“Both my husband Kevin and I have been involved in the food industry for over 20 years – working in hotels and restaurants while I was also a keen cook and cheese maker at home. Over the years, we noticed a dramatic shift in people’s attitude towards food and eating. There is an increasing demand for artisan food that incorporates the rich provenance of Northern Ireland’s heritage and landscape and a desire to want to experience different textures and flavour combinations and explore where your food comes from. It was when we were running a restaurant in Derry City in the late 1990s that I realised that while Ireland has a great tradition of cheese making, there were no cheeses indigenous to the North West. Cheese making has always been fascinating to me. With only one core ingredient, you can make an infinite number of variations based on tweaks or additions you introduce throughout the process. It’s a product that never gets boring! Thankfully this fascination with cheese and the production process has paid off. We supply a number of restaurants and shops locally including the Maydown Farm Shop, Primrose Kitchen, the Limetree and Browns Restaurants and we are grateful to the local chefs who are happy to incorporate the range into their menus and experiment with our products. Working with two key distributors – Hendersons Foodservice and La Rousse Foods (recently bought by the Musgrave Group) – our products regularly go further afield to the UK and RoI and we hope to grow our export markets in the coming years. We also sell products through our own online store – another area of the business where we see growth potential. Looking back on our time in business so far, I would say a key highlight for me has been our success at the World Cheese Awards. Most recently we won a gold medal for our ‘Banagher Bold’ – a cheese washed in pale ale made by another local producer, Northbound Microbrewery. It’s humbling to see a product from a family-run business in a rural area in Northern Ireland named one of the best of its kind globally. There are certainly advantages that come from being a small company. We have complete oversight and decision-making powers – able to create the products we love in the way that works best for us. Likewise, there are advantages that come from operating in a small region. Northern Ireland has a tight-knit artisan community and there is a great sense of collaboration and openness among producers. We share in each other’s difficulties and successes and are happy to pick each other’s brains on everything from business and finance to promotion and distribution. Northern Ireland and in particular, the North West, also has the potential to grow its reputation as a food destination. Being geographically small means tourists and visitors can visit a number of areas in one trip. This is something we and other artisan producers and craft makers are keen to capitalise on by making food trails and tours more popular and accessible. We have experienced some success in this field already as one of the stops in ‘Slow Adventure NI’ – an initiative from Derry City and Strabane District Council that gives people the chance to engage with local produce, wildlife and the local environment. We also welcome those taking part in the ‘Far and Wild’ Cycle Sperrins and groups from local schools and community groups to teach them about the cheese making process and artisan production. To help capitalise on the growth opportunities in food tourism and play our part in showcasing the North West as a food destination, we plan to open a purpose-built space on-site next year where we can host tour groups and create an even more immersive visitor experience. One of the challenges that comes from running your own business is getting the work life balance right. Cheese making doesn’t adhere to a 9-5 schedule – I’m often out late at night turning cheese wheels while Kevin is busy with the finance and distribution side. As the business grows so too does this challenge, but as my partner and I run the business together, we both see the long-term benefits. As well as our new visitor space plans, we recently invested in some new equipment to begin trials on new smoked cheese products and this along with our continued innovation across our range of chutneys, granola and relishes, means it’s full steam ahead as we move into 2018! Of course, Brexit is a concern for everyone North and South. We distribute to a number of delis in RoI so we’ll be keen to know what sort of impact Brexit will have on the movement of our goods. In the meantime, we’ll continue to travel across the island of Ireland and the UK with other local producers to showcase our products at exhibitions and trade shows.”
Julie Hickey is one half of the husband and wife team responsible for Tamnagh Foods & Dart Mountain Cheese- an artisan food company that has been quietly gaining worldwide recognition for its award-winning range of cheeses. Located in the Sperrin Mountains near the village of Park, Tamnagh Foods also produce granola, relishes and chutneys.
Established in 2010, Julie – the creative chef behind the business – reflects on their journey of artisan innovation.