Column by Michele Shirlow for Farm Week
The good news for potato lovers is that the quality of New Season Comber Earlies, one of our three EU protected foods, is excellent and they are already in the shops. Our potato processing members are expecting a good season…and they deserve a decent return on their investment in time and other resources. This sets us up well for the annual Comber Earlies Food Festival on Saturday, now among the most successful and enjoyable of local food festivals.
Held in the square and the car park of St Mary’s Church of Ireland, the event attracts thousands of people from across County Down and Belfast who have an opportunity to sample the very best of local food and drink being handcrafted largely by dozens of artisan firms, most of them Food NI members.
This year the festival is hosting a delegation from the Mayor of Qrendi in Malta. Qrendi is a region which also celebrates its local potatoes and artisan foods. It’s highly encouraging that the council is collaborating internationally and comparing and contrasting how we promote the local produce of each region.
There’s also plenty to entertain youngsters visiting the show and lots of delicious street food. Plus an opportunity to see demonstrations from Paula McIntyre, Lucas Hollweg, Danny Millar and to spot Charles Campion who will be circulating among the crowd.
The historic Comber Early, harvested from farms within the area, of course, is the main attraction. It’s an important celebration which is helping to revive interest in earlies, the first of locally grown tubers, and potatoes in general. It’s an event I enjoy enormously and one Food NI has supported from the very start.
What’s also important about the annual festival is the focus it provides on how companies here are using potatoes to come up with innovative products that make it easier than ever before to include these in meals at home. Restaurants are also including Combers in their dishes and listing the potatoes on their menus, a practice we’ve been working strenuously through imaginative initiatives such as our chefs’ steering group, to encourage.
This practice is hugely important because it helps to create awareness of the variety of tasty food and drink now being produced here by an ever growing network of creative businesses, many of them deeply rooted on the family farms that we committed to promote and support in our Taste the Greatness strategic action plan for the growth of our most important industry over the next five years.
The Comber Earlies Food Festival is also the first in a series of similar events celebrating the quality and provenance of our excellent food and drink. The other EU protected foods – Lough Neagh Eels and Armagh Bramley Apples – will also be showcased over the summer and early autumn.
They are all worthy of your support, because the future of these and other local food and drink products is heavily dependent on support from local consumers. Comber Earlies certainly deserve as much popular support as possible, because growing the potatoes, to ensure they are available early in the summer, is expensive and margins tight. As a result, the number of growers has been declining over recent years and there are now fewer than 20 farms producing earlies. Reversing this decline is essential to protect this iconic local food.