Northern Ireland husband and wife teams who have found the true recipe to business success
When it comes to food, ‘local’ is the hottest buzzword. Lee Henry talks to three Northern Ireland couples who reveal their labours of love to produce some of the delicious treats and wares that grace our garden parties and family barbecues this summer
Armagh Cider Company: Helen and Philip Troughton
Philip and I both attended Portadown College and were married in 1978. We took ourselves off to Tunisia, which was a relatively new tourist destination at that time, and thereafter Philip studied horticulture while I obtained a diploma in equestrian studies. Armagh Cider was always a long thought.
Ballinteggart House in Portadown has belonged to the Troughton family since 1898 and apples have always been grown here. Philip's father, known as TG, was a leading apple grower and fruit exporter, and apples from Ballinteggart were always sold to shops, fruit processors and cider makers everywhere. TG was the first supplier of apples from Armagh to Bulmers Cider, for example.
However, as home baking decreased, the trade in fresh cooking apples diminished. Philip, and TG before him, had often considered making their own cider. To that end, they had bought some equipment, which was safely stored away, and in the mid-1990s Philip planted the first cider orchard in Armagh.
Orchards take about five years to come into full production. During that time we were very much involved with other sides of the business, to really get Armagh Cider Company up and running, and eventually, in 2005, enough apples were pressed for us to launch our first cider, Carson's Cider, in 2006.
There followed a few challenging years, when demand for apples was way below the crop produced, but we weathered that. Our cider is still made in the traditional way, and we have invested heavily in modern equipment which allows us to safeguard our techniques.
Philip has always worked with apples.
I started Ballinteggart Stud in 1985 and it became the leading Sport Horse Stud in Northern Ireland.
With regards to Armagh Cider, Philip looks after the apples, helps with production and anything else needing done and I look after the sales, administration, accounts and any other paperwork.
Philip is up and out by 8am, whereas I take a bit longer to get going in the morning. Each day varies depending on the time of year and what needs done. For Philip, sometimes the orchards take precedence - other times it is the bottling. For me, emails have to be checked, accounts kept an eye on and customers kept stocked up.
We have eight staff working with us, as well as casual help during harvest. Our son Mark and daughter Kelly have both been involved with Armagh Cider from its inception. Mark is now in charge of the day-to-day production and his partner Hannah strives to keep our paperwork and accreditations up to date. Kelly currently is kept busy with our two grandchildren, Emma-Jayne and Annie. They were all called upon during Open Farm weekend to help out.
The best bit about living and working at Ballinteggart House is the lack of traffic jams on the way to work. We might get held up by the odd rabbit or squirrel taking their time over breakfast but there are certainly no tailbacks or car accidents to deal with.
County Armagh is renowned for its orchards and it is great to work in them. There is nobody to talk back to you except for the horses! Our farm is a sanctuary in itself. We have horses, dogs and goats, which make for an idyllic life when you think about it.
Philip and I have worked together since 1985, which is hard to believe. We obviously get on well to have survived each other that long, and respect each other's roles and responsibilities. We are both striving for the same aim, so it is good to share the journey, bumps and all, with someone I trust implicitly and have utmost respect for.
There are days when we could do with an outside perspective, especially when we disagree about fundamental points, but we're not beyond compromise and work most things out. Cider may need to be involved though … what else would you want on a warm summer's evening?
The business is very busy all year round, so harvest time is challenging. There is a small window of just a few weeks where apples need to be picked and pressed for the cider for next year. There is a lot to do in a short space of time. The best time of year is spring when the blossom is on the trees and the new foals are being born. It really is the beginning of new life in all aspects of the farm.
We have won many awards for our ciders and juices, both Great Taste Awards and Blas na hEireann (Irish Food Awards), as well as best cider at the Royal Bath & West show in Somerset, a huge accolade given that Somerset is real cider country. We are a Lonely Planet Destination and our most famous visitor was the Duchess of Cornwall. Last May, she toured our premises, sampled our products and met staff and friends at our tenth birthday celebrations. Locally, Irish rugby star Tommy Bowe has also visited.
