for retailers seeking delicious mezze-style foods on their doorstep. Founders Seamus Mullan, Hugh Cushnan and Fergal McGrainne have years of experience within fine food, and are passionate about connecting discerning retailers with locally produced Irish and European mezze products.

Single Rose Brie, Ballylisk of Armagh
Famed for their iconic Triple Rose – a triple cream cheese made from single herd milk – it was only a matter of time before the passionate team at Ballylisk of Armagh turned their hand to its second creation. With a decadently creamy texture and mellow, ripe flavour, this cheese is a standout feature on a cheeseboard. It’s particularly delicious when enjoyed al fresco on a rustic oatcake, whereby the quality of the single herd milk it is made from and the mastery of its makers can shine through. This cheese is part of a simple and honest food chain which its makers are proud to say both starts and ends in Ballylisk. While the latest incarnation of Ballylisk of Armagh – headed up by the passionate Wright family – has been making cheese for just a handful of years, the land which the businesses calls its home has been farmed by the same family since 1820.

Sausage Rolls, Asher’s Baking Co
No picnic would be complete without a sausage roll, and Asher’s delivers a delicious range with aplomb. As well as its deliciously moreish classic sausage rolls – the perfect partner for Burren Balsamics’ Balsamic Onion Jam – Asher’s offers options out of the ordinary and perfect for adventurous picnickers, such as sweet chilli or curry sausage rolls. These savoury pastries are ready to be eaten as they come, making them perfect for enjoying alfresco. Family-run Asher’s is driven by a pure passion for baking. Headed up by a husband and wife team, the first Asher’s shop was opened in their hometown of Newtonabbey before another six were added to the business’s portfolio as a result of their popular bakes. There’s a whole host of treats in the Asher’s range, from savoury bakes to breads and sweet treats.

Balsamic Onion Jam, Burren Balsamics
While many are familiar with onion jam, only those who have tried Burren Balsamics’ Balsamic Onion Jam can say that they have experienced one of the very best. Its deliciously punchy yet sweet flavour means that it pairs beautifully with all manner of dishes – it’s a favourite addition to a cheeseboard and suits a number of cheeses – including picnic favourites like sausage rolls and sandwiches. It also ticks the consumer box for versatility by being great for cooking; stir into a gravy or sauce for an extra kick of rich flavour. Founded in 2014, the Burren Balsamics team is on a mission to combine the most delicious flavours of its local area with quality balsamic vinegar sourced from Modena. The business uses only 100% natural ingredients, making it an ideal choice for independent fine food retailers.

Fennel Salami, Corndale Farm
A perfectly balanced salami is a thing of beauty, and Corndale Farm’s Fennel Salami is just that. Gently sweet and expertly seasoned with fennel and garlic, this is a showstopping product which is just as enjoyable served on a cheeseboard as it is as a pizza topping. Its yielding texture melts beautifully however it is presented, and we particularly enjoy it when served as part of a smorgasbord of picnic-worthy products such as sausage rolls, cheese and snacks. Farmer Alistair Crown established Corndale Farm in 2012 with a mission to produce some of Northern Ireland’s finest pork from his herd of free-range rare breed pigs. The animals are farmed using sustainable methods, with a high attention paid to the welfare of the pigs.

Smoked Salmon, Ewing’s Seafood
It’s not for nothing that for generations Ewing’s has supplied fish and seafood to some of Northern Ireland’s finest establishments. This smoked salmon is a surefire picnic hit thanks to its perfectly crafted flavour and texture, and it is as delicious served simply with fresh bread or crackers as it is cooked into a picnic-ready quiche or prepared with a salad. Caught fresh from the waters around Portavogie and Kilkeel before being expertly smoked by Ewing’s dedicated team, this delicious salmon is a longtime favourite of Michelin-starred chefs. For 100 years Ewing’s has been cementing its reputation as Belfast’s premier fishmonger and seafood supplier. Now, run by Walter Ewing together with his sons Crawford and Warren, the business continues to satisfy the most discerning palates.

Hard Seltzer, Whitewater Brewery
Delivering on the trend front is craft brew expert Whitewater Brewery with its range of vegan-friendly, ready-to-drink hard seltzers. Available in Yuzu, Coconut & Raspberry, Passionfruit & Peach and Grapefruit & Pineapple flavours, this range is low calorie and produced using natural flavours. Each drink in the range is fermented from scratch and contains no artificial preservatives or sweeteners. We love these when out and about, not least because they bring the sunshine whatever the weather. Located on Northern Ireland’s breathtaking Mourne Mountains, Whitewater Brewery has been passionate about craft brewing since it first launched 25 years ago. In that time it has made a name for itself as an award-winning producer of 10 beers and is excited to be quenching the consumer thirst for hard seltzers with its refreshing new range.

Wheaten Mix, The Cookie Jar (Mourne & Bread)
Hot on the heels of lockdown’s most successful trend - home baking – comes The Cookie Jar’s famous Wheaten Bread Mix. Perfect for home bakers who are looking for a convenient way to enjoy delicious, homemade bread, this mix has everything home bakers need to create a loaf in no time – making it perfect for spontaneous lunches outdoors. To bake up a storm, simply add oil and water; the mix already contains buttermilk, so you’re guaranteed a flavourful and perfectly-textured loaf without any hassle. Third generation family business The Cookie Jar has family values at its heart. Its recipes are inspired by the current owners’ grandmother, Jean Herron – who opened The Cookie Jar bakery in 1965 – and the range currently consists of Wheaten Mix, Soda Mix and Scone Mix.

Ice Cream Sunday Cupcakes, Genesis’ Afters range
Nobody can resist the allure of a pristinely flavoured and decorated cupcake, so it’s only natural that Genesis’s Ice Cream Sunday cupcakes – part of its Afters range – was such a hit with the Speciality Food team. While ready-made baked goods can sometimes taste artificial, these cupcakes are nothing of the sort; their sweet (but not too sweet) and buttery flavour is sure to be a hit with sweet-toothed consumers of all ages. Genesis’s Magherafelt home produces far more than delightful cupcakes. Also in the range are bread products such as seeded subs and rolls, scones, pastries and tartlets – all of which are produced to the highest standards by passionate bakers.