Michele Shirlow: 'People are in the food industry here because they love it... food brings people together and they talk about it'
The Food NI chief tells Margaret Canning about the evolution of our culinary self-confidence
Today's issue is all about 2016's Year of Food and Drink - a 12 month programme of events celebrating the great produce being made in Northern Ireland. So who better to break bread with than Michele Shirlow, chief executive of promotion body Food NI.
Naturally, the trained accountant - who worked in industry and Invest NI before Food NI - is keen to champion the province's food offerings. "I love food in all its guises."
A glance at the Food NI website reveals it's involved in a rich array of events, encouraging Italian food lovers to show off their skills at the Northern Ireland heat of the Genoa World Pesto Championships, while international food journalists have been enjoying the Bramley Apple Festival in Richhill, Co Armagh.
As you'd expect, she's enthusiastic about championing local produce - in choosing Colombian Eggs for my lunch (eggs scrambled with chorizo, spinach and avocado), I am somewhat off message. Michele chooses fish pie.
These days we constantly indulge in small talk about food - where we've been dining, what culinary gems we've rustled up at home, and where we bought the ingredients - but it wasn't always thus.
She says: "There's been a tremendous change in the industry in the past seven years where the personality started to come out of our food."
Nowhere has that revolution been more evident than the growth in Food NI's pavilion at the Balmoral Show, she says. "We wanted that to be somewhere you could come and see what Northern Ireland food was about. We started out with six companies at it and last year we had 90, and 45 chefs - many of those businesses will have started in the last five years."
That was at a time when there were no goat meat producers (now we have Broughgammon), farmhouse cheeses (Leggygowan) or handmade butters (Abernethy Butter).
"Now there's a great confidence in the industry in what they do. And that's partly because everyone is more into food than they used to be - but it's also because it was more difficult to market Northern Ireland food against the backdrop of the Troubles.
"But once we had stability, food processors could get the chance to blossom and show what they could do."
There were selling points to produce like Northern Ireland-grown beef - but we needed them pointed out to us.
"I remember Americans saying to me: 'So beef from Northern Ireland is grass fed?' That was a talking point for them because in the US, cattle are kept indoors and fed grain. But we in Northern Ireland are world-class at growing grass."
And while much weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth greeted the arrival of multiples like Tesco, Sainsbury's and Asda to Northern Ireland, Michele believes the supermarket bosses opened our eyes to what makes our food different.
They were au fait with the food specialities of Wales, Scotland and regions like Yorkshire, but they needed to see for themselves the quirks and qualities of our produce, she says. "They realised that we have a different food culture here, as they hadn't understood regional breads, traybakes and apple tarts."
The Great Taste Awards provided another platform for boosting our confidence. Moira butcher George McCartney was named a Supreme Champion in the awards programme by the Guild of Fine Food in 2011, an accolade bestowed on now-famous meat producer Peter Hannan, also located in Moira, a year later. Punjana maker Thompson Teas has won more Great Taste Awards than any other company in Britain.
And the food industry is a pleasurable one to be in. Michele says: "People who are doing it, are doing it because they love it. Food brings people together - you only have to watch people coming into our pavilion at the Balmoral Show and watch them talk about what they are doing."
As for a Death Row meal featuring the best produce from here, there'd be "a wee Shortcross gin (distilled near Crossgar, Co Down), followed by a meal of Peter Hannan salt chamber steak, Roy Lyttle's leeks (Newtownards), Richard Orr's Comber potatoes, a Bramley apple pie and creme brulee - oh, and a cheeseboard, with the heel of a Nutty Krust loaf".
Next week, John Mulgrew meets retail specialist Alana Coyle of CBRE in Belfast's Coppi