Showcase year for the best of Northern Ireland food
One of the key aims of the Year of Food and Drink was to put the quality of our local food and drink at the centre of the tourism experience.
To simply say that we achieved our aim is to underplay the fantastic success of the many events and festivals which took place over the last 12 months. They celebrated everything from apples and eels, to whisky and beer, and created hugely entertaining attractions for thousands of visitors and locals alike.
Month by month, up and down the country, festivals and food events gave us the opportunity to tell our visitors - and remind ourselves - about our traditional recipes, regional specialities and innovative, award-winning products.
And alongside the great tastes on offer was great entertainment, such as chef demonstrations, competitions, music, sport, cultural activities and family fun, creating first-class visitor experiences.
Among the plethora of festivals and food events, there were many stand-outs, not least October's first ever BBC Good Food Show Northern Ireland.
This major event welcomed 12,500 visitors through the doors during its three days and included cookery demonstrations from TV favourites Paul Hollywood, The Hairy Bikers and James Martin, and local chefs Paul Rankin and Paula McIntyre.
Northern Ireland was profiled throughout the show and the organisers were blown away by the response to it. I'm delighted to say we will be welcoming the BBC back in 2017 and 2018.
Northern Ireland's first ever Slow Food Festival in Derry/Londonderry was also a runaway success, attracting 25,000 people, while the Tesco Taste Festival in Belfast delivered a superb weekend of tasting, demonstrations, cookery tips and recipes using top local produce. There were also excellent celebrations of our three EU Protected Geographical Indication foods.
At the Richhill Apple Harvest Fayre in October there was a chance to enjoy Armagh Bramley Apples, while Comber Early Potatoes took centre stage in June.
The River to Lough Festival in Antrim Castle Gardens in July culminated in Eel-Eat Week, putting Lough Neagh Eel at the forefront of local menus.
Tourism NI directly supported 48 food events through its YOFD Tourism Event Funding Programme, and many other non-food events, such as the Clipper Race, benefited from a YOFD dimension. We also developed an event-specific toolkit to help organisers improve and enhance the food and drink experience offered at events, whether food focused or celebrating other passions.
Like every other aspect of the initiative, the success of the numerous festivals and events that took place during the year owes much to collaboration between a multitude of organisations and individuals.
This collaboration not only covered funding, but also created a common goal and a shared desire to create something memorable. I believe it produced a top-notch calendar of food and drink festivals and events from which it will be very hard to choose a Year of Food and Drink Awards winner.
Thanks to the success of YOFD, and its great food and drink festivals, the winner overall is Northern Ireland tourism.
John McGrillen is chief executive of Tourism NI
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