Northern Ireland products taste success with coveted three stars at major food awards
Eight Northern Irish food producers have been listed among the top winners of the 2019 Great Taste Awards.
A total of 179 food or drink products made here were plucked by judges from a record-breaking long list of 12,772 entries, sourced from 100 countries.
But just eight Northern Ireland products attracted the coveted three-star rating from the Guild of Fine Food.
They include Millbay Oysters from Rooney Fish; Neill's soda bread flour; Whitewater Brewery's Kreme dela Kremlin stout; The Little Bakehouse in Dromore, Co Down's courgette, lime and pistachio cake, and Hannan Meats' sugar pit bone in bacon loin.
However, one Northern Ireland former chef features three times in the top rating.
Lisburn native Paul Clarke has secured three stars for the apple and elderflower vinegar, made by his Cookstown-based company, En Place Foods.
A product produced by a second venture, set up with well-known Moira butcher Peter Hannan, is also on the list.
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Established in 2011, Craigavon-based Craic Foods secured the rating for its black garlic miso.
The artisan producer was also involved in the development of Portush-based Irish Black Butter Company's spread made with Armagh Bramley apples.
Paul and his partner Fiona Clarke's third business interest, a product development consultancy, worked with the butter firm's founder Alastair Bell to develop the sweet and savoury spread.
All eight products are now in the running for overall Northern Ireland winner and the Great Taste 2019 Supreme Champion, which will be announced at an awards dinner in the InterContinental Park Lane Hotel, London, on September 1.
A former head chef at Castle Leslie in Co Monaghan, where he cooked for Paul McCartney and Heather Mills' high-profile 2002 wedding, Paul Clarke said the new accolades represented a significant boost to his food manufacturing businesses.
"People will say its the food Oscars, it's one of the only awards we pay attention to. If you're a speciality food business, which we are, it's the one that counts," he said.
"We don't work with multiples, we tend to work with chefs. It's about quality over quantity. My background is as a chef, and its who I want to work with."
Leaving his career as a chef behind in 2002, Mr Clarke moved into food manufacturing and set up En Place Foods in the Food Business Incubation Centre's CAFRE's Loughry campus.
He's now looking forward to heading to London next month to network with new customers.
"It helps with sales and exposure, especially with Craic Foods, as we're a start-up," he said.
"Great Taste brings the right type of exposure and hopefully the phone will start ringing."
Reacting to his win for Irish Black Butter, Alastair Bell described it as an important and influential endorsement.
"The award is hugely important to a small artisan business like Irish Black Butter with limited marketing resources because of the recognition it provides particularly in Britain, now developing into an immensely significant market for us.
"It will strengthen awareness of our original product there and support our marketing activities," he said. Developed from Armagh Bramley Apples, which have EU protected status, Irish Black Butter includes treacle, cider, brandy and spices for a cross between sweet and savoury.
Mr Bell said the accolade would be useful for his business.
"We are gaining business outside Northern Ireland for the product, which I market as 'a new taste of Ireland', but our marketing budget is tight and so any support from the likes of the Guild of Fine Foods is very encouraging."