A new tour of County Down is capturing the very essence of the Year of Food and Drink by placing local produce and producers at the heart of the visitor experience.
NI Food Tours, which is currently in its final test stages, is the brainchild of Tracey Jeffery, a qualified teacher, trainer and patissier. Passionate about local produce and the landscapes of County Down, Tracey previously studied for a French degree in France and went on to work in a patisserie. After bringing that expertise back home she became a producer of macarons and fine patisserie and whilst building that business around her home in Killinchy unearthed her latest idea.
“When I took my produce to market I was visiting local farmers’ markets and events and came to realise very quickly that we have amazing producers,” she said. “In this part of north County Down we also have the highest concentration of award-winning restaurants and I just thought ‘wouldn’t it be amazing for people to be taken on a journey around all of these fantastic things’? To be able to hear their story and connect with them on that level, to eat in our fabulous restaurants and sample our local produce? It’s about trying to offer people a very different but authentic experience.”
Crucial to her idea is the beauty of the surrounding landscape, through the famous drumlins of the county to the nearby sea and lough shores.
“I am combining the stunning scenery of the 115 miles of coastline of Strangford Lough and I’m covering some of St Patrick’s Trail in what will be comfortable coach tours. We won’t be out walking but will be driven from place to place in among the drumlins which provide some of the most beautiful scenery in the country.”
Tracey initially plans to offer three tours, one down either side of the lough and a Chocolate Ecstasy tour, the first of which will take place in March. That ‘light-hearted’ tour of Down’s ‘amazing chocolatiers’, will be layered with visits to restaurants with signature chocolate dishes as well as sessions in chocolate workshops. The fishing tradition of the area also provides a natural focus with visits to Kilkeel and Annalong part of the ‘lough’ itineraries.
“We’ll look at the smoking and curing traditions which will be explained by fisherman and local experts down around the harbours in our local fishing villages. They’ll not only be showing us skills such as shucking oysters but will be giving us their stories and letting us really connect with the communities of that area.”
A higher end offering is also in the offing with a lunch with landed gentry on the menu.
“Yes, I’m looking at an Edwardian dining experience, a lunch with Lord and Lady Dunleath and a tour of Ballywalter House in what will be a slightly more expensive tour. I’m trying to focus on the best of County Down, whatever that may be as I’m very passionate about it and all we have to offer.”
What the seasons have to offer will also be an influencing factor with the cyclical nature of local produce blended into the tours.
“We will be visiting an award winning cider maker who, at this time of the year for example, will be giving us mulled cider but during the summer we’ll go into his orchard and have our chilled cider there. At other times of the year that visit won’t be included at all because as a producer he won’t have enough happening so the itineraries will adapt to the seasons.”
As to her target audiences Tracey is looking at a mix of clients: home and overseas tourists as well as corporate and conference visitors. The new Waterfront Hall will, she hopes, provide an opportunity to spread the word about County Down and widen the overall tourism perspective.
“A lot is heard about Causeway Coast and Glens, a lot is heard about Titanic and I just think there is lots more to shout about and which can be fully enjoyed through our food and drink. I am shouting about the local here and want local people to come and see too, what this part of County Down has to offer, maybe as part of their weekend. During the week it would be more conference visitors and corporates who are already here, for team building days and corporate days out and I’m busy researching those markets.”
Many of the market segments as outlined in the Northern Ireland Tourism toolkit would seem to fit the range of Tracey’s potential clients, from the ‘Time Together’ visitors to the ‘Mature Cosmopolitans’, the ‘Culturally Curious’ and ‘Great Escapers’. For Tracey however it’s more straightforward: “It’s not specifically for people ‘with an interest’ in food,” she explains, “just people who like food and, of course, drink which is just as important here.”
As to capturing the essence of the Year of Food and Drink, she says, “It just so happens that I’m launching this in the Year of Food and Drink and I’m hoping that helps but overall it is fantastic that our local produce is being properly recognised as an ever important part of the tourism experience.”