Article written by Michele Shirlow, featured in Farm Week
Food and drink firms here will have to move quickly if they want their products to be considered in this year’s Great Taste Awards, the most important event in the industry’s calendar.
While entries close officially at midnight on 22nd February, the UK Guild of Fine Food, organisers of this widely acclaimed competition may close the door earlier if they reach their cap of 10,000 products submitted….and 8,000 entries from most parts of the British Isles and other European regions have already been received by the Guild.
Entry costs should be well within the reach of even the smallest local company – £48 (plus VAT) per product for firms with a turnover of less than £1 million.
Why should you consider entering the event? The Great Taste Awards is certainly the most influential food and drink competition in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and other parts of Europe. It’s a magnet for buyers from virtually all the leading retailers – from high-end stores such as Harrods and Fortnum and Mason to the multiples, independents and delis.
Great Taste Gold Stars have proved the route to retail success for many local companies, including artisan enterprises, over the past five years. And we’ve also got a great record in terms of gold stars achieved. We’ve twice captured the Supreme Award twice in the past five years – McCartney’s Butchers and Deli in Moira for its superb silverside corned beef and Hannan Meats, also based in Moira, for its richly flavoured and versatile Guanciale.
Local companies have also fared exceptionally well in the top category – three stars which often leads to a listing in the Top 50 Foods. As well as McCartney’s and Hannan Meats, other local companies gaining three stars include Ewing Seafood in Belfast, Baronscourt Venison in Omagh, Suki Tea and Co Couture, both also based in Belfast, and En Place in Cookstown.
Even those companies which don’t achieve the coveted gold star status benefit from the feedback about their products from the panel of food and drink experts including eminent food writers, food stylists and retailers. It’s the expert advice from experienced foodies that can help businesses to adapt existing products or come up with original ideas. I’ve seen companies failing to gain a star or stars in competition that have tweaked their products using the feedback and struck gold the following year.
I must acknowledge the successes of local artisan companies in the recent Dublin Craft Beer and Cider Festival, the most important event of its type on the island of Ireland. Winning silver medals in this hotly contested competition were MacIvor’s Cider from Portadown and the recently launched Mourne Mountains Craft Brewery in Warrenpoint. Three bronze medals were won by Long Meadow Cider in Loughall, winner of two medals, and Tempted Ciders from Lisburn. We have an immensely successful cider sector which has won praise from influential food writers because of its use of pure apple juice, including local Bramleys, rather then the concentrates used in so many other regions.
Brewing and Distilling, of course, is the Year of Food and Drink theme for April. There’ll be a host of events to celebrate our expertise in both especially ciders and the output from the 26 or more craft breweries that now exist here.
James Huey of Walled City Brewery in Derry has been creating beers for each month such as Snout for Breakfast Month with bacon flavours and, more recenty Love Local for February’s focus on all things local.
We’ve also a fast growing distilling sector which has long been anchored by Old Bushmills, the world’s oldest licensed whiskey distillery. We’ve now Shortcross Gin in Crossgar, Lisburn’s RubyBlue Irish Potato Vodka and Echlinville Irish Whiskey in Kircubbin. Niche Drinks is also planning a whiskey distillery in Derry for its Quiet Man and other products and Belfast Distillery is aiming to produce whiskey at the historic Crumlin Road gaol.
We’ve certainly a great deal to celebrate. It would be good too if the licensing laws could be modernised – as Hospitality Ulster is proposing – to ensure greater opportunities for visitors to savour what’s now being brewed and distilled here.