How Patrice became hooked on our oysters - My feature in the News Letter on Patrice Bonnargent of Strangford Oysters

Patrice Bonnargent came to Northern Ireland from France to play rugby and ended up making his home in the tiny village of Clough in Co. Down. He had been playing rugby for Orleans, a French second tier club close to his home in Tours in the picturesque Loire Valley, renowned as the ‘Garden of France’, when he decided to join a club here. “Those where in the days before rugby in France became professional. Orleans was twinned with the club in Portadown, and I wanted to see what the game was like in Northern Ireland. I played hooker for the Co. Armagh club for six years and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I have a lot of good friends from those days,” he remembers.

He met Joy, his future wife, married and decided to set up home here. That was in 1991. He’s since become one of the stalwarts of the local seafood industry. It’s a business he developed almost by accident. “A good friend in Portadown approached me for advice about selling oysters and shellfish to France. I had a number of contacts and worked with him to develop a small export business. We’d buy shellfish from local suppliers in Kilkeel and export everything to customers that I’d lined up in France,” he says.

Food Feature for News Letter 31 May

He created the award winning Old Fermanagh Black Bacon and Traditional Fermanagh Corned Beef, both based on heritage recipes and widely acclaimed for their distinctive tastes. Now Pat O’Doherty, creator of both acclaimed products, is focused on raising the profile of the Black Pudding, another historic food that’s recently been ranked among the so called ‘superfoods’.

Pat Good
Pat Good

Owner of the famed O’Doherty’s Fine Meats in Enniskillen’s Belmore Street, Pat launched Ireland’s only Black Pudding Festival in 2012 as “a bit of an experiment” designed in particular to support tourism in the county. His enterprise has been rewarded this year in the shape of support for his fourth All Ireland Black Pudding Festival from the local council and top chefs such as internationally rated Noel McMeel of the Lough Erne Resort.

Hotels and restaurants across the county will be blending black puddings into original dishes during August. His love of heritage foods has also attracted the attention from UK celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Among the events being planned during the month-long festival is a major event at Castle Archdale that will feature a wide range of activities for the family including cooking demonstrations, artisan foods and traditional music. There’ll even be a competition for the public to come up with their own black puddings.

In Farm Week 7 July, Sam Butler looks at some recent innovations in the local food industry from both large and smaller companies which serve to highlight the creativity and customer focus underpinning Northern Ireland’s biggest manufacturing industry and key exporter. Smart ideas drive growth in vibrant food

High-end UK retailer Waitrose recently launched the first chicken products naturally enriched with healthy omega-3 with the help of Moy Park and Devenish Nutrition, two of Northern Ireland’s most successful and innovative food businesses.

A much smaller business at the forefront of innovation is Harnett’s Culinary Oils in Waringstown, Co. Down, a pioneer in the development of Hemp Oil that’s also rich in omegas 3 6 and 9 and was the first to launch rapeseed oil that’s now widely used by leading chefs here and in the Republic of Ireland. The company has also introduced an Irish sea salt, Duvillaun, harvested from a remote Atlantic island off the west coast of Ireland that is a natural condiment for seasoning dishes.

My feature on Christo Swanepoel of City Cheese in News Letter 24th May 2016

Winning Springbok flavours in Millisle cheese

Christo Swanepoel, a South African chef now resident in Northern Ireland, gained the top food award from Food NI at the recent RUAS show at Balmoral Park. It came as a bit of a surprise to the affable Springbok currently planning to expand his artisan business, City Cheese, in Millisle, Co. Down. “It was my first time to show my cheeses at Balmoral,” he says. “I took a stand in the Food Pavilion to get feedback from local people about the cheeses and didn’t really expect to be named as the Overall Best Food Product. It was a complete shock, a wonderful boost for my fledgling business,” he adds.

Christo Swanepoel
Christo Swanepoel

Christo gained the award for a raw milk cheese, Young Culmore, that he crafts using milk from an organic farm in Londonderry. He describes it as “a Dutch Gouda style cheese with a rich creamy taste”. The South African is part of a cluster of artisan cheese producers making an impact particularly with food writers and chefs. The group includes Julie Hickey, a Bostonian handcrafting Alpine Emmental style cheese and another washed in craft ale in Dungiven. Then there’s Portaferry native Paul McClean with his Kearney Blue, Mike Thomson in Newtownards, the artisan behind Young Blue blue cheese, and Leggygowan Goat’s Cheese from Adam Kelly on the family farm in Saintfield. Resident here with wife Angelique and their five young children for six years, Christo Swanepoel is bringing the distinctive flavours of his native South Africa and especially the Dutch influences there to local cheese.

