Dufferin Hall recently teamed up with Indie Fude and the Hans Sloane Chocolate & Fine Food Festival to host ‘An Irish Cheeseboard’ - an event which included a pairing menu featuring local cheeses accompanied by chutney, oatcakes, and - of course - complementing locally-sourced drink. The sold-out event packed Dufferin Hall’s event space and acted as a boost to the popular Chocolate & Fine Food Festival in Killyleagh.
As lovers of all things local, including the quickly-rising Northern Irish food scene, we recently sat down with an advocate for local produce and ingredients, Johnny McDowell, owner of Indie Fude, a Comber-based and online artisan food store, which stocks a range of superb ingredients sourced from across the island of Ireland.
Having begun his career as a champion for all things local with an online shop, Indie Fude quickly grew in popularity locally and abroad, with orders coming from as far away as Dubai, Canada, America, and most of the EU countries. Responding to the popularity of his web-based shop, Johnny set up a brick-and-mortar premises in his hometown of Comber, and has established Indie Fude as a hub for local food enthusiasts seeking out the best ingredients and expert advice.
What inspired you to set up Indie Fude?
Indie Fude was inspired by my passion for local produce and cooking. I’d love to be a cook or a chef but not capable with that type of lifestyle, and the next best thing was opening a deli. The online side of the business was inspired by our travels around Ireland and the great produce we encountered that you don’t see in supermarkets. About three years ago we set up the online shop from my parents’ loft, and around this time last year we opened our brick-and-mortar shop in the courtyard on the High Street in Comber to give us some extra space.
What do you love most about local food?
I love the people behind it and their passion and energy. We’re very blessed on this island to have the best of dairy, beef, lamb, shellfish and great vegetables that people around the world rave about. It goes to Dubai, China, and America, but we don’t seem to love or appreciate it enough here. I think it’ll take time for that appreciation to come back again, but with people becoming more well-travelled and experimental with what they eat abroad, they’re now coming home and realizing what we have in our own back gardens.
From a health perspective, mass-produced items from across the world which are sold in supermarkets have quite a bit of preservatives in them and that impacts both the nutritional factor and the taste. Local foods don’t have these additives, so the taste is much better. Shopping local is also helping to reduce food wastage - if you purchase a locally prepared artisan product, you may be paying a bit more, but you will use it all rather than letting it go to waste as you might do with cheaper products.
What have been the most popular products you have sold through Indie Fude?
Cheese! Everybody loves cheese. Irish cheese has got a great tradition and we can easily match the French, Italians, other places with our quality of cheese. Anything to go along with cheese sells well in our shop, especially oatcakes and chutneys. We’ve also got a sweet tooth, so we have lovely chocolates from La Coquine in Holywood among other which are incredibly popular.
What is your favourite product on the website?
I love the steaks - we now sell Dexter black beef, which is 28 days cured and grass-fed on the Rowellane National Trust property by farmer Andy Meeke. The meat is characterized by a deep black colour, beautiful marbling and great flavor. Andy is also quite experimental and looks to France and America for interesting cuts including American flatiron, French bavette. My favourite preparation is Beef Bavette, also called New York Strip, marinated simply for 3 - 4 hours in Broighter Gold rosemary and garlic rapeseed oil, some lovely Achill Island sea salt, and quickly grilled on a charcoal BBQ for maybe 6 or 7 minutes on each side.
What has the response been to Indie Fude?
The response to our business has been very positive when we go to the markets. We try to bring something different, so whatever’s not on hand from other suppliers. We’ll work with the organizers to ensure we’re bringing something different to each event we attend, and our gift boxes and hampers are always popular.
The larger side of our business is doing hampers for customers and corporate clients. We’ve sent these to America, Canada, Dubai, all over the EU! It’s not just expats who are ordering our food, it’s people who have visited Northern Ireland and tried our food. When they go home many will order their favourites to be posted over to them to avoid the complications of travelling with their purchases. We also work closely with the tourist boards - Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland - as well as Invest NI and Bord Bia. We are a port of call for sending produce around the world to their events as they travel the world to promote food from the island of Ireland.
How do you source and decide on produce to sell? Do you have any particular criteria
Starting the business was the hard part - driving around the island of Ireland choosing from hundreds of amazing products! Now that Indie Fude is more established, our main criteria is that it’s from the Island of Ireland! Secondly, it has to taste great and look great on the shelves. Proper labelling is essential - with artisan suppliers it’s crucial that the food has gone through proper channels to ensure we are selling the food safely and legally. We have dealt with many up-and-coming artisans and given some producers guidance as to the best way to get their products to market.
Recently I was invited to the prestigious Blas na hEirann awards, which recognizes the very best of Irish food and drink. I was on a panel with 80 small local artisans discussing what we look for as buyers. Things like that are raising our profile around the island as a go-to stockiest and expert on all things local.
Do you see any particular foods trending in 2017?
Toward the end of this year we’ve seen charcuterie emerging as a popular food trend. I see a continued rise in that with more and more people coming on board.
The growth of the gluten free / sugar free / yeast free products will also continue to boom as consumers go back to basics and turn toward a more traditional ‘Irish’ diet of black beef from Dexter cattle, spelt grain - native food which can be digested more easily and are part of our genetics.
As far as alcohol is concerned, gin is still on the rise, as are craft beers. A lot of the popular local gin producers have had to wait for their whiskeys to come of age, so Northern Ireland can expect to see a very exciting boom of local whiskeys in the coming years as these first batches from favourite distilleries are released.
If you could have a free dinner at any Northern Ireland restaurant, where would you go and why?
For me, probably The Schoolhouse by Will Brown. I love Will’s food, and his proximity to my shop makes him a close neighbor. His food is like art on a plate but it tastes fantastic and I love the way he sources local produce. I occasionally supply and source produce for him including cheese, charcuterie, and recently some wild smoked venison loin from a contact in Wicklow.
Cheese or chocolate?
Cheese. I love Young Buck, which is made locally in Newtownards and is Northern Ireland’s first raw milk blue cheese.
Tipple of choice?
I love anything at all from Farmageddon. My favourite of theirs is probably the gold IPA.
For more information on the broad offering of outstanding local foods sold by Indie Fude visit their website.