OUNTY FERMANAGH, LOCATION
of the exclusive Lough Erne Resort, is famous for its lake fish, island-pastured lamb, Inishmacsaint beer, and President Obama's favourite, Kettyle beef. I know Obama liked the beef because Noel McMeel, the award-winning executive chef who fed the G8 leaders, told me so.
For a celebrity chef, McMeel's as down to earth as they come. Born (not that long ago) in a cottage without electricity, he has never lost touch with his roots, or the foods that nurtured his family for generations.
McMeel was the first of many outstanding chefs I met in NI who cited the quality of local ingredients as the reason for their success. McMeel's signature dish, a mixed grill, features a succulent beef fillet topped with seared lamb kidney; a lamb cutlet marinated in lemon and herbs; confit pork belly; Irish potatoes and a free-range egg. Pristine ingredients and artisanal foods are not hard to come by in this part of the world. Isolated for decades by The Troubles, NI missed out on modernizing trends in the food industry. Those times of hardship reaped a reward — most of NI's sustenance still comes locally, from farm, field and sea, and a larder stocked with homemade staples.
From Lough Erne I steered my rental car though twisting country lanes to the village of Donaghmore, home to a handsome stone Celtic cross and The Brewer's House, named Ireland's best gastropub in 2013. Owners Ciaran and Vicki McAusland gave up careers in London to return to the family pub, resurrecting the craft of brewing in Donaghmore after a hiatus of 150 years.
The menu at The Brewer's House features local farm suppliers and vegetables plucked from a kitchen plot out back. Pink rosettes of peat-smoked salmon glowed on a dark slab of local slate. Chowder, chock full of goodies from the Irish Sea, came with thick slices of stout-moistened bread and a pat of farmhouse butter. The Brewer's House inaugural beer, Red Hand Pale Ale, is delicious — fragrant and spicy with hints of citrus, pine and apricots.
From Donaghmore to the little town of Magherafelt and Ditty's Bakery, in business for two generations. Robert Ditty, a ruddy-faced giant in rubber boots, introduced me to the traditional Irish breads — oatcakes, soda bread, Scottish pancakes and potato farls. Farls are a Northern specialty. The word means ‘quadrants' — the breads are cut from a circle of dough. Legend says they originated in the Belfast shipyards