The Countdown to Christmas is on!

The countdown to Christmas is now well underway in our house, with one enthusiastic daughter already designing the decorations. I’ve certainly started thinking ahead for the festive season, especially in terms of food to enjoy and to give as presents over the period. I was lucky enough to be able to see and taste many ideas for Christmas meals and gifts at the recent InvestNI Celebrating Northern Ireland Food and Drink Show in the Stormont Hotel in Belfast.

On display were premium local products ranging from award winning poultry, beef, ham, venison to organic peppered smoked salmon, potatoes, vegetables and side dishes and stuffings, yoghurts, cheese, shortbread, custard tarts and new twists on the traditional Christmas Pudding and Christmas Cake.

While you’ll not find grapes for wine produced here, there was a great range of fruit berry liqueurs, Irish cream liqueurs, local Irish whiskies, a wide range of ciders and beers as well as boutique gin and potato vodka. In fact there are so many drinks producers here that we recently published a local drinks guide, it’s a lovely accompaniment to a selection of local drinks given as a gift as it has tasting notes and suggested recipes from top local chefs. Anyone wanting a copy just ask us at FoodNI.

There was also an abundant choice of natural water and soft drinks including fruit juices, especially Bramley apples from Armagh, our ‘Orchard County’. Indeed, Northern Ireland has developed into a leading producer of award winning ciders in the UK and Ireland and has recently been recognised as a unique cider cluster by the top drinks writers who just visited here.

Our tea and coffee companies have also won a host of awards for superbly flavoured products. You soon may be able to purchase tea from a small plantation in Portaferry and even coffee grown near Lisburn!

Buying local at Christmas – and other seasons – has never been easier. Virtually everything you’ll need for meals and snacks at Christmas is now readily available from hundreds of local suppliers to major supermarkets, independents, delis, butchers and grocery stores.

This week also saw the opening of the first permanent local food and drink presence at the International Airport shop in departures. Inspired by the success of the pop up shop by Ulster Artisans, the airport has taken the brave step of stocking local foodstuffs on the shelves of the duty free shop. Now when you leave Northern Ireland you can take a little bit of home with you to enjoy abroad or to give as a gift.

The new local food and drinks area is in the departures lounge and festures everything from bread and butter to bacon and cheese, as well as a great selection of chutneys, sweets, teas and oils. You can certainly count on the products you’ll find on the shelves and chill cabinets being fresh and tasty. The food and drink is produced by people with tremendous passion who take care to ensure their products offer outstanding taste. Their products, many of which have won national awards for quality, are grown here, not flown here.

Choosing Northern Ireland produce to enjoy at Christmas, or to give as a gift, also means you’ll be backing the Northern Ireland economy especially our farmers, who have had an immensely challenging year, as well as the wider rural community.

You’ll also be backing Northern Ireland’s most successful manufacturing industry, which already contributes around £5 billion to the local economy.

Food and drink, in fact, is the only manufacturing industry to have grown strongly during the economic downturn. And it’s one which a healthy track record of coming up with innovative and delicious products that also offer outstanding value for money.

I urge you to choose local food and drink this Christmas, both to enjoy at home and to give as gifts. You’ll be spoilt for choice with all that our dedicated food and drink producers have to offer. And you’ll be investing in local economic growth by inspiring people.