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Producers getting into festive spirit as we all tuck in to their seasonal local favourites

By Rachel Martin

Christmas has come early for the province's farmers with stabilising milk prices and the mild weather providing a much needed reprieve.

But as the year winds down, many of our food producers are upping production for their busiest spell on the calendar.

With poultry firm Moy Park expecting up to six million people to tuck into its turkey and Asda set to sell more than 300,000 Northern Ireland vegetables this Christmas, this year is all about local food.

We spoke to game producer Baronscourt Estate, cheese-maker Tamnagh Foods, stuffing maker TS Foods and sprout grower Stephen Murdoch to find out how they're preparing to cater for the region's seasonal spreads.

Cheese-maker Julie Hickey is hoping her Dart Mountain Cheese will be a fixture of cheese boards across the region.

Her business, Tamnagh Foods, was founded in 2010 in the scenic Sperrin Mountains near the village of Park, Co Londonderry.

While foodservice makes up the majority of her sales, this year she has put together Christmas hampers also including chutneys, relishes and granola.

She said the Year of Food had encouraged people to think about how they could bring more Northern Ireland produce on to their Christmas dinner tables.

"I do think the Year of Food has encouraged people to develop an interest in local food," she said.

"I think it has been going that way anyway, but it really has brought local food to the fore.

"The key is to keep it going - every year should be the Year of Food here. At Christmas a lot of people will want to try something a bit different and if you've got great local food in our restaurants then people will want to bring that home for their family and friends too."

Next year, she hopes to quadruple the size of her ageing room to allow her to produce a larger range of mature cheeses - the longest of which will be matured for up to a year.

She's not the only one inundated with demand - Ellie Stuart from Baronscourt Estate in Co Tyrone said it couldn't keep up with orders for its wild Sika venison.

Around 300 deer roam the 5,000-acre estate at any one time. The estate's main business is forestry, but to manage its deer population Baronscourt needs to cull between three and six deer every week.

Ellie said: "Up until about four years ago the estate was selling small amounts of venison locally but never really pushed it as much as it could. Now we simply can't keep up with demand for it.

"We supply Fortnum and Mason, Hastings Hotels, Lough Erne Resort and James Street South, but we will also supply individual customers.

"A couple in London told me they are having it on Christmas day instead of turkey. A lot of people will have it because they want to try something different - it's leaner than all your beef products and while people often say turkey is dry, they don't have that problem with game."

This year Co Down sprout grower Stephen Murdoch is expecting to harvest almost a million sprouts in the run-up to Christmas. But he's one of just a few growers in Northern Ireland and says things are getting harder. He grows 20 acres of sprouts on his farm in Comber.

"This year has been a good one for growing sprouts but things have been harder overall and I'm now just one of just three growers in Northern Ireland at the moment and even I've cut back on what I'm growing," he said.

"I've noticed sales are going up each Christmas but they are dropping the rest of the year and that can be hard to cope with - between 50% to 60% of my crop is sold in the 10 days leading up to Christmas."

Stephen is also one of the first here to embrace a new variety of sprout. This year he is also growing 'flower sprouts' - a cross between curly kale and sprout. He hopes the variety, which is popular in North America for its nutritional benefits, will help bring the vegetable back into fashion.

Elsewhere in Co Down, Castlewellan firm TS Foods has secured a deal worth £600,000 with Tesco NI for its new hot deli range.

However, the company is best known for its stuffing assortments and each year ramps up production ten-fold in the run up to Christmas.

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