IT was a good year, a very good year for Northern Ireland artisan bakers at the recent World Bread Awards in London. The annual competition attracts bakers from many parts of the UK and Republic of Ireland and is designed to celebrate the expertise of smaller bakeries in particular.
Our bakers, who came from artisan enterprises and bigger companies including Irwin’s in Portadown, Northern Ireland’s largest and most successful independent bakery, won a string of awards at the important event.
Hundreds of baked goods from across the British Isles were evaluated by a panel of over 100 expert judges, leading Stephen Hallam, the chairman and managing director of Dickinson and Morris in Melton Mowbray, a leader in pork pies, to describe the event as the easily “the most competitive ever”. “We were especially delighted to receive so many entries from Northern Ireland and to see a large number winning major awards,” he adds.
While most of the Northern Ireland award winners were in the traditional Irish wheaten bread section, a brown soda, several local companies entered other mainstream categories. The wheaten bread category was launched three years ago in an initiative by Food NI in association with Andrew’s Ingredients in Lisburn to raise the profile of the distinctive Irish loaf in Britain and boost sales there.
Food NI’s Michele Shirlow explains: “Our role as Northern Ireland’s dedicated food and drink promotion body is to increase awareness of our bakeries and their products in Britain, our single most important market, and the Irish Republic. This focus includes encouraging companies to enter major food and drink competitions in Britain and the Republic as a means to help them win business outside Northern Ireland.
“We identified the World Bread Awards as a way to help showcase the high quality of bread and other baked goods being produced here. In particular, we have a successful network of artisan bakeries which always attracts favourable comment from visitors,” she adds. “The organisers of the World Bread Awards, I am delighted to say, were keen to take on board our idea for a wheaten bread competition.”
The best traditional Irish wheaten loaf in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland was baked by John Agnew of Ann’s Pantry in Larne, a small home bakery which has been popular in the town for over 50 years. John learned baking skills working in the bakery, started by Sean and Ann Agnew, his parents, at the age of 12. “I’d work there after school, at weekends and during the holidays,” he says. “I loved it and joined full time on leaving school. It’s such a creative business,” he continues.
His successful wheaten is based on an old family recipe that he’s “tweaked” to provide a deliciously different taste. He’s also won UK Great Taste Awards for a range of baked goods.
“While winning the wheaten category is marvellous, I am thrilled in particular to collect the award for the best fruit loaf because it attracts entries from all over GB and Ireland,” John, who runs the family bakery with sister Helen Porter, says.
In second place in the wheaten loaf category were Anthony and Jim O’Keefe of Corn Dolly Foods, Newry and third was Stephen Bell, Ballydougan Pottery, Portadown.
James Herron of The Cookie Jar home bakery in Newcastle, last year’s winner of the wheaten bread, collected two golds; Stephen Bell, Ballydougan Restaurant, Portadown, Noeline McCooey, Irwin’s Bakery, Portadown; and Anthony and Jim O’Keefe, Corn Dolly Foods, Newry, scored gold.
In addition, Alan Burns, Amber Catering & Cakes, Antrim, won gold and silver, Lois Shaw, Shaw’s Home Bakery, Newtownards, a silver. Simon Maccabe, Café Smart, Belfast ,and Lynne Gardiner, Amazin’ Grazin’, Portstewart, both scored one bronze.
Simon Maccabe, a grandson of distinguished local artist the late Gladys Maccabe, started the popular Café Smart on Belfast’s Belmont Road in 2009. The wheaten loaf, which collected a bronze medal, is actually baked by wife Victoria and is again based on an old family recipe. It has also won Great Taste Awards.
The success of the loaf in various awards has encouraged Simon, the popular café’s chef/owner, to market the wheaten to hotels and restaurants as well as delis and farm shops. “We’ve completed the packaging and branding and recently recruited a person to help us sell the loaf to other outlets,” he adds.
Lynne Gardiner of Amazin’ Grazin’ in Portstewart, a home baker, also collected bronze for her wheaten loaf. She says: “Being successful in the World Bread Awards is a tremendous endorsement of the quality of my bread. It’s a great encouragement for a home bakery like mine.”
Lynne, an experienced cook, sells her bread, including fruit flavoured, gluten free and no-sugar wheaten loaves, at markets such as Causeway Coast in Coleraine and Ballycastle. She’s also developed a DIY kit for those wishing to bake her wheaten at home.
Another encouraged to launch a ‘bake you own’ wheaten kit is James Herron of the Cookie Jar in Newcastle, the title winner last year. “The kit is a direct response to requests I’ve had from Britain for loaves following last year’s success,” he explains.
The products were judged by an experienced panel that included Apollonia Poilane of the legendary Paris bakery Poilane, Dr John Foster of BBC’s Victorian Bakers, Harry Lomas, executive head chef, Wembley Stadium and writer Charles Campion as well as Finbar Haughey of Andrew Ingredients and Belfast Metropolitan College and Food NI’s Michele Shirlow.