Slemish Market Garden wins the title of best

The Ballymena Linda, Matthew and Frank McCooke family of Slemish Market Garden have won the title of Best Greengrocer in the UK and Northern Ireland at the Slow Food Awards

The family business, based near the town’s famous ECOS Nature Park and run by husband and wife team Frank and Linda McCooke and their son Matthew, has won the UK Overall award as well as NI regional titles as best greengrocer in the national Slow Food Awards.

The global organization Slow Food Awards are designed to highlight and celebrate ‘good, clean and fair’ food and are based on a public vote by thousands of people across the UK over the summer months . Each region of the UK has its own winners, with the highest number of votes in each category also being the overall UK winner. Slemish Market Garden won both awards.

A jubilant Frank, a respected Ballymena businessman, describes the two awards as “phenomenal recognition” for the company’s longstanding focus on consistently delivering “high quality, sustainable fruit and vegetables”.

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Mike Thomson of Mike’s Fancy Cheese in Newtownards named Slow Food Person of the Year in Northern Ireland

“It’s really fantastic for us, a small garden center and greengrocer in Ballymena, to have been voted the best in the UK by fans of good natural food,” he adds.

The family started the business in 2001 “not knowing initially what to expect from consumers and the wider community,” says Frank. “The business idea to grow and sell fresh fruits and vegetables to the public came from Linda in 1979. Linda continues to be the driving force and now supports our son Matthew, a fully trained and qualified gardener from Greenmount College , in the management of the company. My role is to take care of our farm shop on site.

“Local people are extremely supportive and quickly caught on to our offering of fresh, home-grown and good, clean, natural and nutritious food. Buyers from neighboring areas also come here regularly to view and purchase what is available. »

They grow fruits, vegetables with flowers and small trees on site to sell to the public using traditional organic methods without any chemicals and “working with nature rather than against it”.

“The public demand for our fresh fruits and vegetables is such now that we could drop flowers and small trees in early 2022. It takes a lot of work, but the focus is on producing healthy fruits and vegetables. and tasty. Everything we grow here is a real labor of love,” he adds. And it shows in the exceptional quality and taste of everything they produce.

The shop also offers locally produced honey, jams and chutneys from other vendors. Additionally, the garden is the location of the hugely popular Slemish Supper Club, where top chefs prepare gourmet dishes from its produce for diners to enjoy.

The business has successfully adapted to the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and has continued to grow and increase its retail services to benefit other artisans, becoming a quality food hub for the local community and locals. buyers from further afield.

Frank originally ran the McCooke family’s coal business in town while Linda developed the garden in their home.

“As a result, I was known as the man with the black face and green fingers,” Frank laughs. “The popularity of Linda’s Fresh Vegetables led us to take over a site at ECOS that the local council was developing for organic growers.”

And the entrepreneurial couple never looked back.

Celebrity chef, writer and host Paula McIntyre, NI Director of Slow Food, said, “It’s a pleasure to see the public vote to recognize the wonderful Slow Food producers here. It is particularly heartening to see Slemish Market Garden win the award for Best Greengrocer in the UK, the first local food business to win a national award at this important event. We are so proud of this family and what they bring to the Slow Food philosophy.

The market garden was the only national success in a series of awards given to other local NI growers. Newtownards-based artisan cheesemaker Mike Thomson was named NI Person of the Year. Mike is the only raw milk cheesemaker here and a strong proponent of the craft. He owns Mike’s Fancy Cheese and is the creator of Young Buck, our most popular blue-veined cheese.

Pig farmer Alastair Crown of Corndale Free Range Charcuterie in Limavady has won two NI awards – Best Butcher and Slow Food Product Champion – veal charcuterie – a collaboration with Broughgammon Farm in Ballycastle.

Another Ballycastle company, Ursa Minor was named best baker. The best fishmonger in NI was Native Seafood in Portstewart and the best Deli was Warke’s Deli in Portstewart, while voters named Stock Kitchen and Bar in Belfast the best restaurant. St George’s, also in Belfast – home to the Stock Kitchen restaurant – came out on top as the cheapest.

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Terri S. Tomasini