For most of us, a smoke-filled room is not a sight we want to see.
But for one Ballycastle-based business, it’s the vital ingredient for award winning products. North Coast Smokehouse, run by husband and wife team Ruairidh Morrison and Melanie Brown, was established in 2013.
Its smoke-roasted organic salmon is crafted inside a small unit at Causeway Enterprise Agency, which has been specially adapted to create the product’s unique colours and flavours.
Explaining the process, Ruairidh said: “I collect the whole, organic salmon from Glenarm every week, and bring it back here to Ballycastle where it’s cured for a period of time before being hot-smoked using beech woodchips. This allows the fish to be smoked and cooked at the same time – roasted in a cloud of smoke is usually how I describe it.”
Having developed a finely tuned system, Ruairidh and Melanie work in tandem to complete the process through to delivery. And with a growing reputation for excellence, their customer base continues to expand.
Harry’s Shack in Portstewart was their first ever commercial customer, and this has now extended to dozens of businesses right along the Causeway Coast and Glens, and beyond.
Their products are also used by Shola Coach House Bed and Breakfast, recently voted the second best B&B in the world.
“A lot of their online reviews mention our salmon, which is used on their breakfast menu, so it’s nice to know we are contributing to their good reputation. Having an ability to work together can only be a good thing for all of us,” Ruairidh added.
Ruairidh’s connection to the sea goes back to his childhood on the Scottish island of Islay.
He later spent 20 years living and working in New Zealand, and it was during his time on the other side of the world that he met Melanie. They later returned to her home town of Ballycastle, just a short distance across the Irish Sea from Islay. The two areas share a long history, as both were part of the old Kingdom of Dalriada.
Ruairidh said: “The sea was once a bridge, not a barrier and at one time it was easier to get from to Islay from Ballintoy than it was to get to Ballymena. Both regions had strong connections in terms of fishing and agriculture.
“Traditionally, people would have rowed across in fishing boats to attend the Auld Lammas Fair. Fish would be salted on Islay and brought across to be sold, so it it’s nice for an Islay man to be selling fish in Ballycastle again.”
Smoke-roasting is a commonly used cooking technique in New Zealand, with most anglers carrying a hot smoker as well as a fishing rod.
“We saw there was a niche in the market for this type of thing, and so far it has gone down really well. A lot of people have pre-conceptions about smoked fish so we have found ourselves educating customers along the way,” said Ruairidh.
A lot of this education takes place at the Naturally North Coast and Glens Artisan Market and the Causeway Speciality Market. North Coast Smokehouse is a regular trader at both, allowing Ruairidh and Melanie to meet their customers, and showcase their products to new audiences.
Melanie said: “Both markets are supportive of each other, and it’s great for us to get the encouragement and advice from other traders. People like the experience of buying from a market. There’s a whole experience built around it, and it gives you an assurance about the products you are buying.”
Ruairidh and Melanie have also developed a range of condiments – smoked sea salt, pepper and dulse. Smoke is the only added ingredient, and like the salmon, it is smoked using beech wood.
Melanie explains: “We made our first salt while in New Zealand, and refined it when we came back here. Dulse has a strong connection to Ballycastle, and I have great memories of it as a child. At the beginning we were using a coffee grinder to get it down to the right consistency so it has been a work in progress.”
The products have proved highly successful, winning three gold stars in the UK’s Great Taste Awards.
At this time of year, the pair are also actively involved in the Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival which takes place in Ballycastle and Rathlin Island from May 26th – June 4th.
Ruairidh was part of a team which built a currach a number of years ago, and it will be rowed from the island to Ballycastle to help launch the event.
“The festival is great for the region, and we can see it growing every year,” said Ruairidh.
With an emphasis on local produce, food tourism is a growing industry which the festival brings to the fore.
The couple are also active members of Causeway Coast and Glens Food Network, and recognise the need to build on the momentum created by the Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink.
Looking ahead, Ruairidh and Melanie intend to develop their product range, and play their part in cementing Ballycastle’s position as a food tourism destination.