World Police and Fire Games: They're all hungry to be best in their field
Athletes aren't the only winners at the Police and Fire Games as local food firms show their skills too, says Joris Minne
When the going gets tough, the tough eat up. And when 7,000 emergency and uniformed workers from around the world need nourishment after a hard day's ice hockeying, diving, beach volleyballing, SWAT-ing or trying to become the Ultimate Firefighter at Belfast's World Police and Fire Games, they won't be reaching for a burger and chips. Rather, they'll be stocking up on Northern Ireland's finest meats, poultry, fruit and veg, fish and breads.
The London Olympics may have been sponsored by McDonald's but Belfast's World Police and Fire Games are backed by some of Northern Ireland's best artisan food producers, restaurants and retailers. Food NI, which represents the interests of dozens of top local food firms, took the unusual step of becoming a key sponsor of the World Police and Fire Games because, as its leader Michele Shirlow outlines, food is our thing now.
"Markets around the world are waking up to the fact that Northern Ireland produce is world class and, at home, shoppers have become more and more sophisticated in their knowledge of food," says Michele.
"Because there are more than 60 participating countries in this year's games we felt that positioning Northern Ireland's food centrally as part of a sponsorship deal would reinforce the message both at home and internationally that we grow, breed and make the best food in the world," she says.
The logistics of feeding 7,000 athletes, their families, supporters and spectators have been carefully laid out and the four main Belfast venues – the King's Hall, Mary Peters Track, Queen's University and the Athletes' Village in Custom House Square – are served by a variety of food stands, some of them run by the city's top restaurants including James Street South and Coppi.
Other venues around Northern Ireland are also being sustained by Northern Ireland food producers at the East Strand in Portrush, Ballykinler, Kilbroney Park, Donard Park, Ballyholme, Bangor Sportsplex and many other locations.
"The Athletes' Village in Custom House Square in Belfast is the social hub of the games," says Michele. "We have been expecting 3,000 people every day at the village and they are able to choose from Foodie Folk Titanic Burgers, Wild Hog hot sandwiches, Thai and Malaysian food from Happy Angel, beautiful home-made pies from Jolly Pies and some fine Glastry Farm ice cream."
Bruce's Hill Farm outside Ballyclare – which has won many awards for its outstanding beef – is also participating in the games. The farm is sponsoring the rugby at the Dub playing fields in Malone. Michele says Northern Ireland's international reputation for excellent food started with beef.
"The rugby players require high-grade protein and you can't really get much better than pulled Dexter beef and Round House Angus burgers," she says.
Carbs play a critical role in long distance and long haul sports and athletes won't be relying on pasta alone. Sizzler's from Magherafelt will be serving up mounds of fresh creamy champ with roast lamb or ham.
The opportunity for some of Northern Ireland's tiniest food producers has been picked up by businesses throughout the province, stretching as far as Derry/Londonderry.
Pyke and Pommes near Derry city will be at Longfields while Wild Hog of Maghera have a central presence at the Athletes' Village in Belfast.
Indian Nights Inn of Magherafelt, Linwoods of Armagh and Fosters, the chocolate people from Portadown, are all in the mix, helping shape Northern Ireland's international face as the home of wholesome food and good cooking. And to prove we're not stuck in a conventional time warp, Broughgammon Farm has come up with Billy Burritos and Kid Kebabs for the surfers at East Strand in Portrush.
What's so special about that, you ask? They're all made from goat meat! With fuel like that, these athletes are bound to break a few records.
Michele says the food sector has been through a series of public relations nightmares in recent years: the horse meat scandal was only the last of a sequence which saw Northern Ireland's pork and beef industries come under intense scrutiny. "The World Police and Fire Games provide an unusual and unique shop window for our produce," she says. "And the fact that we have had such strong buy-in and support from participating producers and restaurants is a major indication of what potential lies in Northern Ireland's food industry."