Just days before Shane Lowry walked up onto the 18th tee at Royal Portrush on his way to victory in the Open, Irish Country Living stood in a potato field on the cliffs of Antrim where we could just see the edge of the infamous golf course.
The beauty of Northern Ireland may have been beamed around the world courtesy of this major tournament, but we had the great privilege of getting to meet one of the farmers who spends his life harvesting potatoes from the same fertile soil for a fantastic range of crisps.
Proudly growing potatoes since 1972, Glens of Antrim originally just supplied the fresh product to the grocery multiples throughout Ireland from both their own farms and a select group of potato farmers in the North and the Republic of Ireland. However, with the benefit of 50 years working with potatoes they had the experience to diversify, applying their extensive knowledge to the art of hand cooked potato crisp production.
The beginning of the journey
All that said, long before a crisp was tasted by the consumer, thousands of hours of research and development had to be done, and that is where the journey started.
“Out of hundreds of varieties of potatoes, we narrowed it down to just four. With this body of research behind us we know that these varieties are the best ones to actually deliver the taste and flavour that our customers want.
"But it’s not only this that differentiates our crisps, they are also cut thicker, fried in particular oils for a specific period of time in small batches, all designed to deliver a subtle taste”.
The varieties were chosen not just for their starch to sugar ratio – which is a vital component of a crisping potato – but also to fit the seasons and although we asked, the varieties will remain a company secret.
Apart from their own range of very diverse flavoured crisps (check their website, you will be amazed) they produce four varieties for the Dunnes Stores Simply Better range; Vintage Irish Cheddar Cheese & Red Onion, Clogherhead Sea Salt & White Wine Vinegar, Sriracha Chilli and Clogherhead Sea Salt Sweet Potato Crisps.
“There were a number of key qualities we wanted to achieve with our potato crisps. For example, a light and fluffy bite, but core to the product and to our factory is that we source our flavours locally.
“We think that it’s really important for us to know exactly where our ingredients come from so that we can give that confidence to the consumer. For example, the mature Vintage Irish Cheddar is ground from real Irish cheese.
"This is put into our red onion seasoning too and this is all local.
“We worked with the Dunnes Stores Simply Better team to choose these products as they have a full range of Irish cheeses including a Vintage Irish Cheddar and we were able to incorporate those flavours and tastes into the crisps. Consumers are becoming more and more conscious of what foods they put in their bodies and they also love to support local businesses and farmers.
“All our flavours are local and natural, there are no additives and no preservatives, which supports the authenticity message of our product and the ethos of the Simply Better brand.
We love the salt as it adds a really unique taste to our crisps while also supporting another Irish company
“We also use Oriel sea salt which comes from Port Oriel in the village of Clogherhead, just a few miles outside of Drogheda in Co Louth.
"The company was awarded a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status by the EU Commission for its mineral sea salt and that is not surprising as they have a unique processing method where they pump ocean water into a sealed pressurised system, so it never comes in contact with the air and thus it is non-oxidised.
"We love the salt as it adds a really unique taste to our crisps while also supporting another Irish company.”
“The crisps are a relatively new venture for us and we have four farmers growing potatoes for the range, although we hope that this will grow with time.
"They have been growing potatoes for us for a very long time. We audit all our farmers but they are very reliable and never fail to deliver on the quality that we expect from them.
“It’s important that the farmers’ point of view is respected, what they enjoy growing and what they enjoy doing. We were able to have those conversations and we narrowed it down to the four easily enough”
With these suppliers based all over Ireland, Irish Country Living is brought to beautiful Ballycastle to meet with farmer Nigel Jameson.
Although we are closer to Scotland than we are to Belfast, Nigel was picked not only because he is closest to the factory in Cushendall, but also because he has what has to be the most scenic farm in Ireland; overlooking the sea with a view of the Scottish coast in the distance.
With this in the background, and as we walked out into the middle of the field and closer to the sea, it is pretty hard to focus on what’s in the ground.
However, that is what we were there to see. Farming 120 acres of potatoes, ably aided by his son Niall when he is on holidays, the field in which we stood was planted in April for harvesting in September.
“County Antrim soil, the sea air, nothing else like it,” was his simple response to what made farming potatoes in this part of the country so special.
Although perhaps the most important step, growing the potatoes, is just the first one on the road to becoming a Glens of Antrim crisp.
Amy explains the process. “Once the potatoes are harvested on the farm, they are placed in wooden crates before being transported by the company to temperature-controlled warehouses in Ballymena for storage.
"This is to make sure that the quality is maintained and at this point they are also labelled with full traceability so that Glens of Antrim (and the consumer) will know exactly who grew them, where they were grown and what season they were grown in.
“This is stage one and it is in stage two that they are brought to Cushendall to the factory. The potatoes are then washed in the spring water that flows from the mountain Lurig, (rumoured to have been once the home of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and his son Oisín), which is just behind the factory rising over Cushendall.
“Once washed, they are transported to the crisping area, sliced to the perfect thickness and fried in 25kg batches for five minutes. Once the cooked crisps are done, they go through a quality check to ensure that there are no burnt or bruised crisps. From there, it is on to the flavour drum where they are generously coated in the natural flavourings and this finished product is measured out into the Simply Better bags.”
Although plans are afoot for a smaller bag, at the moment there is just the 125g sharing bag but be warned, make sure you have a sharing partner as having sampled the entire Simply Better range, you would definitely be in danger of eating the whole bag yourself in a sitting as they are that tasty.
On our drive around, Amy educated us not only on the processes used to create the texture and tastes of the Glens of Antrim potato crisps, but also gave us a real understanding as to why the full farm-to-fork story is so important as well as the heritage and values of the company.
Glens of Antrim Potatoes are also very committed to the next generation and you can see this demonstrated by the awards that are prominently and proudly displayed in the foyer of their factory.
They engage in a number of different initiatives including supporting local sports clubs and educational visits to the factory.
What is Carpool in the Country?
Our Carpool in the Country series brings the pages of Irish Country Living alive. We teamed up with producers of Dunnes Stores Simply Better and Land Rover. In this our first carpool, we traversed the roads of Antrim with Amy Buick from the Glens of Antrim Potatoes to learn more about this second generation company that diversified into crisp production three years ago.