Organic Irish beef biltong? Must be
The Northern Irish capital is set for a tourist boom, no small thanks to its creative use of local produce, writes Andy Lynes
It’s a mark of how much Northern Ireland has changed that the Balmoral Show — the region’s largest agriculture and food event — is held every May in Lisburn on what was the site of the Maze, the prison that housed paramilitary prisoners during the Troubles.
I’d been invited to help judge the stands in the NI Food Pavilion — no small task, with nearly 100 producers to appraise, from artisan chocolate manufacturer NearyNógs Stoneground Chocolate to big brands such as Tayto crisps.
After a day sampling everything from Rooney’s Millbay oysters (from Carlingford Lough) to griddled treacle soda bread (from The Krazi Baker in Belfast), the best product awards went to the Triple Rose — a silken, savoury triple-cream cheese made by Ballylisk, from Armagh — and a 100% organic Irish beef biltong with a supple texture and beautiful spicing, made by artisan producer Ke Nako in Ballyclare.
I was staying in Belfast and, as we entered the city, my taxi driver pointed out a building site and told me that nine hotels were due to open over the next two years, including the 63-bedroom, £15-million George Best Hotel scheduled for September.
The Belfast Telegraph has reported no fewer than 27 ongoing hotel projects that would bring the total number of rooms in Belfast to more than 7 000 — double the current number.
So, what will all those visitors to the city be eating? I’ve been coming to Belfast for more than 20 years and have always been struck by the imaginative use of abundant local produce.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at Michelin-starred OX (oxbelfast.com), overlooking the River Lagan, where chef Steven Toman serves exquisite tasting menus based around seasonal produce sourced from local suppliers. A stunning spring dinner included tender rack and rump of lamb from the Mourne Mountains with roasted cauliflower.
At Noble (nobleholywood.com), an intimate first-floor restaurant in the nearby town of Holywood, you’ll find some of the best meat in the country, supplied by Peter Hannan, who, at his facility in Moira, ages Irish shorthorn beef in a chamber lined with bricks made of pink Himalayan salt.
On the night I was there, chalkboard specials included a steak aged for a whopping 70 days, making for particularly tender and full-flavoured flesh.
Back in the ’90s, the “Golden Mile” just south of the city centre was the place to go, with TV chef Paul Rankin’s Cayenne at its epicentre in Shaftesbury Square. It really was heartbreaking to see the place now derelict (it closed in 2013) and the surrounding area looking run down.
GOODBYE GOLDEN MILE
The Cathedral Quarter has replaced the Golden Mile as the city’s new food and drink hot spot.
Its numerous restaurants, cafés and bars include the newly opened Eastern Mediterranean brasserie Buba (bubabelfast.com), the hip Muddlers Club (themuddlersclubbelfast.com), the
casual-dining Hadskis (hadskis.co.uk) and the opulent Merchant Hotel
(themerchanthotel.com) with its impressive Victorian interiors and bling cocktail bar.
Cayenne may be long gone, but its global and fusion approach to food is alive and well elsewhere in the city.
Former head chef Andy Rea runs the casual Home restaurant
(homebelfast.co.uk), close to Belfast City Hall, where you’ll find miso broth with tofu, shiitake, brown rice, white radish, nori, edamame and pickled ginger on the menu.
His nearby fish restaurant, Mourne Seafood (mourneseafood.com/belfast), serves shellfish from its own beds — including a Cayenne classic: salt and chilli squid with Napa slaw, chilli jam and mayo. Rea is also a partner in La Taqueria
(lataqueriabelfast.co.uk), which serves authentic Mexican dishes such as quesos
fundidos — a kind of fondue with spicy pork — and some wickedly potent cocktails.
By the end of the meal I was knocking back neat tequila with the restaurant manager.
With Brexit still an unknown quantity in Northern Ireland, and with no properly functioning devolved government, there is a lot more change to come in the region. But if my experience over the past 20 years is anything to go by, the love of good food and a great time will always remain.
CITY OF INDUSTRY A view of Belfast over the River Lagan.
DIP IN Some of the Mediterranean fare on offer at Buba.
VICTORIAN INSIDE Executive chef Patrick Leonard at the opulent Merchant Hotel.