17 August by Eleanor McGillie

WHO would have thought that a Northern Irish chef working in Switzerland over 25 years ago would later create a festival here because he discovered he could cook and eat oysters farmed in Northern Ireland in Switzerland– but couldn’t get them here.

Derek Patterson, owner of The Plough Inn in the historic village of Hillsborough, Co Down, was working all over Europe earlier in his career. It was while he worked as a chef in Switzerland that he discovered oysters farmed in Northern Ireland were so popular on menus across Europe but no-one was eating them in back home.

With the desire to bring oysters to plates in restaurants in Northern Ireland Derek created a festival on his return along with fellow Hillsborough man, Sean Hall, which would bring people together, celebrate diversity, bring food and drink to the fore and empower people to appreciate our heritage.

The Hillsborough International Oyster Festival was born, and, for 24 years, it attracted an international audience who travelled to the village to compete in the ever popular World Oyster Eating Championship which has since created Guinness World Records.

This year would have been the 25th anniversary of the festival, however, due to rising costs and changes in funding agreements the organising committee took the difficult decision to cancel this year’s event. But, for the love of oysters, and, in the hope funding will be allocated next year, a group of business owners including the owners of The Plough Group, locally-based UPU Industries and a local oyster farmer have teamed up to bring oysters back to the table – this time as The UPU Plough Festival.

Derek Patterson, Co-owner, The Plough Inn and Philip Orr, Chief Executive, UPU Industries

Working hard on the shores of Killough in Co Down is French oyster farmer Patrice Bonnargent who farms the shores with his son Luc.

He said: “The taste of Co Down’s shores is famous and thankfully more and more people are recognising how tasty oysters farmed here are. Our oysters are grown using sustainable methods. We use the natural environment to let them grow.

“Growing season is from spring right through to the autumn. Nothing really grows in the winter but they are left for two to three years.

“But it’s only over recent years that oysters from Northern Ireland have got the recognition they deserve as a great tasting delicacy which are accessible to everyone.

“And, 25 years ago, times were very different so it was a very brave move to create an oyster festival at a time when no-one here was eating oysters,” said Patrice.

Patrice Bonnargent at his oyster farm in Killough County Down

“They are such a delicacy elsewhere yet people here did not have access to them because the market simply didn’t exist.

“But there is a market here now. I have no doubt it is down to the success of the Hillsborough International Oyster Festival which created that market. We still export to Europe but now we are also selling to wholesalers in Northern Ireland who distribute them to restaurants and pubs across the region.”

Patrice, who supplied oysters to the Hillsborough International Oyster Festival, and will supply this year to The UPU Plough Festival, says oyster farming is a physically hard yet rewarding job.

He said: “It’s fantastic to see people here enjoying these home grown oysters. We sell oysters every weekend in St George’s Market. Local people buy them but we also sell to a lot of tourists who are in Belfast visiting. They love them. Particularly Spanish visitors.

“For years Northern Irish people turned their back to the sea and looked towards land for food, so it’s fantastic to see this changing. The Hillsborough International Oyster Festival has empowered this movement and this month’s Festival will bring oysters to the forefront again and people will have fun with it.”

Patrice and Luc Bonnargent oyster farming in County Down

In the true community spirit of Hillsborough, the owners of The Plough Inn, Derek, Richard and William Patterson, have joined with Hillsborough native Philip Orr, Chief Executive of UPU Industries, to stage The UPU Plough Festival, which will raise funds for next year’s Hillsborough International Oyster Festival.

Derek said: “For 24 years now oysters have become the focal point of a major festival which attracts an international audience to the historic village of Hillsborough.

“No-one could have predicted 25 years ago, when The Hillsborough International Oyster Festival began, that oysters would become a firm favourite on our menus and that we would be responsible for creating Guinness World Records in our oyster eating contest.

“We will still run a competition this year – The UPU Oyster Eating Challenge – where  people who attend the event on Saturday, August 26, will be challenged to eat a dozen oysters and drink a pint of Guinness in the fastest time possible to win £1,000.

“It’s so important that we continue to bring people to Hillsborough and celebrate what the Hillsborough International Oyster Festival set out to do – bring people together, celebrate our food and drink offering, attract tourists to boost the economy and encourage social integration.”

Oyster Farming in Killough County Down

Phillip Orr, Chief Executive of UPU Industries, which is known for its high quality ‘Farmers’ range of crop packaging solutions added: “The Hillsborough International Oyster Festival has gone from strength to strength over the years, attracting thousands of visitors from across the UK, Ireland and further afield. But, the event remains in essence a community festival, and, UPU Industries is delighted to take on the role as lead sponsor to help ensure the future success of the festival.”

Philip continued:”As a Hillsborough resident, the history and heritage of the event is very important to us, and, through our role as lead sponsor, we will bring The Gala Ball to the original setting of The Plough Inn on the Friday night.  This will be a momentous occasion to celebrate bringing back the Hillsborough International Oyster Festival in 2018 for its Silver Jubilee year.

“We are all working hard as a community to not let the spirit of the festival slip away. The Plough Festival is a stop gap because we are determined to stage the main festival again next year.

“We want people to come to Hillsborough and taste the seafood from our shores. Patrice and his son Luc are working hard to bring us the best oysters.”

The UPU Plough Festival takes place from August 24-26.

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Eleanor McGillie

About Eleanor McGillie

Eleanor spent eight years working in the south west of England - one of the UK's most popular tourism hotspots. During her stint working with key players in the tourism sector she developed a love for all things outdoor adventure. As a journalist she got to travel to remote corners of the world to write travel features about the experiences of a particular place. Northern Ireland's story needs to be told and needs to reach new audiences. Live It Experience It aims to attract tourists from outside Ireland, people from Ireland and people who live in Northern Ireland but aren't aware of the extent of the adventures on our own doorsteps.