The afternoon sun bounces on the water of the beautiful Ballymoran Bay on Strangford Lough in Co Down.
A bay within a bay, the area is calm, serene and peaceful. And in autumn, the sound of Brent Geese from Arctic Canada emulates across the water as every year they set up their winter home in the temperate environs of the lough.
They are back to their friends: the other 2,000 maritime species who have made their home in Ireland’s largest sea inlet.
In the distance, laughter radiates through the water as tourists are guided to shore by Joe Jeffrey, a local paddle sports instructor who, along with his wife Tracey and their two sons, call Ballymoran Bay their home.
In fact, the nature and beauty of the area coupled with Tracey’s love of local food has ignited their passion for a unique tourist business. In the same way that we might talk about food experiences in France or Italy, there is no doubt that tourists the world over on arriving home, excitedly tell family and friends about this unique Northern Ireland experience.
And it’s also encouraging locals to take more time to appreciate what’s on their doorstep.
Focusing on the world-class food and drink produce of Co Down, Tracey has established two businesses – NI Food Tours and Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen. After a two-year break because of the COVID-19 pandemic, now that restrictions have eased she recently returned to escorting guests on a food tour deep into the Mourne Mountains.
A lifetime love of food
It’s no surprise to many that Tracey set up a food business. Tracey’s life has always been focused on food and she loves cooking and baking which she has been doing from an early age. As the eldest of five children, Tracey prepared meals for her siblings, and she loves the simple foods which her family live on daily.
“They are very tasty and use a minimum amount of ingredients,” she explained.
While studying French and Irish at Queens University Belfast (QUB), she spent a period living in the Dordogne in France, working in a French pattisserie which specialised in macarons. Following a spell in teaching after leaving university, Tracey gravitated back towards her love of food and baking and made macarons which she sold at local farmers markets.
“I had met a lot of Co Down producers at the markets and found out that we have more artisan producers here than anywhere else in Northern Ireland (NI) largely due to our micro-climate,” she explained. “That’s where I got the idea for food tours and I set up NI
Tracey brings tourists to meet the wonderful producers in NI to sample their food and hear their story.
On her tours around the rolling drumlin countryside and the coastline of Strangford Lough you can sample everything from single-estate whiskey to artisan dulse (type of seaweed) and stop off at one of the many award-winning restaurants in the area for lunch.
Other tours take you deep into the Mourne Mountains, to harvest oysters on Coney Island on Lough Neagh and meet a cider producer to hear his story and taste his award-winning cider.
Baking up some new ideas
Out of this Tracey had the idea of inviting tourists to her own home to learn the basics of NI bread making and to educate her guests all about griddle breads. “Although it started off as part of the food tours, it kind of took off and grew legs of its own,” Tracey related, and she set up Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen as a separate enterprise.
Soda and wheaten griddle breads have been a staple of the NI diet for generations and are key ingredients in the famous Ulster fry. Tracey explains: “Cooked on a griddle – a flat metal plate – griddle breads can be made quickly and easily as they use sodium bicarbonate or baking soda as a leavening agent instead of yeast. When the baking soda reacts with the lactic acid in the buttermilk, the bread rises giving it a fluffy texture. Wheaten bread is the wholemeal version of soda bread and it is darker in appearance, more dense and coarser in texture.
“For me, cooking this bread has always been such an enjoyable and relaxing experience and I wanted to share that with our visitors. So when they arrive, I literally throw open my kitchen doors, encourage them to put on aprons and get flour on their hands, and unwind as the smell of freshly baked griddle bread fills the room.
“I love the humming sound of chats in the kitchen as people talk about bread from their own homes, how it’s made and the traditions around it, it’s fascinating.”
Prior to COVID-19, 90% of her visitors would have been international, mostly American and Canadian. “When COVID hit, the bottom fell out of everything I was doing,” she says.
But like so many business owners in this pandemic, it forced her to get creative. “I started to target the local market with afternoon tea and online cooking classes,” Tracey explained. “When restrictions relaxed, I began serving up afternoon tea with a country-style twist. This was accompanied by a cooking demonstration for guests to watch while they were enjoying their food.”
This new venture led to more bread chats but this time on a local level. “It was a revelation to me as I found a lot of interest in the local market in what I was doing,” she explained. “Local NI visitors would say things like, ‘My grandmother made soda bread for us twice a week’ and when I asked her for the recipe she said something like ‘It’s just what you would know’. As a result, written recipes for these breads wouldn’t have been handed down through the generations as quantities would have been judged on the look, texture and feel of the bread mixture.”
The art of making these breads in the home was largely lost until it was revived by Tracey.
Keeping it local
Now the bread is enjoyed as part of Tracey’s tours. The griddle bread is ready in around 15 minutes so Tracey’s guests can sample it before they leave.
“I also do home-made lunches using seasonal products from my garden,” she continued. “My guests pick their own vegetables and herbs and I get them involved in making a NI lunch.” Tracey only uses local produce and sources everything within a 10-mile radius of her home and she includes Strangford Lough shellfish, Dexter beef from her own herd, pork from pigs kept on her small holding, hand-rolled butter which is made by one of her neighbours and eggs from her own chickens and ducks.
Visitors come to her for a day out to experience something different and they are all made to feel at home. There is a lot of interest in what she does especially from hen parties, bridge clubs and different generations of the same family.
This has also led to the added activity of canoeing on the water. As her husband Joe is a paddle sports instructor, they knew they could elevate the visitor experience.
Tracey says: “Is there anything better than a delicious lunch after a morning on the water? Our new package means guests can get out in the canoes, giving them the opportunity to connect with the Lough and nature as they paddle around the nine beautiful little Islands in Ballymoran Bay.
“After a guided tour of the islands, we stop off to enjoy a picnic lunch and they have the chance to spot seals and the occasional dolphin who make an appearance when the mackerel is in the bay.
“Then when they return to dry land, it’s straight into the kitchen to the aroma of freshly griddled soda breads which they can enjoy with hand rolled butters and homemade jams before trying out griddling for themselves. It’s so wonderful to have people back enjoying themselves and our area.”