Michele Shirlow for Farm Week June 2018

What a privilege it was to be present at the presentation by Henderson Wholesale to Brian Irwin, chairman of Irwin’s Bakery of the Spar Fresh Innovation Outstanding Contribution to the Agri-Food Industry in Northern Ireland.

The recognition is richly deserved both in terms of Brian’s work with the family business, Northern Ireland’s largest independent bakery, and the wider community. Brian and brother Niall have developed the bakery into one of our most innovative and community engaged food businesses.

And it’s a business that is highly regarded as a developer of bread and cakes, the latter through its acquisition of Howell House. Many of its products, especially the renowned Knutty Krust, are now the preferred choice of shoppers here seeking consistently high quality and tasty bread. His work with celebrity chef Paul Rankin, furthermore, has enhanced awareness of traditional Northern Irish breads and led to outstanding success in Britain and it was great to see Irwin’s achieve awards in the inaugural Irish Soda Bread category at the World Bread Awards.

The bakery was among the first to win business in Britain for its products through providing superb services to all the main supermarkets.

Brian’s contribution extends well beyond his role in the bakery. He is a valued and enthusiastic member of the Food NI board and has worked with us to support the development of smaller food and drink companies. He has been at the forefront of the important and successful Food Heartland initiative developed by Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council, a campaign to promote the growth of smaller producers which Food NI is also supporting. I’ve come to value immensely Brian’s wise counsel, practical support and encouragement

And many other community-based schemes and charities have benefited from his encouragement.

Spar’s decision to refresh the awards, announced annually during Balmoral Show, with an emphasis on innovation, helped showcase the creativity and marketing focus that underpins the local food and drink industry. I understand that the expert judges were highly impressed by the scale and quality of entries from producers, both large and small and across most product categories. Many of the successful companies in the awards, I am delighted to report, are also active Food NI members.

The quality of local producers and products was also recognised in other recent awards. Three of our members gained major awards in the International Cider Challenge – Tempted of Lisburn, a Trophy winner, along with Long Meadow, Loughgall and Kilmegan from Dundrum. Congratulations to all three. Their achievements reinforce the growing global reputation of our cider industry.

Walled City Brewery in Derry, in addition, was named the Northern Ireland winner in the influential UK Pub and Bar Awards. Furthermore, upwards of 20 products from 14 companies, all smaller enterprises, were recently shortlisted in the Produce Awards run by the prestigious Delicious magazine, the UK’s biggest selling consumer food magazine, a competition which offers extensive coverage in Britain.

Another important boost for our industry is the decision by celebrity chef Mark Hix to showcase Glenarm Shorthorn beef from Co Antrim during his Food Rocks festival at Lyme Regis in Dorset. Hix, a longstanding and very influential customer for Peter Hannan’s superb Glenarm beef aged in the world’s biggest complex of Himalayan salt chambers, has set up a unique Glenarm Estate Supper Club, a marvellous endorsement of the outstanding taste of beef produced by Peter Hannan, another Food NI member and an outstanding pioneer of innovative food.