Take a look inside the Northern Ireland Produce Awards 2018

The Irish Game Fair in beautiful County Antrim, this year celebrating its 40th anniversary, was the setting for the Northern Ireland round of judging for the delicious. Produce Awards in association with Fisher & Paykel, on June 23. We were blessed by astonishingly sunny weather for a place so famous for its soft summer rain.

Take a look inside the Northern Ireland Produce Awards 2018

Surrounded by gun dog trials (which they take enormously seriously here); historical re-enactment scenes and the constant loud crack of the clay pigeon shooting competition, our three judges took their seats in the Fisher & Paykel trailer next to the ruins of Shane’s Castle, ready to judge the 20 entries on the shortlist.

Expert tasting panel

Legendary food hero Peter Gott, one of the founding traders of Borough Market and passionate farmer of wild boar and rare breeds at his Sillfield Farm in Cumbria, food writer, teacher and TV cook Jenny Bristow and Professor Una McMahon-Beattie Head of the Department of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Ulster University formed our expert judging panel.

The entries overall were of a very high standard. But the prize for the most innovative entry has to go to the unusual but utterly delectable Goat Bacon produced by Broughgammon Farm, which unsurprisingly has made it through to the finals, together with 8 other local products. These included the amazing, huge, creamy Pacific oysters from Rooney Fish, Abernethy Black Garlic Butter (which the judges re-named ‘Irish Tapenade’), and the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Cooperative Society’s stunning, densely textured, yet so delicately flavoured smoked eel. Here’s the shortlist of entries and those products going through to the national final.

Under the June skies

The vast cornflower blue sky and hot sunshine, the sparkling waters of the Lough, (which I found out from my super knowledgeable and voluble taxi driver Ivor is the largest lake in the British Isles, covering an incredible 151 miles), the hundreds of dogs with their proud owners, and countless people dressed up in costume, all helped to give this very special event an atmosphere all of its own.

There was plenty of fabulous food being cooked, demonstrated and prepared in and around the food area, but all set rather incongruously against the backdrop of the lovely ruined castle and its Nash designed Camellia House, crammed to bursting with plants.

Scene setting

There were silent fishermen repeatedly casting their rods on the impossibly green grass next to flamboyantly branded grazing horses, and loyal gun dogs of all breeds rigorously being put through their paces by means of staccato whistling, under the watchful gaze of grave, tweed-suited judges.

This was a unique and somehow very precious experience, quite obviously a wonderful and very traditional outing for local families and an event that draws people from far and wide.

Woodcock wonder

At breakfast in my B & B one morning, I was entertained over the delicious potato pancakes and black pudding by the President of the Irish Woodcock Association, who told us all – a family group from Wales who were there to judge the Lurchers, the owner of Delphi Lodge – one of my favourite places on the planet in Connemara – who told me he’d be in the salmon tent all day (sadly I never got there to find out what was happening in the salmon tent), and several other enthusiastic Game Festival goers – about the life cycle of this remarkable bird.

Certainly an unforgettable location for our round of judging, a special day in a very special place in the company of some extraordinary, kind, generous people, many of whom were happy to chat for hours about food and local produce with knowledge and unmistakable pride. I very much hope we’ll be back there next year.

My congratulations go to all 9 who made it through to the finals, and of course my sincere commiserations to those who didn’t quite make it through – better luck next time.

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