Tracey Jeffrey, of Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen in Killinchy, County Down, is usually busy welcoming visitors to her picturesque thatched cottage on the shores of Strangford Lough for traditional bread-making classes.
The pandemic temporarily ended both international and local tourism.
Tracey reacted by launching live cookery courses on YouTube and associated hampers featuring exclusively local artisan foods.
A successful tour operator before the coronavirus lockdown halted visitors, especially from outside, Tracey has used her unique YouTube channel about local bread-making and other food courses to connect with the thousands of visitors to her farmhouse kitchen and bespoke tours around County Down over the past five years.
Tracey’s endeavours to develop tours and cookery classes for staycationers was also impacted adversely by the Northern Ireland Executive’s stay at home guidance.
The online courses have included soda bread focaccia, traditional fruit soda bannock, scones, sweet bread from soda flour sourced from a local supplier and classic tray bakes such as Fifteens.
“The regular YouTube courses are designed to keep my business going by connecting with visitors who’ve been here before the pandemic and to capture the imagination of those who haven’t experienced them,” Tracey explains.
“As well as generating some income, especially from the local hampers, I hope that the investment in the YouTube channel will help to increase awareness of my tours, culinary classes and what Northern Ireland has to offer tourists when they start travelling again,” she adds.
“My classes are local and authentic,” Tracey continues. “My potato bread, for instance, uses real potatoes from a farm just down the road in Comber.”
It’s been a tough time for Tracey, who runs Northern Ireland Tours as well as Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen, and the other tour businesses throughout Northern Ireland.
And there’s no clear indication when they will be able to promote what Northern Ireland offers local and international travellers again.
Tracey continues: “I was also encouraged to launch the YouTube videos by the extent of interest in traditional Northern Irish breads such as potato cakes, soda bread and fruit loaves before the pandemic.
“I’ve welcomed thousands of tourists to my farmhouse kitchen keen to learn how to make our traditional breads and sweets, so, it made sense to reach out to them and others with regular videos on YouTube,” she adds.
Many of those online viewers have also ordered Tracey’s bespoke hampers that include handy mixes for them to make the breads at home.
In addition to the mixes, the hampers include handmade cheese from Dart Mountain in Dungiven in County Derry, a small craft cheese business run by Kevin and Julie Hickey; Cobden and Brown artisan chocolates from Caroline McArdle in Moira, County Armagh; and Killowen Small Batch Irish Whiskey in Rostrevor, County Down.
She’s also created special local hampers for occasions such as Christmas and Valentine’s.
Based in a converted 18th century barn that’s been creatively transformed into an attractive farmhouse on the picturesque shore of Strangford Lough, Tracey is a long-standing marketer of the best local artisan food.
In addition to her culinary courses, Tracey has worked with many smaller producers around the area in promoting their products to international visitors.
Her pre-pandemic tours have included visits to the likes of Echlinville Distillery in Kircubbin, producer of Dunville’s Irish Whiskey and Jawbox Gin; Kilmegan Cider in Dundrum; Comber potatoes; and Abernethy Butter in Dromara.
Tracey, in addition, has worked with Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI in promoting the best local breads and other food products.
“Tourism Ireland and Tourism NI have both been immensely supportive of my tours and the cookery classes before and during the pandemic,” she said.
“I appreciate greatly all their encouragement and practical support over the years.
“I love promoting the many tremendous artisan food enterprises here to international tourists as well as local visitors who need to know more about the quality and outstanding taste of local food. It’s also been a tough time for artisan food companies which have seen markets closed throughout the company and also led to shop online.
“An encouraging trend for those entrepreneurs has been the growth in farm shops and delis,” adds Tracey.
A former teacher, Tracey began her local food journey by setting up a small venture making the handmade macarons she had enjoyed during a stint in France.
While she shares the hopes of other hospitality businesses here that the Executive will lift the lockdown as soon as practicable, she realises that the future will likely depend on local visitors for some time to come.
“It will be a while, I guess, before international visitors start travelling again in numbers. Hopefully, there’ll be some growth next year. It’s been immensely difficult for hospitality businesses, especially those which invested heavily in safety procedures for customers and staff.
“I fear that many of the smaller bars and eateries may not reopen again.
“We were all looking forward last year as Northern Ireland was on track to achieve new records in visitors and push the industry’s contribution to the local economy beyond £1 billion. But times have changed,” she adds.
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