Organic Irish beef biltong? I must be in Belfast…
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 per cent 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, £15million George Best Hotel scheduled for September. The
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 Nineties, 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.
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.
Michelin-starred OX restaurant in Belfast