Small is beautiful. At least, that’s what food producing and processing companies from the tiny island of Northern Ireland, part of the UK, believe. And going by the amount of business they’ve drummed up – over 6.7 billion pounds (about Dh32.6 billion) last year – they appear to be right.
‘We in Northern Ireland are a mere speck – the population is just 1.85 million,’ says Shane McArdle, business development director, Invest Northern Ireland (INI). ‘But we are very large in terms of our food exports. Agriculture nets us 1.5 billion, food and drinks processing another 4.5 billion – it is also Northern Ireland’s biggest manufacturing sector and employer. And 28 per cent of that is focused on food-related industries; 25 per cent of all sales is related to food.
‘Earnings from food and drink exports solely to the Middle East region was 61 million pounds.’
The reason why INI is so bullish on the local food markets is the UAE food scene’s focus on a new definition of healthy, according to food industry analysts. And what exactly is that? Once, a simple promise of vitamins and a lack of empty calories could be seen as a symbol of nutrition. Now, however, it’s more complicated – and more in demand.
‘The traditional definitions of healthiness are changing,’ says Shane. ‘Earlier, nutrition was all about cutting calories, and adding salads to the menu. Now, what is really important is transparency not only about ingredients, but also about the production chain.
‘Our food is focused on its pure natural quality. We have a great food story to tell. We have a lot of heritage in food. We are also focused on promoting sustainability and food security, for which we collaborate with the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University in Belfast. We are focused on the quality of our food and are endorsed by a number of quality awards including The Guild of Fine Food in London.’
Nature has dealt Northern Ireland all the cards to help it come up tops in the health food stakes. ‘We have a large farming sector, and our climate ensures very good quality dairy products,’ says Shane. ‘We have a lot of rain, which gives us a lot of grass, so our cattle are grass-fed, and consequently our milk is of very high quality.’
Cheese and butter are major exports. ‘Even though we are such a small country, we have the largest cheese processing plant in Europe.’
Meat is also one of the biggest exports from Northern Ireland. ‘Our meat too is from grass-fed cows and sheep, so our meat and beef are very highly rated,’ says Shane. ‘A lot of it is exported to the UAE and many five-star hotels, such as the Jumeirah Group, and restaurants in Dubai source from us.’
INI is also seeking to popularise Northern Irish cuisine in the UAE. Earlier this year it organised an event where two chefs from the Jumeirah group and an executive chef from Emirates Catering visited Northern Ireland, and met with the producers and farmers to see for themselves the processes and methods employed, the people behind them and the quality control in place.
‘On the last day of the trip we partnered the visiting chefs with a number of top local chefs for a larder challenge where they cooked up a storm!’ Shane says.
Invest Northern Ireland has also loosely created a Northern Ireland dining club in Dubai. ‘Just prior to Gulfood 2016 we arranged a dinner at the British ambassador’s residence with Northern Ireland products, to which we invited some key buyers and chefs, and it created a great awareness about our products.’
The region is also rich in seafood. ‘Our organic salmon is world-famous. One of our companies, Glenarm Organic Salmon, is the only Atlantic salmon farmer in the Irish Sea and the sole producer of the world’s finest organic salmon, and is sourced by many restaurants and hotels in the UAE. Since the water in those parts is very cold, we have very good crabs, mussels, and prawns, which we export.’
INI members have also been taking advantage of the upsurge in the demand for artisanal/craft foods – which essentially is making things by hand as opposed to the high-volume, low-margin industrial manufacture. Bakery products form a big part of exports, and includes gluten-free and sugar-free products.
‘Our drinks sector exports a lot of water and sparkling water and one of our companies has an exclusive contract with Dubai Duty Free,’ says Shane. ‘We also have a lot of sugar-free and healthy options among our products as well.’
This partly explains why there has been a shift in demand for smaller, niche brands in the UAE. Gone are the days of big brand names enjoying all the glory and making all the sales.
Sustainability is high on the list of many a connoisseur, and this is where INI member companies score high. Shane says: ‘Our biggest advantage is we are an island and so through Queen’s University and the Institute for Global Food Security’s guidance most of our companies follow sustainable practices. We are also accredited by global authorities such as the BRC Global Standards.
‘The UAE for us is a stepping stone for our companies into the other regions. It is very accessible. All our products are halal-certified,’ he says.
Does all this forebode a rash of Northern Irish restaurants opening in the UAE?
‘I don’t know about Northern Irish restaurants in Dubai, but what I see is a lot of top Northern Irish chefs and some standalone Northern Irish restaurants coming over to Dubai and setting up shop here,’ says Shane.