Derry blossoms as pop-up food festival raises the bar
Other parts of Northern Ireland should look to their laurels as the Maiden City announces itself as a worthy contender for best food destination
Belfast food and tourism chiefs should be looking over their shoulders because leading the charge in the race to become the north’s best foodie destination and closing in fast, is, er, Derry/Londonderry. Yes. You read it right. Derry is grabbing the horns of the bull firmly and embarking on a plan to sweep aside all previous misconceptions and to convince you, food writers and anyone willing to listen that the centre of gravity of Northern Ireland’s artisanal food industry and restaurant sector has shifted away from Belfast, Down and Antrim and is now in the north west.
Let’s face it. Belfast and its environs have had it easy. All the best restaurants are concentrated, naturally enough, where the people are. High density population centres mean there are more potential customers, and this creates competition the likes of which for the greater Belfast area has resulted in two Michelin starred restaurants, a raft of Bibs Gourmand and AA Rosettes and other award winners.
Good Asian restaurants include curry houses, Chinese and Thai and there is a current blossoming of independent quality burger joints. The eating out spectrum is broad. So, if the culinary centre of gravity is in the east, what chance does Derry and the north west have of claiming its place as a foodie destination?
A recent outing in the Maiden City convinced me that actually, the city chiefs (Derry and Strabane District Council) are not only madly ambitious, but they have the backing of some of the best producers and most committed restaurateurs in the region.
A pop-up food festival last week in the Primrose restaurant at the city centre end of the Strand Road revealed just how good and varied the north west food and drink offer is.
I apologise to Derry and Strabane Council for sounding so surprised and I know that this makes it sound a bit patronising, but whereas at first I made the journey to lend support to a noble and worthy cause, I didn’t think it would be such an eye-opening experience which included world-class standard food and cooking. Helping make the point, Primrose restaurant owners, Ciaran and Melanie Breslin, he a butcher and she a baker, enlisted the collaboration of chefs from the classy Bishopsgate Hotel (soon to join Ireland’s best in the famous Blue Book) and a clatter of producers from sectors including brewing and fishing, meat and dairy to join head chef Bryn Evans to create a complex and sophisticated dinner made entirely of locally sourced ingredients.
I calculated that everything that went into the entire seven course menu accompanied by food pairings from Walled City Brewery and Northbound and Chambers’ Redgate cider must have come from within a 25-mile radius of Derry city. Extraordinary. Not just because of the variety of stuff available in November but because the quality was of a level which would pass muster in London and Dublin, easily.
Take the Lough Foyle flat oysters from Foylemore. Seriously, do, because these are native and rarely seen. Sustainably harvested under the watchful eye of the Loughs Agency, a north/south body, these oysters are very different to the more common Pacific species we normally gather from Strangford and Carlingford loughs.
The texture is firmer, the briney flavour more intense and the skill required to open them, far greater too.
The Tirkeeran black pudding made by Ciaran Breslin, the halibut from Donegal Prime Fish, pork from Grants of Culmore and Corndale Farm and excellent blue and hard cheeses from Dart Mountain are names which have made foodies sit up and take notice for good reason.
But to showcase these in dishes by chef Evans raises the bar to dizzy new heights. Add to this the local ales and beers and you have not only a fine dinner, but something very peculiar to the north west. For example, Northbound’s 34 Oak Smoked Beer is a perfect pairing for the halibut with as much character and subtle flavour as a classic Sancerre or oaked Chardonnay from Burgundy.
Walled City’s Milk Stout with the flat oysters is another stroke of genius. Interestingly, (and I pray my native county of Armagh forgives me for this treachery) Chambers Drumahoe Redgate cider is complex, dry and beautifully balanced making it an excellent partner for Dalton’s Farm potato soup.
I could go on, gushing all day. But frankly, I can’t wait until they do another one of these dinners. In the meant time, make the trip to Derry and book a table in the Primrose. You’ll be delighted you made the effort.
LONDONDERRY FAYRE: Primrose restaurant