Last week a group of ten food producers from Northern Ireland travelled to Birmingham to exhibit at the BBC Good Food Show at the National Exhibition Centre.
Iconic, well established companies like Thompson’s family tea from Belfast, Heatherlea Bakery based in Bangor, Howells from Portadown and Whites oats of Tandragee were joined by Belfast companies Wee Mallows, Peppup Sauces, Armagh Cider Company, Long Meadow Cider, Burren Balsamics from Richhill and Mash Direct from Comber.
I had the great job of hosting a taste theatre, in the middle of this vast space which meant interviewing all the producers and talking about their products. We introduced the predominantly English audience to flakemeal biscuits, jammy joeys, Armagh cider, fruit infused vinegars, champ, proper northern Irish blended tea, fifteens and a myriad of other unique food all produced here.
There were a lot of hoarse people on the plane home on Sunday night. Food producers from here are amazing ambassadors for the whole country. They’re proud and passionate of what they make, where it’s from and are the embodiment of good Ulster hospitality. Most of the tens of thousands of visitors to the Northern Ireland area had a cup of tea, a traybake, or toot of cider while hearing the stories from the people who are at the coal face of the growing Northern Ireland food industry.
With Brexit looming and no one really knowing what the outcome will be, there has never been a more vital time to establish links with the rest of the UK. I’m fiercely proud of our food from here and promote it at every opportunity but it doesn’t stop me cooking with ingredients from across the UK. It would be a boring world if we just stuck to our own realm. Mountain lamb from the Sperrins will taste completely different from an Orkney lamb that feeds on salt marsh weeds. Both are exquisite. The French talk about Terroir and how the soil in every region has a different effect on the food that’s grown in it. The diversity of flavours is what makes food exciting. It thrills me to see Glenarm beef on London restaurants menus or when the bread comes out in a restaurant in Oxfordshire with Abernethy butter on the side. Our produce is trusted globally and we need to make the most of it especially in these economically unstable times.
In return we should have cheeses from the rest of U.K on our boards, Welsh lamb on our plates, English charcuterie on our platters to name only a few potential swaps. When I talk to food writers and chefs from other parts of the UK there’s now a warm reception for any mention of food from here. The Great Taste Awards are the Oscars of the food world and last year Northern Ireland had more winners than any other region. When you think that our food scene really didn’t exist pre- 2000 this is even more cause for celebration. National endorsement like this adds credibility and the potential for growth is massive.
During the four day show I also got the chance to cook on the Winter Stage and showcase food from here. I’ve included the recipe which contains as much food from here that I could manage to put in one dish. Pork chops topped with a cider and bacon butter and served with potatoes, scallions and a crispy soda crumb. I used Peter Hannan’s guanciale – a pork cheek bacon that’s spritzed with garlic and thyme during the cooking process. Scallions, butter, great bacon and smoky butter will delight any crowd!