Working Lunch: 'The Fat Duck was a turning point, it put us on the map'
Allison Abernethy tells Margaret Canning about the journey of her family butter from vintage shows to the kitchens of celebrity chefs
It's one of our best-known artisan food success stories, with a string of Great Taste Awards under its belt. And after a hectic Christmas with 2,000 rolls of butter sent across to England and Scotland every two days, Abernethy Butter's Allison is ready to wind down with a light lunch in Cafe Vaudeville.
She's been running the business with husband Will for around six years, and they now count many of Northern Ireland and Great Britain's best-known restaurants among their customers.
Cafe Vaudeville is a client - and our arrival prompts head chef Damian to send over a complimentary platter of breads.
If this is what it means to have lunch with an artisan food producer during the Northern Ireland Year of Food, I love it already.
We pick a simple lunch - a crispy chicken wrap with hummus, feta and spinach for me and chicken and chorizo with manchego cheese on ciabatta for Allison.
Allison sticks to water, while it's Diet Coke for me.
The mother-of-two reminisces about the origins of the dairy delicacy, produced at their Dromore farm using traditional methods that are much slower than mass-production techniques.
The butter is hand-churned and patted into its distinctive lined rolls, then wrapped in greaseproof and brown paper with the distinctive Abernethy Butter brand label.
"My father Norman Kerr had an interest in butter-churning as a hobby and he used to go around the agricultural and vintage shows to demonstrate it," she says.
"He was ill one year so Will and I went to do it instead.
"Someone looked at it and said, why don't you sell it instead? So it all started from there. No-one else was doing it so we just thought we'd give it a go, and we're still the only hand-made butter retailing across the UK."
One fateful day, a chef at Heston Blumenthal's famous Fat Duck restaurant in Bray in England appealed for a new butter supplier - unfortunately an existing deal fell through after the supplier's marriage broke up.
Allison and Will leapt to the challenge - and Heston B became the first in a long-line of celebrity chefs to buy Abernethy butter. "That was a real turning point. The Fat Duck really put us on the map." Despite a reputation for innovations such as snail porridge and liquid nitrogen ice-cream, Heston hasn't tampered with the purity of their product, which comes in plain, smoke and dulse and sea salt varieties.
The success the firm had tasted with Heston prompted Allison to give up her day job as a nurse and join Will full-time in the dairy operation. And other chefs followed suit, including MasterChef's Marcus Wareing, and closer to home, Derek Creagh of the Salty Dog and Michael Deane.
As well as the restaurant deals, they are stocked in retailers like Sawers and Arcadia and high-end grocer to the Queen, Fortnum & Mason. And Allison is happy with limiting their retail reach to small independents. "We like to think we are supporting small operators like ourselves. And if we had a deal with someone like Waitrose or M&S, we couldn't maintain our production technique of doing everything by hand."
Word of mouth has spread rapidly among the restaurateurs and independent shops so advertising isn't a priority. But she has adapted to using Twitter to spread the word. "The kids sorted me out on Twitter and Facebook so now I'm a bit of a Twitter fiend."
She's now a champion for other artisan producers - and their wares - including meat merchant Peter Hannan.
But she admits: "Will and I weren't really into food before this happened and were just simple eaters. It was steak and chips for us all the way."
As for the future, "we'll keep going because we enjoy it".
"We love people and we've even been to Downing Street as part of a Defra reception for 50 food companies from all across the UK. If I'd still been nursing I'd never have gotten to do that."
Cafe Vaudeville, Arthur Street, Belfast
Crispy chicken wrap: £6.50
Diet Coke: £2.20
Chicken and chorizo ciabatta: £6.00