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