FAMINE TO FEAST IN NORTH­ERN IRE­LAND

THE FOOD SCENE IN NORTH­ERN IRE­LAND — IN BELFAST AND BE­YOND — IS BOOM­ING.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY DAVID MCGONIGAL

The food scene in North­ern Ire­land is boom­ing.

“The dif­fi­culty with ba­con,” Pat O’Do­herty of O’Do­herty’s Fine Meats told me, “is that you have to kill pigs to get it.” O’Do­herty, an en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tist by train­ing and now a renowned butcher in En­niskillen, North­ern Ire­land, de­cided he had a re­spon­si­bil­ity to make sure his pigs had the best life pos­si­ble be­fore end­ing up on the plate. So he bought them an is­land. On Inish­cork­ish Is­land, on Up­per Lough Erne, the pigs roam free but come when he calls them.

He shows sim­i­lar, though for­tu­nately less mori­bund, con­cern for his cus­tomers. “I didn’t like us­ing ni­trites to cure the ba­con so I’ve found a way to pro­duce my ba­con with­out them.” He ad­mits that he of­ten chooses the veg­e­tar­ian op­tion when din­ing out un­less he knows where the meat is from.

O’Do­herty is funny, charm­ing and opin­ion­ated and, in many ways, re­flects the new, ex­cit­ing face of North­ern Ire­land’s food scene. While try­ing some cider at Long­meadow Cider in Por­ta­d­own, Simon Dougan of lo­cal del­i­catessen, Yel­low Door, told me: “Over the last decade there’s a be­lief the food here is not just good but that it’s world-class. The food scene from 20 years ago is un­recog­nis­able.” It was a theme that rang true dur­ing the days I was in North­ern Ire­land. In­deed, 2016 was North­ern Ire­land’s Year of Food and Drink and it show­cased the great strides taken in re­gional cui­sine.

While there’s a boom­ing food move­ment in Belfast, I was happy to find some quirky takes on tra­di­tional foods, too. While stay­ing at the Europa Ho­tel, in­fa­mous dur­ing The Trou­bles as the 'most bombed ho­tel in the world', I was de­lighted to find a cor­ner of the break­fast buf­fet where I could serve my­self por­ridge with lo­cal honey and Bush­mills Ir­ish Whiskey. I tried the por­ridge as a cu­rios­ity and found it was sur­pris­ingly en­joy­able, so much so I could be tempted to recre­ate this al­co­hol-in­fused break­fast dish at home

(not ahead of a work day, of course).

If you’d like your lunch with a big slice of his­tory head to the Ti­tanic Ho­tel, which opened mid-Septem­ber 2017, to have lunch in the re­stored Draw­ing Of­fice 2, a vast open hall with huge sky­lights that is quite beau­ti­ful. Re­mark­ably, only a few years ago, the old plans for the room were found in a soggy mess among the detri­tus in pud­dles on the derelict floor. Now the room gleams and sparkles, re­flect­ing its orig­i­nal pur­pose as it was here that the RMS Ti­tanic was de­signed and planned, be­cause the drafts­men needed all the light they could get. One im­pres­sive de­tail is that the bricks of the out­side wall above are white to re­flect the af­ter­noon light back inside. It’s here, in an of­fice bathed in light, that

I en­joy a beer-bat­tered had­dock lunch that is both ex­cel­lent and rel­a­tively in­ex­pen­sive.

Is there a coun­try in the world where a food sta­ple has been so in­te­gral to the na­tion’s

his­tory as the potato is to Ire­land? In­deed, the trig­ger for the mass mi­gra­tion that led to the Ir­ish di­as­pora was a dis­ease in the 1845 potato crop that cre­ated the Great Ir­ish Famine. The best place to un­der­stand all this is the re­mark­able new EPIC The Ir­ish Emi­gra­tion Mu­seum on the Dublin water­front.

Po­ta­toes still hold a sig­nif­i­cant place in Ir­ish cook­ing.

The walled gar­den at Florence Court out­side En­niskillen has a very ac­tive mar­ket gar­den that pro­duces 30 dif­fer­ent types of po­ta­toes each year. The gar­den­ers change va­ri­eties each year and can go sev­eral years with­out a re­peat, so lo­cal potato afi­ciona­dos – and some from fur­ther afield – take the time to stock up at the an­nual har­vest.

While draught Guin­ness, shipped up from Dublin, can be found in every pub, it’s worth try­ing the lo­cal ciders, too. About 40,000 tonnes of Ar­magh Bram­ley ap­ples – more than 35 mil­lion – are grown in the or­chards of County Ar­magh each year and each bot­tle of cider re­quires 17 ap­ples.

Fer­managh, the Ul­ster county that abuts Done­gal, con­sists of about one-third wa­ter in the form of Up­per and Lower Lough Erne, with En­niskillen, Ire­land’s only is­land town, in the mid­dle. With an abun­dance of lakes, rivers and canals it’s renowned for its fish­ing. In ad­di­tion to the many shades of green one as­so­ciates with Ire­land, there’s lake scenery, too.

To see what’s hap­pen­ing on the Ir­ish or­ganic veg­etable scene visit Or­chard Acre Farm where Theresa and Hugh O’Hare were re­cently awarded the pres­ti­gious Tourism

NI’s Sus­tain­able Tourism Award. When the O’Hares heard my ac­cent, Theresa re­counted how Aus­tralian me­dia per­son­al­ity Lyn­dey Mi­lan had vis­ited the farm to film. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, Theresa con­fided that much of their busi­ness is con­duct­ing cook­ing schools for hen’s par­ties.

The grand coun­try house of Lough Erne Re­sort fea­tured on Aus­tralian news broad­casts every night when it hosted

the G8 Sum­mit in 2013. Executive head chef Noel McMeel was sub­se­quently in­vited by Pres­i­dent Barack Obama to the White House. “That’s not the way it started,” he re­lated to me over lunch. “Each coun­try sent through a non-ne­go­tiable set list of dishes and in­gre­di­ents. Per­haps I re­acted too fast but I im­me­di­ately sent back a list of al­ter­na­tive lo­cal in­gre­di­ents. It was all re­solved at diplo­matic lev­els and the only non-lo­cal in­gre­di­ents I used were three English cheeses.”

Ire­land re­wards the visi­tor who digs be­yond the su­per­fi­cial at­trac­tions. The food scene in North­ern Ire­land is boom­ing in both scope and cre­ativ­ity. •

Open­ing im­age: Coun­try road to Torr Head. Clock­wise from above: Dark Hedges from Game of Thrones; Belle Isle Cas­tle; En­niskillen by night; and the draw­ing room of the Ti­tanic Ho­tel.

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