My feature of L'Artisan Foods in News Letter 14 June 2016

Jose Andre set up in business in Portadown with just £20 in his wallet! Today the small enterprise he started in 2013, L’Artisan Foods, has become an award winning producer of Portuguese influenced patisserie and savoury quiches and Coxinha, Brazilian chicken fritters, favoured by street food venders in Rio de Janeiro and other cities that are proving increasingly popular with cafes and delis across Northern Ireland.

Jose Andre
Jose Andre

He’s also attracting interest from leading delis in Dublin. Runner up recently in the first Food Heartland Awards run by Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon councils, L’Artisan Foods has also won three Great Taste Awards from the influential UK Guild of Fine Food for his quiches and natas, richly flavoured Portuguese egg custard tarts. “Setting up in business here was quite a risk. While I’d been thinking about it for some time, the decision still came as a bit of a shock to Lucia, my wife, and daughter Camilla,” he remembers.

Sam Butler talked to Malaysia’s culinary ambassador Datuck Chef Wan during his recent visit to Northern Ireland hosted by NI Connections.

Top Asian chef has recipe for food growth Malaysian celebrity chef Redzuawan Ismail, better known as Chef Wan, spent three hours with Krazibaker Mark Douglas in Dromore, Co Down learning how to make local favourites soda bread and potato farls. “Chef Wan found making bread with potatoes in particular quite an experience. It’s not something they do in Malaysia or other parts of Asia,“ says Mark, who also runs Northern Ireland’s only bakery school. “He was fascinated by the whole process and really seemed to enjoy the taste of the warm griddle breads he baked with lashings of our own Abernethy Butter.

Chef Wan
Chef Wan

“Chef Wan had tried the breads at breakfast in the local hotels he was staying and was keen to see how they are made and baked. I hope he will continue making the breads back home in Malaysia. I’d certainly be happy to fly out to Malaysia to give him a hand!” he adds. The affable Chef Wan was here as a guest of NI Connections, a not for profit organisation that’s backed by Invest NI and local business to build business and other links with people worldwide with an affinity to Northern Ireland. Andrew Cowan of NI Connections met the celebrity chef, who hosts a hugely popular television food show, at a food event in Frankfurt and seized the opportunity to invite the influential chef to visit Northern Ireland as the organisation’s guest.

He enlisted Food NI to pull together a programme of visits to artisan food processors and leading chefs. “I was delighted to accept when NI Connections invited me to Northern Ireland especially at this time when you are celebrating food and drink. I’d never been to Northern Ireland before and really knew little about your food. Of course, I’d heard about Guinness and Irish Stew particularly at St Patrick’s Day in Kuala Lumpur but not much about what is currently being produced here,” Chef Wan told me during the interview. “

I now know that Northern Ireland produces some wonderfully tasty food and drink. The landscape here is superb, the soil very fertile and the people extremely welcoming. I’ve met a host of conscientious producers and many wonderfully talented chefs who provided a series of outstanding dishes. I was taken with what companies like Mash Direct are doing with vegetables and potatoes. “I’ve enjoyed superb beef, fish, seafood and vegetables that deserve much wider recognition, and I will be featuring many of these in my forthcoming television programmes in Asia. I believe there are opportunities for these products in global markets including Asia,” he adds.

Born in Singapore, he was impressed by the initiative of leading local chef Michael Deane to showcase Northern Ireland food during a week-long and hugely successful stint at the St Regis Hotel in Bangkok. “He told me how much he had enjoyed cooking in Bangkok and the very positive response the dishes had received from diners including leading Asian bankers and food writers. I’d certainly encourage others to follow this example and take their original dishes using local food and drink to a wider international market,” he continues.

“I’ve organised Malaysian Kitchens in many parts of the world to promote Asian cuisine and I don’t see why there shouldn’t be a great many more Northern Ireland food culinary events worldwide. Northern Ireland has particularly strong links with the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. You should be exploiting these links through your food and drink. “Cuisine evenings there would be a great way to promote Northern Ireland’s culinary skills as well as its food and drink. It would encourage both tourism and exports. It seems to me that NI Connections is doing an impressive job in building links worldwide to the benefit Northern Ireland.” The 58 year old was speaking from experience.

