Sweet success for Co Armagh's Susie as her balsamic vinegar recipe bears fruit
A product developed for a charity fundraising event has led to a fast-growing business for a Co Armagh woman.
Susie Hamilton Stubber got together with a friend in 2013 to make a one-off batch of fruit-infused balsamic vinegars for a Marie Curie Christmas fair in Ballynahinch.
Now she spends her days producing and bottling gallons of Burren Balsamics in Richhill, criss-crossing Northern Ireland to deliver it to delis, butchers, farm shops and hotels.
"The vinegar was very popular at the Christmas fair and we were advised that we could make a real business of it," said Susie, who previously worked in catering, cooking for high-end London dinner parties and equestrian events.
The vinegars have a wide range of uses, including salads, stews, roast meats and baking.
At the start, Burren Balsamics got a £4,000 'innovation voucher' from Invest NI, which enabled the company to link up with experts at the Loughry Campus of the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) in testing the vinegars and gathering the nutritional data for labelling.
"The innovation voucher proved very useful, because after a great deal of product development work, we realised that we wanted to use only natural fruits to infuse the oil, rather than commercial flavourings or concentrates which are factory-made. We were very clear about that," said Susie.
Susie has developed eight flavours for the range, most of which are flavoured with fruit grown in Ireland - some very close to home.
"The rhubarb comes from Loughgall and, of course, the Bramley apples are from right next door in Richhill. The quality and flavour is fantastic, you can't get better anywhere," she said.
Susie sources her raspberries and strawberries from Keeling's in Co Dublin and has built a partnership with the well-known Irish producer.
"We produce a vinegar specially for them which they sell at their farm shop and their fruit is used in our range of balsamics," she said.
Burren Balsamics is now developing more products, thanks to a second innovation voucher from Invest NI - including a low-sugar vinegar for people who are dieting. "And I'm looking at effective ways to use our waste products. For example, if you take the apples that have been used to flavour the vinegars, we're working to use that vinegar-infused apple in a ketchup, in association with Deli Muru in Belfast," said Susie.
Susie's vinegars - contained in glass bottles made by McLernon's of Saintfield - are popular with guests at Hastings Hotels. She also supplies a range under the group's own label - and she has made a tentative entry into the export market.
"We're distributing through a supplier in the Republic, with the range available in Cork, Wexford and Dublin. We also sell some in the south of England and Gloucestershire, and we're starting to do more mail order business into Germany and South Africa. Export is the next big step. It's very exciting to attract interest from outside Northern Ireland," she added.
Later this year, Susie will take the Burren Balsamics range to the BBC Good Food Show in Birmingham, where Invest NI will have a group stand to showcase the best of Northern Ireland producers. She's also taking part in the huge Spirit of Christmas Fair at Olympia in London.
Well-known chefs Jenny Bristow and Paula McIntyre have used Burren Balsamics in their recipes and in during cookery demonstrations.
And Susie believes that the Year of Food promotion has also helped to raise the company's profile.
"It's been a great initiative for local producers like us," she said. "It makes consumers more aware of what's available on their own doorstep and they want to support Northern Ireland producers.
"That can only be positive news for the sector."