There is a service, often overlooked but massively important, which the hospitality industry provide to food producers.
Before twitter, youtube and food festivals it was often chefs and restaurateurs who first showcased the work of fledgling producers. They were the shop window for what was good and local and provided the bridge between the producer and the public. Cheesemaker Veronica Steele often talks about a defining moment for Milleens cheese from West Cork being when Declan Ryan of the famed Arbutus Lodge restaurant tasted some on a cheeseboard in a County Kerry restaurant. Ryan began to offer Milleens on his own cheeseboards giving the cheese its chance to shine, and shine it did and has never stopped.
Another perfect example of this was an event recently held in Newforge House near Craigavon in County Armagh. It was a small gathering to showcase the house and some of its local suppliers, simply titled Our Celebration of Ulster Food and Wine. The event was curated by the owners, John and Lou Mathers, who are the sixth generation custodians of this noble Georgian house. John was born here and after marrying Lou they renovated and opened their six guest rooms to the public.
There was Mike Thompson from Mikes Fancy Cheese Company, operating for just over a year. Thompson started his journey running the cheese section in Belfast’s Arcadia Deli. When comedian Josie Long challenged people to do something every day for 100 days he choose to blog about cheese and this got him thinking more seriously about cheese making. A course in the School of Artisan Food in Nottinghamshire followed and, after working with some leading UK cheesemakers, he raised enough money through a crowdfunding website to start producing Northern Irelands first raw milk cheese, aptly named Young Buck cheese.
Sharing the cheese table was Silke Cropp, well known for her Corleggy Cheeses in Co Cavan. Silke been making cheese since 1989 but on the night she was sampling her latest cheese called Cavenbert, made with raw cow’s milk in a camembert style.
David and Fiona Boyd-Armstrong were sampling their Shortcross Gin. Both left behind their jobs in the aviation and construction industries to open Northern Ireland's first craft distillery. The Rademon Estate Distillery in Co. Down has been operating for just over a year and is gathering fans and awards in double time. The speed of their success is in contrast to the painstaking way in which they work, for each batch of Shortcross gin is prepared slowly and expertly by hand, each bottle is hand filled, wax sealed and hand signed.
Mark Pearson owns the Clanconnel Brewing Company and was sampling his selection of McGraths craft beers, brewed under contract in Belfast. The range has four excellent beers which are being exported to several countries and being enjoyed all over Northern Ireland.
Newforge is exactly what an Irish country house should be, a place where you feel like you could stay forever. Personal touches take it from good to great. The rooms have names instead of numbers. There are dogs and chickens, they grow and make as much as they can themselves, from the homemade buttery shortbread biscuits in the bedrooms to the rhubarb Shortcross gin and tonic with their own elderflower cordial, the delicate homemade cheese crackers, the real crackling log fire, and sometimes a shy little face will peak around a door for a few seconds as the Mather's young children suss out the evenings guests. Newforge is the Mathers home, they are proud of it and what they have created, and very deservingly so.