Tour operator and baker Tracey Jeffrey had hoped to be teaching hundreds of American, Canadian and European visitors how to handcraft traditional Northern Irish soda and potato breads this summer at her farmhouse bakery overlooking Strangford Lough in Killinchy.
The tourists have failed to materialise due to coronavirus pandemic and travel bans. As a result of the collapse in tourism and her income drying up, Tracey, who is self-employed and runs Northern Ireland Food Tours and her Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen, has had to reinvent what had been a hugely successful business organising food-based tours.
“It’s been horrendous,” Tracey admits. “A year ago, I was in the middle of a hectic season of showcasing the Ards Peninsula and North Down to thousands of visitors from the US, Canada and Europe. In addition to the tours, I showed how to make the tasty griddle breads so central to our historic cuisine in my kitchen to hundreds of them. I’ll just have to write this year off in terms of international tourists and pray that next season will be a great deal better,” she adds.
Tracey didn’t qualify for any of the government’s emergency support schemes and is currently surviving on her savings. “I’ve also switched the business from promoting food tours and farmhouse cookery sessions for international visitors to attract more staycationers. The take-up so far has been extremely encouraging and is generating cash flow to help me survive,” she adds.
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It’s a business disaster which has also impacted dozens of other tour operators which have developed across Northern Ireland from the dynamic growth in tourism here especially over the past five years. Northern Ireland was heading confidently towards a £1 billion tourism record income this year before the deadly virus outbreak here and across the globe.
Operators here had developed imaginative programmes of food tours including gin and whiskey events in Belfast and further afield and trips to artisan producers especially the Taste Causeway food experience. Business generated by the visitors provided an important cash boost for hundreds of food and drink artisans across the province.
“Tour operators play a key role in helping to encourage visitors to enjoy their stay here and, of course, to spend in key areas such as food and gifts. We introduce them to authentic Northern Ireland food and drink for the overall benefit of the local economy. We’ve all developed experiences which add colour and fun to Northern Ireland as a memorable destination for tourists, the sort of place they’d be happy to return to find our more,” she explains.
Tracey’s tours have introduced visitors to local producers such as Echlinville Distillery in Kircubbin to see production of the historic Dunville Irish Whiskey and Jawbox craft gin as well as Lecale oyster farm at Killough, Kilmegan Cider in Dundrum and Comber potatoes. Her imaginative tours also enable visitors to sample local food and drink in restaurants and traditional Irish pubs.
She’s hoping that the innovative programme will appeal to a great many more local people from other parts of Northern Ireland interested in spending their vacation time touring the picturesque Ards Peninsula and the imposing Mourne Mountains. She’s always had local participants.
“There’s so much to see and enjoy in these parts of Northern Ireland. I offer tours that could appeal to day trippers from other parts of Northern Ireland as well as those holidaying in centres such as Newcastle and Kilkeel,” she says. “Many people here don’t really appreciate the scale and quality of artisan and food and drink now being produced here by dedicated people with fascinating back stories,” she insists.
Her traditional baking classes, she hopes, could also prove a great way for staycationers to spend a rainy day near the seaside. Tracey has a wealth of knowledge on everything food and drink in the area and especially the social history and traditions of griddle baking local breads such as fruit soda, soda farls, potato cakes and wheaten. The course, in addition, includes guidance on how to make sweet tray bakes, another local favourite.
“My classes are local and authentic,” Tracey continues. “My potato bread, for instance, uses real potatoes from a farm just down the road in Comber.”
Visitors are welcomed into the kitchen of the thatched cottage she’s renovated into a luxury home by Tracey, a former teacher who also ran a successful small business crafting delicious French macarons. Guests enjoy freshly baked fruit soda bread and scones and sit round the big kitchen table with cups of tea and coffee before the class starts.
“We aim to make people feel at home,” she explains. “I talk to them about traditional baking, show them how to make the breads and then give them an opportunity to make their own. They can enjoy the breads and also take them home, back to their hotel, bed and breakfast or caravan. The breads are the real taste of Northern Ireland. I hope to show many more locals to experience the unique taste this year.”
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