Belfast Telegraph

How a journey Down Under led a couple to a smoking hot business idea

By Rachel Martin

A Co Antrim couple have set up a ready-to-eat smoked food business, inspired by their travels to New Zealand.

Husband and wife Ruaridh Morrison and Melanie Brown both lived in New Zealand, while Melanie also spent several years in Australia.

They've now set up the North Coast Smokehouse, which is based in the seaside town of Ballycastle.

The pair met in an Irish bar in New Zealand where smoking fish is a popular hobby. Ruaridh bought a smoker and taught himself the basics.

The couple mainly produce smoked salmon - but they've kept this off their branding to allow them to branch into different products as the business evolves.

Ruaridh, who is from the Scottish Hebrides, says he has always had an interest in marine biology and has also worked on a Scottish salmon farm.

He said: "One of the perks of the job, depending on whether you like fish or not, was that you got access to a lot of salmon as a food stuff.

"From time to time, healthy fish would jump out of the tanks overnight and those fish wouldn't have been able to be sold, so we would be able to do what we like with them."

Ruaridh worked for the New Zealand government in animal welfare and fish health. While in New Zealand, he and Melanie met and decided to marry.

However, when family illness struck, the couple came to live in Northern Ireland and decided they would stay in Ballycastle, Co Antrim, where Melanie grew up.

"At the time, the job market wasn't great so we decided we would set up a business here," Melanie said.

"Home smoking was quite popular there. Many New Zealanders would convert old fridges into smokers but it wasn't very common here and certainly not on the north coast.

"There were no other smokehouses in Northern Ireland so it was Ruaridh's idea to give it a go over here."

The couple began their business in 2013 travelling around Northern Ireland markets smoking salmon it front of customers and selling it hot.

Melanie added: "It was a form of market research and showed that it was really popular with the public. Even people who said they normally didn't like salmon really liked the hot smoked flavour.

"People are used to what they would describe as a bit of a slimy texture for smoked salmon and they would try ours and say, 'wow, I didn't realise it would be like that'.

"Because it's smoke roasted, it's got a different texture to the cold smoked salmon you would normally see here."

The pair decided to move the business into ready-to-eat foods. They worked with the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) outside Cookstown, to find the safest and most efficient ways to package the salmon, while also following the strict food safety restrictions surrounding ready-to-eat fish.

Melanie and Ruaridh also looked at ways they could increase production. However, trials at CAFRE didn't give the couple the quality of finish in the product they were looking for.

As a result they decided to remain small scale with the business.

Instead of compromising on quality, as a means of expanding, the couple have experimented smoking different foods.

Melanie grew up in Ballycastle and has always wanted to make use of some of the area's natural resources, so the couple also make smoked salt and smoked kelp.

The products are designed to be used instead of salt in cooking and baking and have been acclaimed by top Northern Ireland chefs including Paula McIntyre.

"Anywhere you would use salt you can use it, it just adds a more intense flavour," Melanie said.

The couple also work with other Co Antrim businesses and have paired up with Ursa Minor Bakery in Ballycastle which uses the smoked seasoning lines in some of its breads.

Belfast Telegraph