Food NI chief Michele Shirlow describes her-self as suitably stunned when Northern Ireland was named as the World’s Best Food Destination in the inaugural Travel and Tourism Awards.
She’d gone to the gala dinner in London with her “fingers crossed” hoping that her entry to the awards for Food NI, which had made the final four, might just be highly commended.
Food NI’s chairman Andrew Nethercott, past chair John Best, Tourism NI chief executive John McGrillen and Borough Market’s David Matchett were also there for Northern Ireland.
“The decision was a complete surprise to the Food NI team,” she says. “We were up against formidable entries from San Sebastián in Spain’s Basque Country, regarded as the world capital of food; A Taste of West Cork, the Republic’s food hub; Catalonia European Region of Gastronomy, from the Catalan Tourist Board; and TXOTX, a cider project from the Basque Gipuzkoa Provincial Council,” she adds.
Food NI collected the prestigious award for the hugely successful Year of Food and Drink in 2016, a year-long initiative to celebrate Northern Ireland’s outstanding food and drink and our innovative hospitality sector.
Pipping such impressive co-
mpetition, especially San Seb-astián, was a truly remarkable achievement and an amazing endorsement of our fast developing food culture.
The awards, announced as a key element of the popular World Trade Market in London, were decided by travel trade professionals who know what it takes to ensure a successful food destination. The World Travel Market attracted 5,000 exhibitors and 50,000 travel professionals from around the globe.
The awards were developed “to provide a platform to honour the front-runners in travel and tourism”.
But what does the award mean for food and drink, hospitality and the wider community here? “What it has done is to reinforce Northern Ireland as a global player in food and drink to be reckoned with. It signposts Northern Ireland internationally as the place to go for exceptional quality, innovative and, per-haps above all, outstanding tasty products. The world travel trade has said that Northern Ireland is the place to go for great food and drink.
“The award is a massive boost for our food, drink and hospitality culture within tourism and adds weight to the impressive collaboration between Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland to drive tourism revenues forward faster. This is exceptionally important because tourism is now the world’s fastest growing industry,” says Mrs Shirlow.
“And it puts us on a par with San Sebastian. It’s long been our aim to achieve such a standing.
“We want to develop the support infrastructure that will lead thousands more people abroad to come here for our superb food and drink.”
The Food NI chief visited the Basque food hub recently on a fact-finding mission and was struck by the role of food there and the presentation, in particular, of fish restaurants and pintxos (tapas) bars in the colourful old town.
“The city’s reputation for outstanding food and vibrant food culture attracts millions of tourists, especially younger visitors, annually.
“The city has more Michelin stars than any other city in the world, apart from Kyoto in Japan, and higher than even Paris or New York. And three of San Sebastián’s restaurants have the highest Michelin rating. One of its restaurants is listed in the world’s top 50. However, I didn’t see the connection to local food producers demonstrated as strongly as it is in Northern Ireland.
“We have two Michelin star restaurants in EIPIC and OX, both in Belfast, and several holding Bib Gourmand stat-us with the potential to achieve the higher rating. I would hope that World’s Best Food Destination status will encourage more to reach for the stars.
“Being located right on the coast, along the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastian is in a prime location and has access to the freshest seafood, something we share with them.
“In addition, fresh, quality produce is what San Sebastian is all about, and the best places to see it are the city’s markets. One of the most important outcomes of Year of Food and Drink has been the emergence of markets and food tours across Northern Ireland.
“These are helping to increase awareness among consumers of quality local
food and also offer opp-ortunities to smaller pro-ducers to gain expertise which many have used to win business with delis and then bigger retailers,” adds Mrs Shirlow.
Greater success as a genuine global food location for tourists, she continues, would provide tangible ben-
efits for hundreds of sm-aller producers and the hospitality outlets offering the very best locally so-urced food and drink. This would, in turn, increase employment opportunities and stimulate product inn-ovation.
What’s next? “Year of food and drink was a real team approach, I believe that same team must grasp the golden opportunity for our food and drink that this acclamation offers.
“And we have the succ-essful collaboration between the private and public sectors, including Tourism NI, Tourism Ireland, Invest NI and the departments
of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Enterprise and the Economy to harness the undoubted business pot-ential of the award,” she says.