Food renaissance shows no sign of abating in Northern Ireland

Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster is pictured with Peter Hannan (L) of Moira based Hannan Meats, which scooped the Regional Golden Fork award at the Great Taste Awards and Andrew Cavana, Fortnum & Mason. Photo by Aaron McCracken/Harrisons
Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister, Arlene Foster is pictured with Peter Hannan (L) of Moira based Hannan Meats, which scooped the Regional Golden Fork award at the Great Taste Awards and Andrew Cavana, Fortnum & Mason. Photo by Aaron McCracken/Harrisons

The Northern Ireland food renaissance shows no sign of abating. 2014 has seen the arrival of new food companies, breweries, cider makers and jam companies and the continued success of the existing ones.

This week I’m going to list my top ten, in no particular order, of what was great in our food world.

This year saw the introduction of new and amazing breweries to the scene. Pokertree Ales from Carrickmore in Tyrone brew a fabulous Ghrian Golden Ale thats world class. Also in Tyrone the people behind the Brewer’s House in Donaghmore sell a Red Hand ale in their bar that’s worth a trip alone, never mind the great food they serve there.

The fantastically named Farmageddon co-op, based in Ballygowan make an Indian Pale Ale that, among their other varieties, is incredible. Hillstown Farm, outside Ahoghill made beer initially as part of a cattle feed but thankfully sell their Horney Bull stout and Wayne’s Wheat to humans now!

Portadown cider company, Long Meadow was established this year and picked up two gold stars in the prestigious Great Taste Awards to boot.

The Beer and Cider Festival in the Ulster Hall this year showcased many of the established and new brews to NI, to great success and I can’t wait to see what the 2015 festival brings. Check out the great blog for up to date news on the drinks world here.

The biennial Hans Sloane Chocolate festival took place in Killyleagh in September and what a showcase for our burgeoning number of chocolatiers in Northern Ireland. Co Couture, owned by Deirdre McCanny, won silver at the International Chocolate Awards World Finals for her Cherry Sencha chocolate, combining tea from iconic Belfast brand Suki with the highest quality chocolate.

Other chocolate companies like Chocolate Manor in Coleraine, Nearly Nogs in Newry, and Norr and Brown in Saintfield have been creating amazing combinations, attending festivals and running classes to great success. My only regret is this festival isn’t on every year.

Will and Alison Abernethy were shortlisted for a much sought after BBC Radio Four Food and Farming Award this year.

They also introduced a smoked variety of their handrolled butter that has caught the eye of great chefs and deli owners from here and the rest of the UK.

Rapeseed oil from Northern Ireland continues to grow in popularity. Leona Kane’s Broighter Gold won a total of five gold stars in the Great Taste Awards this year for her original and three other flavoured oils.

Her oils are now stocked in L’Epicerie in Paris and I’d say that’s the first step to world domination.

Hartnett’s oil from Waringstown won a Blas na hEireann food award in October and their rosemary and orange is really worth trying. The health benefits and cooking properties of these oils make them a firm favourite among good local chefs.

Peter Hannan’s sweet cure bacon ribs won three gold stars at the Great Taste Awards 2014 and best product from Northern Ireland.

The ribs are buried in a salt chest for some time, then soaked in honey.

Cook them at 140oc for three hours for fall off the bone, melt in the mouth, deliciousness.

They call out for cabbage and mash but are equally good with eggs for breakfast.

Baronscourt Estate Venison also shone at the Great Taste Awards this year with their rack and loin of venison each winning three gold stars each.

They’ve been farming deer on the estate for meat since the 1920s and it’s great to see them get some recognition for their unique product on a world stage.

Their sausages and cheaper cuts like shoulder and leg are amazing too.

I was introduced to Ruaridh Morrison’s North Coast Smokehouse’s hot smoked salmon and smoked salt while cooking a lunch in Ballycastle, using local products.

When you’re given excellent food like this, there’s no point in gilding the lily.

The hot salmon had just the right amount of smoke and a lovely soft texture – served with a little pickled cucumber and wheaten bread was all it needed.

I’ve been lashing the smoked salt over everything from roast potatoes to chicken and steak.

Everytime I used to walk past the National Trust hut on Portstewart Strand I had a fantasy about it being a really good crab shack like they have on the East Coast of the US.

Thankfully restaurateur Donal Doherty fulfilled this dream, put uber chef Derek Creagh in charge of the stove, alongside mega pastry chef Monto Mansour.

It’s gone down a storm in the Port serving spanking fresh fish, vegetables grown in Donal’s walled garden, great meat and fabulous desserts. Monto’s macaroons are worth a trip up the M2 alone.

Debbie Leslie set up Flossie’s Fudge as a hobby business for her daughter Sophie, who’s since left the fudge making to Debbie while she goes to university.

She uses only natural ingredients and the resulting fudge is soft, creamy, melt in the mouth gorgeous. It’s all made and packaged in Eglinton and has caught the eye of high end retailer Fortnum and Mason.

Their malt fudge especially is a revelation and more than deserved the three gold stars it won at the Great Taste Awards back in September.

Mike Thompson, from Newtownards, launched his raw milk, Young Buck, onto the market this year. It’s sharp, clean, punchy, creamy and has a crystalline texture.

I had it with warm walnut bread and some of Clare Kelly’s Passion Preserve, Spiced damson jelly. Now that I could eat every day!

Apologies if I’ve left any one out but its very hard to whittle down the wonderful range of producers that are now so industrious right across the province.

What’s great is that none of the producers rest on their laurels – they constantly strive for high quality and innovation and are taking over the world the sensible way - slowly but surely.

Happy 2015. It’s going to be a great food year!