Why we love Christmas gifts that offer a real Northern Ireland experience
Instead of simple material gifts, there's a rising trend for buying presents that offer something very different. Stephanie Bell talks to three NI food and drink creatives who offer adventures that everyone will love.
‘We brew more than 200 beers ... it’s about taking pride in the city and giving tourists a taste they can’t get anywhere else’
If you are stuck for an idea for a Christmas present for the special man in your life then James Huey of Walled City Brewery may have the perfect gift.
And while it tends to be largely men who enjoy learning to brew their own beer at his Walled City Brewery in Londonderry, the courses do attract their fair share of females.
James (42), who runs the business with his wife, Louise (42), trained as a brewer with Guinness for 12 years before returning home to his native Derry to open his own beer-making plant.
Based in Ebrington Square, the Walled City Brewery is a multi-award-winning restaurant, as well as a brew house.
The ethos behind the business is to provide both locals and tourists with a "taste of the North West" through crafting local, authentic, premium, flavoursome beer and food.
James has also developed the business to offer the public a chance to immerse themselves in a beer masterclass or enrol on the Homebrew Academy, a day-long course on the art of home beer making.
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Derry features heavily in the beers James crafts and new flavours named after some famous people and events in the city are constantly on offer. One is named Stitch, in tribute to the city's shirt-making history, and another is named after the hit TV series, Derry Girls.
"We brew more than 200 different beers and have 10 taps with our own craft beers," he says. "For me, it is all about the provenance and keeping the city at the forefront. It's about taking pride in the city and also it allows tourists to taste beers they can't get anywhere else."
James, who is father to Lola (6) and Alfie (4), wanted to open his brewery for the enjoyment of others and introduced his now very popular courses. The Homebrew Academy is a day-long course which teaches everything you need to know to make your own beer at home.
You get to brew a new flavour or one of the company's craft beers and take home a gallon of what you make at the end of the day. This popular gift is available in three packages, costing £70, £80 and £130.
The beer masterclass, an hour-long experience which costs £20, takes people through the ancient history of beer making and allows them to sample beer as it would have tasted down through the ages.
The samples are accompanied by snacks that have all been made up from produce which comes from within just a couple of miles of the city.
"The Homebrew Academy is aimed at people who are really interested in making their own beer and the masterclass offers a bite-sized chunk and is very popular," James explains.
"Both make a great wee present, especially for guys who are difficult to buy for. For us, it was important to provide an experience and if you have an experience, it creates a memory which lasts."
- For more information, visit www.wallcitybrewery.com
'A hands-on experience is more memorable and people love the nostalgia of baking bread the traditional way'
Tracey Jeffery is the baking maestro behind Tracey's Farmhouse Kitchen, a traditional Irish bread-making experience set in her own family cottage on the shores of Strangford Lough.
A former language teacher, Tracey's love of baking began when she spent a gap year after university in southern France, where she honed her pastry skills working in a patisserie.
Bringing her baking to local farmers' markets over the years led to a new business idea and the launch of Northern Ireland Food Tours two years ago.
Her own bread making was one element of the tours which proved so popular that a year ago, Tracey set up another new business specialising in bread baking at her thatched 18th century cottage.
Now her weekly sessions are booked out months in advance and gift vouchers are being snapped up for special Christmas gifts.
Tracey is married to Joe, a landscape gardener, and lives in Killinchy with their two boys, Joseph (15) and Matthew (12), in their picture book cottage, which has been lovingly restored by Joe.
Tracey explains that the micro climate in the Strangford area is a bonus for food producers and restaurants.
"This gave me the idea for the food tour and also because I love meeting people," she says.
"An hour of the tour involves stopping at my house to make some traditional bread and have coffee.
"The bread baking really took off and I realised that is where my passion is - I set up Tracey's Farmhouse Kitchen a year ago and it has grown really quickly. In fact it has exceeded expectations.
"For me, it is about making sure people have a brilliant experience.
"They love the immersive, hands-on chance to bake in a real family home.
"They come in and the table is laden with my homemade food - and before we start baking, they will have some fruit bannock straight out of the oven.
