About 90% of the food on the menus at the five-star Culloden Hotel and Spa in Co Down is sourced from local suppliers, according to executive chef Mark Begley.
Mark, who has been associated with the hotel since 1998 and has been executive chef for the past year at Grŵp Hastings’ flagship site, is proud of the focus on buying local ingredients.
“All our local produce is second to none and I don’t really have a favourite. If I had to choose one, it would be our Morne rack of lamb or our Ewing’s smoked salmon,” explained Mark, who started working at Culloden part-time as a kitchen porter aged 14.
“One of our dishes at the moment is Kilkeel scallops served with cauliflower and vanilla puree, a crispy ham wafer and herbs from our own hotel garden overlooking Belfast Lake. We also have Lisdergan sirloin from Omagh with boiled water and pickled shallot salad with pepper corn sauce and duck fat chips. We also use Iona Farm carrots along with our other vegetable producer Hamilton Coulter.”
The focus on fresh, local produce can also be seen in the hotel’s own herb garden.
“We have been growing our own herbs in Culloden for as long as I can remember. We grow a range of herbs including thyme, sage, varieties of mint, lavender, rosemary and nasturtiums,” he continues
“You can’t get fresher than growing herbs in your own garden! Our chefs select a variety of culinary herbs each day to meet their needs for flavoring and garnishing and in creating aromatic oils and vinegars to complement the seasonal dishes served in the Vespers restaurant, the Cultra Inn and at our Afternoon Tea. The bar staff also use some of the herbs for their original cocktails.”
The strong commitment to local food is led by the group’s chairman, Howard Hastings, who is among the most active and dedicated supporters of the Food NI promotion body and its marketing campaigns such as the current “Our Food: Power of Good” campaign.
As a result, the group, which operates a total of six hotels in Northern Ireland, is the biggest supporter of local food and drink in the hospitality sector here.
Married to Lisa and father of four boys from Holywood, Mark enjoys dealing with suppliers and is keen to encourage other local companies to bid for business from the hotel.
“Our suppliers contact us directly. We meet them and taste the product ourselves before it is ordered into the hotel. We deal directly with suppliers and have a great relationship with all of them,” says Mark.
“We work closely with the purchasing department at head office to get approval on potential new ingredients and products. Therefore, if a new supplier is confirmed, then there is the potential for it to be used across all six hotels in the group.
“The provenance of food is of great importance to Hastings Hotels and we pride ourselves on supporting local as much as possible and sourcing the best local ingredients.”
While Mark gained his initial qualifications and training at the Culloden, he brought extensive experience from other kitchens.
“Over the past 24 years, I have worked as executive sous chef at the Europa in Belfast, executive chef at La Mon Hotel, Castlereagh and executive chef at the Seagoe Hotel in Portadown.”
He is quick to acknowledge the experience and knowledge gained from working with other chefs such as Paul McKnight, former executive chef at the Culloden and the late Adrian McDaid, executive chef at Europa.
“Basically, Paul taught me everything I know, from preparing vegetables, creating innovative dishes and motivating staff. Adrian taught me how to organize the budgets and finances as well as ensuring that the quality of the food is consistently high and that hygiene standards are exceeded,” he remembers.