Northern Ireland And Its Little-Known Food Scene
LET ME GET THE OBVIOUS bit out of the way…
LET ME GET THE OBVIOUS bit out of the way first. Guinness — the best known stout in the world — is Ireland’s biggest claim to fame internationally, and not just in the beer business. They continue to celebrate it locally too. Across the Republic of Ireland, especially in its home city of Dublin, a pint off the tap with any meal is pretty much a given. Now for what you didn’t expect to hear — next door, in Northern Ireland, there’s a welcome wind of change. I’m at the iconic Sunflower Bar in Belfast with Niall McMullan, MD of Hercules Brewing Company. He’s brought me here for a pint of the Yardsman Double Stout that his brewery started making only a few years ago. Competing with Guinness is tough, he says, but bars like Sunflower have set a welcome precedent — in 2016, the owner took the decision to remove well known and international brands, shifting focus to the products of local breweries.
McMullan tells me that while Guinness was developed by a rich family that moved brewing back to Dublin, Hercules was the oldest brewery, founded in 1855. In fact, the street where it stood — along with 13 other breweries — was even called Hercules St at the time (it is now Royal St). McMullan had been in the drinks business for 25 years when he felt the urge to develop a beer from Belfast. By bringing Hercules back to life, he opened Belfast’s first brewery in almost 160 years, paving the way for over two dozen others to follow suit. “Fun fact — Yardsman is also the first beer to be filtered through Irish linen. The cloth was presented to Michael Deane when he won his first Michelin star,” says McMullan. Coincidentally, one of the famed Irish chef’s restaurants, Deane’s Meat Locker, is where I have dinner that night. The Irish Grass Fed Filet — easily one of the best steaks I have ever had — has been matured in a 12 ft chamber made using 1,000 handcut Himalayan salt bricks. Served with béarnaise, beef dripping chips, tomato and mushroom, the dish is rightly kept simple to let the beef remain the star of the show. Ireland’s connection with the Titanic is another tourist magnet. Belfast — where the ill-fated ship was built — is home to the Titanic Museum, which opened in 2012, marking the centenary of it setting sail. I choose to acquaint myself with the Titanic in a completely different manner — by exploring the meals served on board.
I make my way to Rayanne House, a charming, award-winning B&B built as a home in 1883 with views of the Belfast Lough, from where the ship set sail. Head chef and proprietor Conor McClelland serves a meal recreated from the menu of the last dinner served to first class passengers aboard the Titanic. “In 2010, I thought of this idea as something to do for a couple of nights, but it became such a hit that I’ve kept it going,” says McClelland, bringing out some of the dishes for me to sample — Asparagus and Watercress Salad with Champagne, Saffron Vinaigrette served with Roasted Squab, Garlic and Herb Scallops, Poached Salmon With Mousseline Sauce. He tells me that since the last menu is one of the very few that survived, it’s the one he used as inspiration. “I looked up the chef, Auguste Escoffier, found a book with the original recipes, studied more books written by him, and then reimagined these dishes the best I could.” True to expectation, the classically French menu is rich yet restrained, and the finishing touches — like the exquisite stemware, and crockery featuring the same Wisteria pattern used on board the Titanic’s china — make you certain that you’re truly getting a unique, authentic experience.
While McClelland serves a course of cheese as well, it’s worth going to the source directly to buy some to bring back home. Sawers — established in 1887 — supplied cheese, meat, poultry and more to the Titanic. Its current location, a small store on Belfast’s College Street, is a labyrinthine treasure trove for local as well as imported ingredients, ready-to-cook meals and fresh produce. A culinary trip to Belfast is also incomplete without a visit to St George’s Market — a Victorian covered market (apparently the last of its kind in the city), where pop-up stalls sell everything from cheese to cured meats and curios. At Slemish Cheese Co, I pick up a phenomenal block of cheese – flavoured with Irish Porter. At SD Bell’s — Ireland’s oldest independent tea importer and coffee roaster — there are divine blends from Brazil, Kenya, Ethiopia, Mexico and more.
