Neary Nógs, the only Northern Ireland producer of bean-to-bar chocolate, has won the prestigious Mott Green Award from the influential Academy of Chocolate in London for its commitment to sustainability, eco packaging and support for cacao farmers and their local communities.
Based near Rostrevor in County Down, Neary Nógs Chocolate Makers, a family-owned business run by husband and wife team Shane and Dot Neary, has developed into a world leader in artisanal chocolates and a leading supplier to top retailers such as Fortnum and Mason in London. The company is a Food NI member.
The Mott Green Award was among a series of special awards made by the Academy of Chocolate to artisan chocolate makers worldwide.
Shane, commenting on the Mott Green Award, says: “We are over the moon to have been recognised for our sustainability practices. It’s a tremendous endorsement of our ethical business practices by our industry.”
The award celebrates the achievements and contribution to the chocolate industry of American businessman Doug Friedman, better known as Mott Green, founder of the Grenada Chocolate Company in 1999.
Mr Green, who died in 2013, studied chocolate production in San Francisco before moving to Grenada to revolutionise the chocolate industry through environmental preservation and sustainable manufacturing.
Neary Nógs worked with the Grenada Chocolate Company in the development of the unique Sailboat Chocolate for Fortnum and Mason, chocolate produced, shipped and manufactured without use of fossil fuels.
Neary Nógs uses solar panels to power its production operation and has also introduced eco-packaging and other environmental preservation measures.
The small business was formed by Shane and Dot Neary in 2011 and has since won a series of awards for quality, taste and innovation.
Meanwhile, Ruaraidh Bailey, a talented chef from Britain, has loved working with chocolate throughout an extensive career which has included catering at high profile events in Britain such as Wimbledon, the PGA golf championship at Wentworth and the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Setting up the artisan North Coast Chocolates was a logical move when Ruaraidh, 42, decided to start a small business at home at Seacon, near Ballymoney, County Antrim, with his wife and family.
“I had been responsible for major catering events in Britain for 20 years and wanted to do something a bit less pressured and creatively more rewarding,” he explains.
“The opportunity to do something different came after I moved with wife Lisa and our two young daughters to settle down near her home-town of Ballymoney.
“It was a chance to move in a completely different direction from the pressures and anxieties of large scale catering for various events,” he adds.
The growth in artisan chocolatiers here comes at a time when chocolate sales have boomed during the coronavirus pandemic as consumers turned to food for comfort and indulgence.
Britain has also led the vegan chocolate market in plant-based and no-animal new chocolate launches over the past year, claiming almost one in five vegan chocolates (17 per cent).
“Plant-based chocolate is one of the latest trends dominating the confectionery industry,” Sergio Restrepo, VP of innovation at premium ethical chocolate company, Luker Chocolate in Britain, says.
Britain is now leading the way on vegan chocolate innovation. The growing prominence of the plant-based diet has led to an innovation boom.
Plant-based chocolate isn’t a new thing. Typically, chocolate with a high cacao content (ranging from 65 to 85 per cent) doesn’t contain milk, meaning the majority of dark chocolate available has always been plant-based.
Northern Ireland now has a thriving artisan chocolate sector such as Neary Nogs in Rostrevor; CoCouture in Belfast; Castlerock’s Chocolate Manor; Cobden and Brown in Moira; Wee Choco in Larne; and Monto Chocolates in Derry, in addition to North Coast Chocolates and Refuge Chocolates in Belfast.
Other new artisan chocolatiers include Blackwater Chocolates in Armagh and Lighthouse in Donaghadee.
Lighthouse was established by Marie Waterworth, wife of Wesley Waterworth, one of the owners of Pier 36, the award-winning restaurant in Donaghadee.
She also handcrafts candles which are also sold in the Waterworth’s Bow Bells café in the coastal town.
Blackwater is the brainchild of Karen Bell, pastry chef at EIPIC Michelin restaurant in Belfast, owned by celebrity chef Michael Deane.
The handmade chocolate business is the realisation of a dream Karen has held for 20 years.
She also runs The Cake Mixer, a creator of handmade cakes since 2003.
Neary Nogs, however, is really Northern Ireland’s only significant exporter of chocolate.
Originally from Scotland’s picturesque Mull of Kintyre, Ruaraidh Bailey of North Coast Chocolates in Ballymoney started training as a chef shortly after leaving school.
“I had been interested in food preparation at school and had decided to train in culinary skills and to become a chef,” he says.
It was a sensible career move from his upbringing in one of Scotland’s hospitality and tourism centres.
“I saw it as a route towards a career in Britain and to see more of the world. I gained a very broad range of skills and knowledge in many areas, including making chocolate for desserts and other applications, that would enable me to travel.
“And it led to a successful career in high profile catering lasting 24 years,” he adds.
North Coast Chocolates was formed by Ruaraidh in 2013 to specialise initially on flavour filled chocolate bonbons for sale over his website, by retailers and in response to commissions from individual lovers of great tasting chocolate.