"Then it is aprons on and we bake soda bread, treacle soda, wheaten bread and potato bread on the griddle. Just like the traditional way which people remember their mums and grannies using, we don't measure anything out.
"We then sit down at my big farmhouse table and eat some of the bread with homemade jams and a selection of traybakes or crumble that I have baked. They then get to take a bag of what they have baked home with them."
Local people and tourists come together in Tracey's kitchen to learn from her and she says her baking sessions are popular with all ages - and with men as well as women.
"I think for most people, a hands-on experience is more memorable as a gift and there is great nostalgia for local people being able to make the bread the traditional way," she says.
"My gift vouchers are really popular with men who want to buy them for their mums or sisters. The beauty of them is that husbands and wives can also do it together, so it is a great gift for couples."
- A two-and-a-half hour baking experience costs £50. For more information, visit www.traceysfarmhousekitchen.com
'Everyone who goes on my Catch and Sea trip says they will never forget it - they are looking for something unique'
Wendy Gallagher from Coleraine runs Catch and Sea, a hands-on foodie experience which includes fishing at sunrise and then cooking your catch for breakfast.
Wendy who is married to Paul (48) and has two children, Lucy (12) and Andrew (6), grew up on the Causeway coast in Bushmills.
Most of her career has been spent teaching travel and tourism, but this changed in 2012 when she was invited by Tourism NI to devise a new training course for local people in the industry.
"That year (2012) was a big year for tourism in Northern Ireland as we had the opening of the new Giant's Causeway Visitors Centre and the Titanic Centre, and news that the Irish Open was coming here," she says.
"Tourism NI was keen to make sure that they had a globally recognised visitor service programme in place and I became a world host to deliver training in the industry.
"It got me back into it and made me realise that I missed it."
It was after delivering a food ambassador course in 2016 that Wendy came up with the idea for Catch and Sea, which she launched the same year.
"I grew up by the sea and wanted to do something with the sea - and I also love food," she says.
"Our coastline is absolutely stunning when you see it from the sea. I just figured that most people don't know what kind of seafood is in the ocean, on our doorstep, and so the idea was born.
"Catch and Sea is a unique, sunrise breakfast fishing tour designed, marketed and sold by myself in conjunction with local fishing boat operators and chefs.
"As well as offering people a totally different perspective of our stunning coastline, it brings to life stories about our local landmarks, legends, wildlife, traditions, food heritage and people.
"We set out at around 6am and when you come round the coast at Ramore Head and start to see that glow of the sun rising over Dunluce Castle, it is truly breathtaking. The stillness at that time of the morning is beautiful and the air is so clear and fresh. It is so peaceful that you don't think about anything else other than being in the moment."
Everyone on board the local fishing boat gets a rod and until now no one has returned to shore without a catch.
Wendy has teamed up with Portrush artisan coffee shop Babushka to cook the fresh fish and serve it for breakfast along with the finest local produce.
"The breakfast experience illustrates the true meaning of 'our place on a plate', showcasing what Northern Ireland produce can offer," she says.
"Guests indulge in what many say is the freshest breakfast they've ever eaten, with a beautifully presented, healthy plate of local food.
"For example, their freshly caught mackerel can be served on Ursa Minor sourdough bread (from Ballycastle) baked only hours previously, spread with gorgeous Abernethy butter, topped with crispy shards of Broughgammon Farm goat bacon and a softly poached Ballycastle free range egg, seasoned with a drizzle of Broighter Gold rapeseed oil, North Coast Smokehouse smoked sea-salt and dulse."
As well as locals who holiday on the Causeway coast, Wendy's tours have attracted visitors from all over the world. They have become so popular she plans to add two additional tours next year, from Portstewart and Ballycastle.
As Christmas approaches, gift vouchers are already selling fast as people snap up the £60 trip as a special gift for a loved one.
"Last year I really noticed an increase in voucher sales and was selling them right up until lunch time on Christmas Eve," she reveals.
"Everyone who takes part says they will never forget it and that's what people are hoping to give their loved ones - something unique and memorable."
- For more information, visit www.causewaycoastfoodietours.com/catch-and-sea