Royal Balmoral Show dinner celebrates NI food and drink

Members and guests of The Farmers Club celebrated Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink 2016 at a fine Royal Balmoral Show dinner 

Balmoral 2016 Speaker 

On the eve of the Royal Balmoral Show on Tuesday 10th May an enthusiastic audience of over 80 members and their guests, plus a host of celebrity food writers, enjoyed a magnificent evening dedicated to the best of food from Northern Ireland.  

Hosted by Club Chairman Richard Butler, with drinks sponsored by McDonald’s, the event captured the true spirit of Northern Ireland’s Year of Food & Drink 2016, with a hugely informed and enthusiastic talk delivered by Dr Howard Hastings, board member of Food Northern Ireland and managing director of Hastings Hotels, which has six hotels in Northern Ireland, and a half share of the Merrion Hotel in Dublin. 

Born and raised in Belfast Dr Hastings admitted to a lack of farming heritage. “The closest I got to farming was that at school I sat next to John Bamber, who went on to become president of the Royal Ulster Agricultural Society.” But NI food was close to his heart. 

“Our hotels have for many years celebrated our ability to showcase local produce to our guests and I very much championed the cause of celebrating a themed year of Food & Drink in Northern Ireland, which the Food NI executive signed up to for 2016,” he said. 

As the project’s website explains: “Something about Northern Ireland inspires ambition and spirit and the proof is on your plate and in your glass. From harvesting Comber earlies to catching Lough Neagh eels, distilling Bushmills whiskey to rearing Glenarm shorthorn, we go that little bit further for every single mouthful. We craft, grow, breed, catch, cook and enjoy it all with passion – to prove that the finest landscapes, in the hands of the most dedicated people, make for truly phenomenal experiences…”

Indeed, food and drink is Northern Ireland’s largest manufacturing sector, contributing almost £5 billion to the economy in 2014, with exports worth over £4 billion and employment for around 100,000 across an extensive supply chain.

The menu for the evening reflected Northern Ireland’s fine food heritage, with a tasting plate of Irish seafood to start, comprising Sean McKeown’s lightly smoked salmon, blackened salmon with a mango & pomegranate salsa, poached salmon with a dill mayo, Irish wheaten & Irish butter.  

For main course it was a rack of Irish pork, served with caramelised apple & toffee sauce, fondant potato and crackling, pistachio crumble and seasonal vegetables. And to finish, a desert of Crunchie Pot – luxury milk chocolate with Glastry Farm honeycomb ice cream sprinkled with Yellowman, a chewy toffee-textured honeycomb candy, traditionally served at Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, County Antrim

As well as being a major supplier to Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland, the NI food and drink sector exports to more than 60 countries including the US, Asia, the Middle East and other parts of Europe. Almost 30,000 farms provide a comprehensive range of quality raw materials, including grass-fed beef and lamb and milk, as well as poultry, cereals, potatoes and vegetables.

Northern Ireland’s Year of Food & Drink aims to raise the profile of food and drink with local people, visitors and global markets, through branding, marketing and promotional activities. It has a strong focus on tourism, with Tourism NI as the lead organisation. The goal is to support a wider agri-food objective to grow export food sales, which will in turn support the tourism agenda by building on Northern Ireland’s destination reputation.

In 2014 visitors to Northern Ireland spent an estimated £751 million, a third of which was on food and drink. In addition, £282 million was spent by NI residents on tourism day trips of which approximately 40% was on eating out.

Significant progress has been made in building a reputation for excellence in food production and hospitality in Northern Ireland, with an explosion of artisan food and drink companies driving a sharp increase in quality and variety. 

Food and drink experiences are seen as increasingly important to tourism, offering destinations an opportunity to differentiate and celebrate indigenous foods. Food and drink help visitors learn about heritage, landscape and culture, and account for a significant proportion of visitor spend.

NI’s Year of Food & Drink is aiming for a 5% increase in food related visitor satisfaction ratings, a boost to export sales and £10m-worth of positive PR in the consumer media.

Food writers who attended the dinner included: 

  • Charles Campion – one of the country’s most high profile food critics who has written for The Times, The Independent, The Telegraph and the Evening Standard
  • Bill Knott – written for The Telegraph, co-founded the food & drink magazine Eat Soup and has featured on radio and TV. 
  • Xanthe Clay – trained as a Chef at Leith’s Cookery School, established writer for the Weekend Telegraph, written various recipe books. 
  • Joe Warwick – written for The Guardian
  • Andy Lynes – food, drink and travel writer who has written for The Times, Telegraph, Independent, Metro and Guardian
  • Trish Deseine - Irish food and cookbook writer. 
  • Sharon Machala – writes for Belfast Telegraph.