Northern Ireland food firms reaching for the stars
Companies from Northern Ireland's food and drink sector are preparing to surpass their record-breaking clutch of accolades from an influential UK awards scheme which, for the first time, features judging in Belfast.
In previous years, firms representing the £3bn industry have scooped hundreds of 'gold stars' in the Great Taste Awards.
Mouthwatering products will be served up before judges at the Stormont Hotel next month when locally-produced fare will test the tastebuds of the panels, which will include familiar faces on culinary television and radio shows.
Everything from beef, seafood and cheeses to speciality condiments, baked-goods, fine teas and ciders, will be judged as part of the 50-day Great Taste judging process, culminating in the presentation of the Golden Fork awards in London in September.
As well as the local round of adjudicating, over 400 judges, including chefs, buyers, food writers and retailers, will decide which of the 10,000 samples on offer will be awarded the one, two or three-stars.
The competition is organised by the Guild of Fine Food and the decision to host a tasting session here in Northern Ireland demonstrates recognition of our wealth of artisan and small food companies, which have accounted for significant representation among gold star winners in the past.
Some of the products from this part of the UK have been snapped up by elite retailers like Fortnum and Mason, Selfridges and Brown Thomas.
Hannan Meats in Moira has so captivated the judges' palates that it's secured an unrivalled 85 gold stars and one supreme champion title, making it the outright Great Taste winner for the year – plus two Northern Ireland regional winner awards over the past three years – more than any other business in the UK.
The firm now supplies Glenarm Shorthorn beef to Fortnum and Mason in London and is the sole supplier of salt-aged beef to London celebrity chef Mark Hix's seven restaurants, plus a network of Michelin star restaurants in Paris, Dublin and Portugal.
Last year 14 products from seven local companies were awarded the highest title of three gold stars for their products in the annual event.
Around 70 Northern Ireland companies secured almost 320 gold stars, setting an all-time record for the region.
Nine products from four companies were listed in the Guild's Top 50 Foods.
The scheme has been credited with increased sales and brand awareness for the winners
From Belfast, the judges will head to the Harrogate Speciality Food Show in mid-July where all the 3-star products will be re-judged to establish major winners. The final results will be unveiled on August 8 with the presentations of the 'Golden Forks' made exactly a month later.
Peter Hannan, director of Hannan Meats, will be lending his expertise as a judge at one phase of the contest.
"We get out of bed at 4am every morning to make great food; that's our station in life," he said.
"I wouldn't get out of bed at that time to make moderate food."
He added that he is hopeful of seeing another supreme champion from Northern Ireland this year.
From beef to chutney... products in big demand
The great taste of Kettyle Irish Foods' products has been integral to the Lisnaskea company's recent contracts in the Gulf, worth an expected £1m.
One of Northern Ireland's growing club of Great Taste winners, the firm recently won its first contracts to supply its award-winning dry-aged meats in key markets such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Another trailblazer placing Northern Ireland firmly on the global gourmand map is Bruce's Hill Cattle Company near Antrim, which has secured a contract to supply Selfridges in London with grass-fed meat from its own Dexter herds.
Receiving gold stars for its steaks from a herd once only found at Belfast Zoo, the company's Mike Frazer described the Selfridge deal as "significant".
En Place Foods in Belfast is another of the winners to land lucrative deals based on their attention to quality and taste.
The Cookstown-based producer of chutneys, culinary oils, vinegars and jams, has in recent years clinched major deals in Britain, including a £250,000 contract to provide its high end products for inclusion in hampers for almost 100 BHS stores.
Other former gold star winners include Ewing Seafood, which supplies smoked salmon, mostly from Glenarm Organic Salmon, to Selfridges and Broighter Gold, Limavady, winner of a gold star for rapeseed oil, which has won business in Dublin with Brown and Thomas, Fallon and Byrne.
From amidst the star-studded food industry here, new leaders continue to emerge.
A little taste of what’s being served up to the judges
The 36 categories include:
beers and ciders; wines, spirits and liqueurs; soft drinks, tea and coffee; biscuits and snacks; bread, flour, bake-off and pastry; cakes; chocolate; confectionery; honey; jams, conserves, preserves; luxury cereals; mustards; condiments and jellies; oils; olives; tapas and dips; pickles, chutneys and relishes; vinegars and dressings; bacon; cured meat and charcuterie; fresh meat; sausages and meat products; savoury pies, seafood and fish; terrines and pates; dairy; puddings; pasta, rice and couscous; ready meals; meal kits; soup, diet foods; and the deli chef signature dish.