National award for great food from unique market garden in Ballymena

Slemish Market Garden in Ballymena has been named the Best Greengrocers in Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the prestigious Slow Food Awards in the UK.

The awards are based on a public vote from thousands of people across the UK over the summer months. Each UK region has its own winners, with the highest number of votes in each category also being the overall UK winner.

Slemish Market Garden gained the national and local awards as the Best Greengrocer for great and nutritious fruit and vegetables to be found anywhere in the UK.

The family business, based near the town’s popular ECOS Nature Park and run by husband and wife team Frank and Linda McCooke and son Matthew, gained the overall UK award along with the Northern Ireland regional titles as Best Greengrocer in the national Slow Food Awards.

Frank, a respected Ballymena native, describes the two awards as “phenomenal recognition” for the company’s longstanding focus on consistently delivering “superb quality and sustainable fruit and vegetables”. “It’s really fantastic for us, a small garden centre and greengrocers in Ballymena, to have been voted the UK’s best by lovers of good, natural food. I am sure there were more than a few eyebrows raised in the south of England, the heartland of Slow Food, on such an important award coming to such a small business in Ballymena.”

The family launched the business in 2001 “initially not knowing what to expect from consumers and the wider community”, Frank continues.  “The market garden idea to grow and sell fresh fruit and vegetables to the public came from Linda in 1979,” he says. “Linda continues to be the driving force and now supports our son Matthew, a fully trained and qualified gardener from Greenmount College, in running the entrepreneurial business. My role is to look after our on-site farm shop. Local people continue to be tremendously supportive and were quick to realise our offering of fresh food that’s grown here and is good, clean, natural and nutritious. Shoppers from neighbouring areas have also been coming here steadily to see and buy the fresh produce that’s readily available,” he explains.

They have been growing fruit, vegetables with flowers and small trees on-site for sale to the public using traditional organic methods without any chemicals whatsoever and “working with nature rather than against it.”  “The demand from the public for our fresh fruit and vegetables is such now that we may drop the flowers and small trees in early 2022. Of course it’s very labour intensive but the focus produces healthy and great tasting fruit and vegetables. Everything we grow here really is a labour of love,” he adds. And it shows in the quality and outstanding taste of everything they produce.

The shop also stocks locally produced honey, jams and chutneys from other suppliers. In addition, the market garden is the location of the hugely popular Slemish Supper Club involving top chefs cooking gourmet dishes from its produce for diners to enjoy.

Frank originally ran the McCooke family coal business in the town while Linda developed the garden at their home.  “As a result, I used to be 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 have never looked back.

Celebrity chef, writer and broadcaster Paula McIntyre, Slow Food’s Northern Ireland director, says: It’s a delight to see the public vote recognise the wonderful Slow Food producers here. It’s particularly encouraging to have Slemish Market Garden win the best greengrocer in the UK, the first local food business has won a national award in this important event. We're so proud of this family and what they contribute to the Slow Food ethos.

The market garden was the only national success in a series of awards for other local other Northern Ireland producers.

allymena family Linda, Matthew and Frank McCooke of Slemish Market Garden won the UK’s and Northern Ireland’s Best Greengrocer title in the Slow Food Awards