He turned to promoting Asian food worldwide from an early career as an accountant and was subsequently recruited by the government in Kuala Lumpur to promote Malaysian and other South Asian East food in global markets. As well as promoting food from the region Chef Wan features a wide range of cuisine and culinary skills in his television programmes. He’s now a household name in Asia with more than 20 years of experience in the industry and is known for his flamboyant sense of style. His skills range from chef, author and actor to TV host and publisher.

He was also the first celebrity to be bestowed the title of 'Datuk' by Malaysia’s head of state in February 2010. This was followed by his appointment as 'Culinary Ambassador' by Tourism Malaysia. “Northern Ireland has so much to offer. The food is incredible, the land rich and the people are very warm and friendly. You have talented chefs producing great dishes. You need to show the world just how outstandingly tasty your food and drink really is,” he adds

Farm Week 2 June 2016

Sam Butler talked to Fiona Lydon of Seriously Juicy Detox Juices in Newtownbutler, Co Fermanagh, a recently established small business producing raw vegetable and fruit blended juices.

Fiona Lydon found starting a small business helped her to overcome postnatal depression following the birth of her second child. It led the Fermanagh woman to turn an interest in healthy fruit and vegetable juices into Seriously Juicy, a start up business. “I desperately needed something to focus on,” she says. “I know starting a business is not for every woman facing the condition but it worked for me. It gave me something to concentrate on as well as looking after the baby.”

Fiona Lydon
Fiona Lydon

Before her two young children were born, Fiona had seen the growth in fruit and veggie-blends of so called detox juices while working as a nanny in Boston. She was in the US with husband Colm, a construction contractor. The couple spent around a decade in Boston, where Fiona shopped regularly at health stores including the iconic Whole Foods Market. “I saw the developing trend there towards detox juices that were marketed as being healthy because of the blend of veggies such as kale, celery, spinach with fruits including apple and lemon,” she adds. Starting a business developing such products wasn’t on her agenda back then. ”

13 May 2016

Artisan cheese maker Christo Swanepoel has won the coveted Best Overall Food Product at the recent Balmoral Show, the biggest agri-food event in Ireland. Originally from Pretoria in South Africa, Swanepoel, who runs the City Cheese Company in Millisle, county Down, gained the award from promotion body Food NI for his Young Culmore, a semi-hard organic cheese made from raw milk sourced from an organic farm in county Derry.

Christo Swnepoel

Swanepoel, commenting on the top award at the show, says: “This is marvellous recognition from the industry for my work to create a portfolio of original cheeses which I hope to export. I’ve already had serious approaches from retailers in the Republic of Ireland and even The Netherlands for my cheeses. “I launched the products to meet a gap in the market for Dutch-style artisan cheeses and have been immensely encouraged by feedback from consumers and retailers. This award encourages me to push ahead with plans to boost sales of existing cheeses and to create new ones,” he adds.

A gourmet chef, Swanepoel has been based in Northern Ireland for over five years. He’s launched three quite different cheeses under the overall identity of his business, City Cheese. All the cheeses reflect the influence of the Dutch who contributed greatly to the food business in South Africa. They are based on research over the past two years into cheese production and market opportunities for artisan products. The cheeses are the award winning Young Culmore, a traditional Dutch Gouda style creamy cheese that’s named after the Derry dairy farm which supplies his organic raw milk; Angelique, a Parmesan style cheese that he’s named after his wife; and Pitjes klaas, a rich, nutty and creamy taste of South Africa that uses cumin seeds for a distinctive nutty flavour. “The artisan sector is tremendously exciting in Northern Ireland,” he says.

“There are some wonderful producers with great passion for premium and innovative food and drink. I’ve seen the sector develop rapidly over the past five years, and I am delighted to be a part of it and to work alongside so many creative people at farmers’ markets around the country. The ingredients, especially milk, that are readily available here are superb, wholesome, healthy and safe,” he adds. “Many people really don’t fully appreciate the quality and variety of food and drink that’s now on offer in Northern Ireland. “I started making samples of different styles of cheese for friends to taste. The feedback was immensely positive,” he says.

“Cheese-making is an important and developing sector in both South Africa and Holland, and I grew up enjoying cheese there. There’s also been a major transformation in artisan cheese in South Africa in recent years.” The decision to use raw milk was influenced by his conviction that it offers a much richer flavour. “To me, raw milk cheeses are more delicious and contain natural enzymes that infuse cheese with natural, deeper and exciting flavours. “My supplier understands milk and runs a dairy unit to the highest hygiene standards using robotic milking machines. His organic milk is wholesome, healthy and safe,” he explains. “And it helps me to create unique cheeses with outstanding taste.”