A few stalls away, Hillstown the Farm Shop sells an excellent selection of charcuterie and beer from their own Hillstown Brewery. Interestingly, their funkily named brews — Spitting Llama, Goats Butt, Horny Bull Stout among them — were initially produced to feed the cows on the farm to meet Wagyu standards. As it turns out, they just happened to be nice enough to bottle and sell, so they find themselves displayed atop the freezer that advertises its specialty — a 35 day dry-aged, beer-fed beef. While samplers from the market’s various stalls can surely fill you up, you’re going to want to head down the road to The Garrick — referred to as the “default pub in Belfast” by several people I bumped into there, who swear by the extensive beer list, bar grub and lively atmosphere during live football telecasts.
On recommendation, my drink of choice is a pint of Mac Ivors Traditional Dry Cider — brewed by a fourthgeneration owner with Armagh apples grown on a family farm dating back to 1855. The bartender insists on sending me a portion of champ. This is a typically Northern Irish dish, I’m told — an inexpensive one made by combining mashed potatoes with chopped spring onions, butter, milk and cheese. I can’t help but lament the lack of gravy, and I wish it were served to me as a side with grilled meat, perhaps. Patrons at most of the tables around me seem to be enjoying the champ by itself. But then, the Irish have always been obsessed with potatoes. Given how cheap and easy they are to grow, 19th century Irish peasants are believed to have been consuming around 2 kg of potatoes a day (compared to around 400-600 gms in continental Europe), which played a huge role in causing the famine of 1845-49. Dietary habits have evolved only a little, over a century later.
Potato bread is another popular way to use up leftover potatoes, as is colcannon — a dish of potatoes and cabbage. The local potato pancake, Boxty, is often served as part of Ulster — the ultimate Northern Irish breakfast fryup. Along with Boxty and soda bread (flour, baking soda, salt, and buttermilk), there’s fried eggs, bacon, sausages, black pudding and maybe some baked beans, tomatoes and mushrooms. While black pudding — and in the Republic, even white pudding — are extremely popular breakfast items, I’m part of the minority that finds them too dense and one note. Another local snack I have to admit to disliking is dulse i.e. naturally dried seaweed, which is commonly sold in little snack-sized bags. The flavour is great when added to stews and gravies, and dulse is a great source of minerals as well as dietary fibre, but its texture makes it a rather unattractive choice of snack for me. Far more appealing are freshly shucked oysters — the best ones are flown in from nearby Galway, home to a widely attended oyster festival held every September.
In Ireland’s thriving gin industry too, dulse is a unique pick for local distillers. The popular An Dúlamán gin, for instance, is made using five locally harvested varieties of seaweed, as well as six other botanicals. Another gin that catches my eye is Shortcross — brewed by a Northern Irish couple, Fiona and David-Boyd Armstrong, using only ingredients foraged on their family’s 500-acre Rademon estate, located south of Belfast. For another round of drinks, I head down to another Belfast institution — the Crown Liquor Saloon. Dating back to 1826, its stunning tiles, woodwork and stained-glass décor can be attributed to Italian craftsmen who were in the city to work on its several new churches and worked on this pub after hours. But while the structure remains stubbornly old school, its menu has a refreshing mix of old and new. It is here that I first sample Jawbox gin, a product of the nearby Echlinville Distillery.
It pairs very well with ginger ale, more so than the usual choice of tonic, and that has me a little more excited to drive down to the distillery the next day. When it opened, Echlinville was the first licensed distillery in Northern Ireland in over 125 years. The Braniff family owns the farm on which the distillery stands, and founder Shane Braniff even plans to open a museum someday to display his collection of military tanks. During a brewery tour, I get a chance to see how Jawbox as well as Echlinville Gin are made, but it’s the casks of whisky that catch my attention. Here’s an interesting idea for an activity while on holiday — create your own whisky. You can stay at the Echlinville Manor House and create your own barrel of whisky, with an input on every process, down to details such as selecting your own barley. The final bottles are filled, measured, sealed and packed by hand. If so far, Irish whisky has been all about Jameson and Bushmills for you, here’s a truly unique indulgence to consider, and a great souvenir to take home.