Philip and I are lucky enough to have the best of both worlds. We live and work in a very quiet area between Portadown and Armagh, and once the gates close on a Friday evening there are not too many people to bother us. Yet we are only 10 minutes from the M1 motorway, 40 minutes from Belfast and an hour and a half from Dublin, so we can be where we need to be in a relatively short time.
I do work hard, and I work most days, but we have always tried to take a few weeks' break each year. Over the last couple of years, it has been a week in Spain with Philip, my daughter and my grandchildren. That helps to recharge the batteries.
We will also try to get away ourselves for a few days in the summer. We love to explore Ireland. There isn't really anywhere else in the world you need to go.
Seeing our products on the shelf of a multinational does give us a bit of a buzz. Having a home-produced horse win on the biggest stage is also very exciting.
We've had our share of adversity over the years, but life is what you make it, and as long as you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you're still going forward."
Abernethy Butter: Allison and Will Abernethy
Will and I met 32 years ago at a Young Farmers Club and got married outside Banbridge four years later. Neither of us went to university, but I worked as a nurse for 32 years while Will stuck at the farming. We both grew up on farms.
We made butter on my family farm at home and my dad used to go out with little churns that originally belonged to my great granny, and did little demonstrations at agricultural and vintage shows.
He was scheduled to do a show one day at Glenarm Castle but he took sick and couldn't make it. Will and I filled in and people went mad for the butter.
We did our demonstration all day, producing butter the traditional handmade way, and at the end of the day we sold what little bits of butter we had produced. There was a man standing watching us all day - we never got his name - but he came over to us and asked if we realised what we had.
"It's not just butter," he said. "It's a pure, beautiful, natural product. You should be thinking about selling it properly."
We went home, Googled it and discovered that no-one else in Ireland creates butter like we do. There are all the big boys - the likes of Golden Cow and Kerrygold - and then you have a few small producers in the South producing butter by machine, but no-one made it completely by hand. So we had our granny flat, which was lying empty, checked over by Environmental Health, got all of our certificates, and formed Abernethy Butter.
We took it to local restaurants and then began supplying other establishments around Northern Ireland once the word got out a little, we sold at shows, and then one day the phone went and it was Heston Blumenthal on the line.
Heston wanted us to make butter for his restaurant, The Fat Duck, but we weren’t allowed to tell anyone for three months, until he was happy that the standard was there every time we sent an order.
Once we had started to supply Heston, and were able to tell people about it, that was the turning point for our business.
That’s when everything started to take off, and now over 80% of what we produce is sold into England, and our high-end clients include other celebrity chefs, like Marcus Wareing and Nigella Lawson, as well as lots of Michelin Star restaurants, and stores like Fortnum and Mason, Harrods and Selfridges.
We live and work in Will’s family farm in Dromore, County Down. It’s such a beautiful part of the country. But we don’t farm anymore. We buy cream that is pasteurised from Drayne’s Farm in Lisburn, and all our butter is handmade the old traditional way, by churning cream, washing the butter and then adding salt.
Will is the chief butter maker, while I do the packaging, the promotion, the invoices and that sort of thing. Will starts making the butter at 5am six days a week, and I start packaging the rolls at 6am. Other staff start work at 9am.
New butter is made fresh every day, and the previous day’s batch is wrapped and packaged for distribution each morning.
We take every Sunday off. You need to or you would go mad.
I think Will and I work well together as a husband and wife team, most of the time.
Naturally, like everyone, I suppose, we do have our rows and disagreements, but nothing too bad. Considering we’re with each other almost all day, every day, I think we do a good job of it. In that sense, it’s good to work together as husband and wife.
During the summer, we get out and about to as many food fairs and shows as we can, and it’s lovely to meet all of the other local food producers. That’s great fun. Our busiest time of year, though, is Christmas. Heston and the other restaurants can treble their orders to meet the extra demand, and that means working 15 or 16-hour days. We take Christmas day off, but mainly just to sleep!
We are super busy, but we like to go for a walk three or four times a week. If there are no shows at the weekends, we will try to do something together, like go out for a nice dinner, or we will go away for the weekend. We went to Madrid recently and that was lovely, but two-week holidays abroad just aren’t possible for us. That said, we love what we do. We will keep making butter for a while yet. We enjoy it.”
