This is my first trip to Northern Ireland but am fairly sure it won’t be my last! I’m here on a short four day press trip with a busy itinerary with a heavy focus on food and drink. As an added bonus there’s even a bit of time to explore Belfast and the surrounding countryside. And, as you might expect there’s plenty of opportunity to eat and drink some of the fabulous locally produced produce. We even managed to fit in a Specialty Coffee tour!
Food and drink is a big deal in Northern Ireland, not just in terms of quality, traceability and taste. Food and drink is a £5 billion industry and is the region’s largest manufacturer and a leading exporter, employing over 100,000 people.
Visit Northern Ireland and you are in for a culinary treat! The majority of the food that we tasted on the trip was locally produced and you’ll be pleased to hear that you can get hold of some of it here in Dubai too! Over 70% of Northern Irish produce is exported outside of Northern Ireland and here in Dubai you can find it in some of our supermarkets and restaurants. If you visit, you’ll also no doubt bring some back with you too!
Northern Irish food stories
Our trip starts out on the road, with a few days dedicated to meeting the people involved in the production of food and drink in Northern Ireland. Not only do we meet the people, we get to hear the stories behind the brands which always brings a product to life! Living in Dubai in particular, where the majority of our food is imported, it’s easy to forget that behind every product there’s a story just waiting to be told.
Our trip starts at Sea Source located in Kilkeel Harbour. It’s the day after St Patricks Day when we visit and many of the boats are still in harbour – we’re told it’s due to the weather, but it’s also the day after St Patricks Day and it appears that the celebrations were long and hard! Sea Source is a co-operative owned by the fishermen, who have been catching, landing and selling their world class, sustainable, wild caught seafood in Kilkeel since 1853.
The majority of the seafood caught by the fishermen is exported. More recently they’ve opened a local shop for a ‘sea to plate’ experience allowing members of the public to buy direct from source and to reinvest money back into the fishing community. We pop into the shop later, and as well as fresh seafood, we find a small range of locally produced artisanal products too which in turn supports the community. The shop is literally a two minute drive from the harbor, so not only is the fish super fresh, the prices are great too!
Watch out for some exciting Dubai news relating to Sea Source, which will be coming soon. The guys have certainly re awakened a love of fish with their passion about provenance, sustainability and freshness
Sea Source marketing showing that the old and the new generation are involved in catching great seafood.
Next stop is Rooney Fish which is also in Kilkeel harbour. Rooney Fish is a family run business specialising in shellfish. On the day we visit, we get to try some oysters from their Oyster Farm in Carlingford Lough. Andrew Rooney, treats me to an award winning Rooney Millbay Oyster which he expertly shucks before I slide it into my mouth, give it a few chews and swallow heartily. These are big oysters so need a chew or two (in my opinion). The oyster tastes delicious and reminds me of my first ever oyster in St Malo. These oysters are pretty special since they were awarded a 3 star rating in the Great Taste Awards 2017 for their Pacific Oysters.
Apparently tasty oysters take longer to shuck … or so I was told, my delicious oyster was reluctant to give itself up to me – but it was worth the wait!
Shuck away! My Millbay oyster
Kestrel Foods Ltd is a family run business at the forefront of the market for premium quality dried fruit and nuts with production facilities producing innovative snack products marketed under its Forest Feast brand. Their product range is impressive from healthy to indulgent and despite just having had lunch, we manage to fit in a tasting of some really good products including chocolate coated mango worthy of a second and perhaps third tasting! Their street food snack flavors were pretty good too!
Plenty of innovation is going on here as well as a lot of work at the front end in terms of identifying new trends, customer demand and finding the right quality ingredients to turn into new product ranges
The Boatyard Distillery founded by Joe McGirr overlooks Lough Erne and we arrive in style by water taxi directly from our hotel, breaking the ice at the dock as we arrive (see I told you it was cold!). Thankfully the team welcome us with a warm gin infused toddy and we sit beside the stills inhaling the scent of gin as we taste two different gins and a soon to be launched vodka which I love. Everything is brewed on site, hand bottled and hand labelled to add the final personal touch.
I have to confess that I started the trip as a non gin lover, but end up being a convert – the secret it seems is to find a gin you love, mix it with decent mixers and hold back on too much ice!*
What makes Boatyard Double Gin extra special, beside the fact that it’s made with spirit from organically grown wheat and some traditional botanicals is a special botanical taken from the Fermanagh based family farm known as Sweet Gale. Joe tells us a bit more about why he loves botanicals and how to taste gin in this short video.
To soak up the alcohol we headed to Crust and Crumb one of Irelands leading manufacturers of fresh Pizza and Pizza Bases. All their products are produced from scratch in Derrylin. These guys take their pizza seriously, working with craft bakers and a professional pizzaiolo from the Novara lowlands of Northern Italy.
What struck me about Crust and Crumb is the way in which they are constantly innovating and creating new types of pizza bases and toppings. From hand shaped premium sour dough pizza bases, through to innovative, healthy and trendy toppings, they have their finger on the pulse and are constantly evolving their product offering.
After a factory tour, which unfortunately I had to skip as I had an odd reaction to sugar, we feasted on a range of different gourmet pizzas for lunch including a high protein, low carb version which was great for my keto plan.
Next stop is Lisnaskea in the Germanagh Lake District to visit Kettyle Foods famous for their meat. We are greeted with the smell of cooking as the team are in the demo kitchen preparing a rack of Lough Erne Dry aged lamb, a blackened ribeye steak (coated in an activated charcoal rub), and huge ‘man sized’ sausage and burgers for us to taste, and all of this just after lunch! Meat here is dry aged in a salt moss aging cave, a patented process, which adds to the depth of taste and has resulted in the team winning many awards. We also get to taste some marrow melt which was sublime.
The Kettyle test kitchen is part of the reception area, we casually chat as the aroma of the gorgeous cuts of meats wafts through the office. I’m a big meat lover and can only dream of a day when the FoodeMag dxb team have a test kitchen in our office! – it’s something we’ve talked about for a while! On a more serious note, I was pleased to see the team trying new rubs on their steak, and to use the marrow melt to enhance the taste – without being quirky or ‘following a trend’
“man sized” burgers and sausages sizzling away for our taste test
Apples! – Well, sort of .. Cider and Apple Cider Vinegar
We’re off to McKeevers Farm situated in Portadown, Co Armagh also known as “The Orchard County” run by Pat & Catherine McGeever. Long Meadow Cider is a family run business established only three years ago but with big plans to expand and diversify. I’m particularly interested in the plan for a tea shop as I adore afternoon tea and being a Bristol girl I do love a good apple cider! Inside a barn just to the side of one of the Orchards we get to taste rhubarb and apple cider which is just about to be carbonated and bottled along with a range of their award winning ciders, particularly good apple juice and apple cider vinegar, which comes complete with ‘the mother’ which is a sign of a quality unfiltered apple cider vinegar.
Walking around the orchard was like seeing the history of agriculture come to life. Old larger trees with big spaces between them are slowly being replaced with new orchards which are more closely packed together, not so big but apparently just as productive if not more than the old ones.
Our Northern Ireland road trip comes to an end as we leave the orchards of Armagh and head back to Belfast, however, our tastebuds have just been whetted with Northern Ireland produce and the next day we pop into IFEX NI – Northern Ireland’s Premier Food, Drink, Retail and Hospitality. IFEX NI is a trade event similar to Gulf Food but a lot smaller which means it’s easier to navigate around and to spend time talking to the vendors. Read about my trip and the people I met HERE
For More Information on Northern Irish Food and Drink check out :