Baked in Belfast: Suzanne and Keith Livingstone
Keith and I are both originally from Belfast and met there in 1984. Keith would joke that I turned up on his doorstep and begged to go out with him, but I was actually walking my dog with a friend, who also knew Keith. I met his entire family that day, including his grandparents.
We married in Belfast’s Westbourne Church in May 1989, exactly five years after our first date. Keith doesn’t travel and money was tight, as we had just bought our first house in Comber, so we honeymooned in Fermanagh, where we now live.
We had our children, Ben and Silvia, and then, in 1991, I broke my neck in a car accident. We had a challenging few years thereafter and it was a real juggling act for us. We ran a coffee shop in the city and I studied accountancy in the evenings. Realising that our coffee shop didn’t work, and deciding to close it in 2012, was probably our biggest business low.
We moved to Fermanagh in 2001 and my granny told us: “No matter where you live, you will always be born, buttered, bred and baked in Belfast.” So when we decided to launch our current business, we used Baked in Belfast as our brand name.
We produce artisan pottery and jams, marmalades and chutneys, many of which have unusual flavours. Sweet Chilli Jam and Red Hot Tomato Chutney are pretty much used on a daily basis at home. Apple & Cinnamon Jam makes for a great ham glaze, while Gin & Tonic Marmalade is brilliant for Lemon Chicken.
Although Keith previously worked as a civil servant, today he is very much the Jam Man. He does most of the food production while I do all the pottery production and painting, but we cross over and help one another out when we can. He helps to glaze the pottery and load the kiln, and I help with jarring up.
We play to each other’s strengths. Keith is more organised than me, so he does all the orders, invoicing and VAT, while I’m the creative one, coming up with new ideas. It’s good to have mutual support in the workplace.
Working together as husband and wife can be hard. If there is a disagreement it tends to carry over. But at shows and events, hopefully it appears as though we never argue!
While we both want what’s best for the business, we may have different thoughts and ideas on how to achieve our goals, so we regularly discuss these ideas and clear the air, usually whilst driving in the van together when there’s no means of escape.
Every day is different for us. Typically Keith is an early bird and I’m a night owl, so he likes to start work early and I paint into the wee small hours. We usually set targets for what we want to get made each day. We try to be more and more organised each year, with pottery production starting in February and food production starting in July.
We only use traditional handmade processes and cook everything in small batches using open pots. We have always avoided going down the factory production route, preferring to remain a small artisan producer.
We live about eight miles outside Enniskillen. We love the space and the peace and quiet that this affords us. We are five minutes away from the lough shore, 10 minutes away from Navar Forest and only 30 minutes away from some of Ireland’s finest beaches. We can also play music as loud as we want and sit out on our deck and watch Red Kites and Falcons fly overhead. We enjoy going out for coffee and breakfasts in The Thatch in Belleek.
Although we find that living in the far west of the province means we have to travel long distances to events, the benefits of country living far outweigh the travelling.
Because Keith doesn’t travel, I venture outside of Northern Ireland alone, always in search of new flavours. This year I went solo to Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Norway, where salted liquorice ice cream remains an acquired taste. I bring Keith home lots of foodie treats. He enjoyed the Cocoa Husk Tea from the Dominican Republic and reindeer salami from Norway.
We have deliberately tried to give a traditional product a fun, modern twist and we are delighted to have won five Great Taste awards, eight World Marmalade Awards and have twice been finalists in the Irish Food Awards, Blas na hEireann. Arlene Foster and Michelle Gildernew have purchased from us in the past. Other high profile customers include BBC Radio Ulster chef Paula McIntyre, while, on a more international stage, ex-Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo is a big fan of our Blueberry & Ginger Jam and Mojito Marmalade, Doug Aldrich of Whitesnake is a Whiskey Marmalade man, and former Foreigner drummer Brian Tichy likes the Strawberry Daiquiri.
Life is busy but this is the first year we have tried to strike a balance and one main advantage of working from home is that if the weather looks good, we can get out for a couple of hours to enjoy it. We recently purchased e-bikes and are now cycling around 60-70 miles a week, which we are really enjoying doing together.