I hope you have a good eating stomach on you,” says V, our guide. We’ll hear several other such beautiful formulations across our visit, many coupled with dry Irish humour, but this particular phrase is the most apt for our current mission. One normally thinks of people attacking food, but in this case, for nearly five mind-altering days, it’s the food and drink of Northern Ireland that surrounds us and then pummels us to our (mostly very happy) knees. Mind you, it doesn’t actually feel like you’re being attacked; it’s just this awareness that you’ve got to be on top of your gastronomic game to handle this challenge. Furthermore, the copious food and drink is leavened with drives, and visits to spots of interest. The October weather is not too cold yet, and the air of the place does something so that no matter how much you’ve eaten at a meal, you find yourself nicely void and avid just before the next bout of shameless quaffery.
Not too long ago, like the rest of the British Isles, Northern Ireland too was very much the butt of jokes about stodgy, tasteless food. The gastronomic revolution that’s crept over the isles may have taken its time to get to every corner, but looking at the variety of confident menus here, one is left in no doubt that, leveraging great local produce and marrying it to contemporary high-end cookery, NI is now punching above its weight in foodie terms.
For instance, our first meal was at a restaurant called Brunel’s in Newcastle town, some 50 kilometres south of Belfast. In the environment of a classy, but unpretentious country restaurant, where one sensed the food would not be bad, anything could have arrived at the table: traditional Irish fare, classic heavy French cuisine leftover from the 1960s (not in Ireland, but, say, the then trendier parts of southern England), or whatever. Instead what we got was a fair warning for the days to come: beautifully presented courses, laid before us without fuss, the food an inventive marriage of ‘modern British’ cookery and proudly local raw materials.
Minimalist bricks of superb chicken liver parfait were teamed with fig chutney, freeze-dried blueberries, chocolate malt and a sweet sultana brioche; the deceptively named ‘local seafood chowder’ was apparently very complex and anything but simple, (confession: I don’t eat fish or seafood, but I had good informants as companions); the mains included local Mourne lamb (with lovely smoked garlic seed froth, among other things), glazed duck breast and local lobster.
In Belfast, dinner that night was to be a simpler but grander affair. But before that, we embarked on a tour of what’s called the Titanic Quarter. In the 19th and early 20th century, Belfast was the world’s biggest ship-building city. When it was completed here, in 1912, the Titanic (and its sister ships, the Olympic and the Brittanic) were the culmination of decades of marine engineering knowhow. The ‘Titanic tour’ takes you through the dockside buildings and large halls where the ships were designed, the massive pump-house that pumped water in and out of the adjacent dry dock where the leviathans were finished, and into a smaller ship of the same kind, SS Nomadic, preserved as a museum piece.
You briefly wonder how exactly the Belfast brains have managed to turn a major disaster (albeit one that took place over a hundred years ago) into a tourist attraction. But then you look at a wall in the museum with the names of ships built in these docks and you realise the place has released many vessels that have sailed for decades, never mind the occasional, ill-fated luxury tub. Reading the names Zemindar, Talookdar and Nurjahan, you also realise the connections to our own past.
By the time you’re done with the dinner of classic roast beef, mashed potatoes and a fulsome French red wine, you’re almost ready yourself to let the waves take you down along with Leo and his friends. A reviving Irish coffee, in an actual Irish dockside warehouse, made with proper Irish whiskey, burns away defeatist thoughts and helps you sink into bed instead.
From the second day, the trip becomes a blur of chilly early mornings, mist-washed autumn landscape, artisanal bakeries, butteries, oileries and goateries, these interspersions allowing barely enough time for a series of crazily voluptuous meals to be digested. Driving through the magical (luckily mostly rain-free) countryside, you begin to internalise why the Irish have produced so many great poets and singers. Adding to the view, fantastic names flash by on the signboards of the lilting country roads: Moneyrannel Road, Ballynahinch, Fivemiletown, Newtownbutler, Dromara, Dungannon,
Enniskillen, Derrygonnelly. Our guide V’s voice provides a great soundtrack, informative, droll and, again, poetic. Something is “due to pure, fortunate luck,” or, driving past some of the country’s famous bogs, the question: “Just look at that! Can you imagine being out on the boot all day?”
V actually has a beautifully clear ‘neutral Irish’ accent, but other natives are more from the soil, so to speak, and after four days I realise my English has been massaged into another, sister language. “Noy we’re coming into this toyn”, “the field was ployed up”. ‘Ait’ is out, ‘hice’ is house, ‘hestry’ is history; names change shape—Ruchurd, Jum—and you can hear the lineage of different settler accents spoken on the other side of the world: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and that weird place across the Atlantic. Leave aside the ingestible paradise and great sights, I would revisit just to immerse myself in the antidote to southern England’s glottal-challenged Estuary English. Occasionally I struggle to understand what somebody’s saying, but I realise I’m far better off than the dazed Catalans from Barcelona, the completely befuddled German hack from Hamburg, or even the elegant Danish travel editor scratching her blonde head, all having arrived here imagining they spoke some of the local language.
“What it means, ja, how about we have some feud?” asks the large German. “What is this ‘feud’?” I tell him I think they mean ‘food’ and his eyes light up with understanding.
Talking about feuds, we are, of course, traversing the geography of one of the most famous feuds in hestry. Along the way to sites of food and beauty, we also spend a little time driving around the once-notorious battleground of Falls Road and Shankill Road, adjacent Republican and Loyalist strongholds, and always a major flashpoint during the Troubles, the civil war that scarred this area for decades in the last century. Today, there are black-cab tours of the area, and when we get there, we see a row of cabs parked near the big mural wall, with cabbies explaining things to wide-eyed tourists. On another street, the iconography of a Loyalist mural is explained to us: “First, both sides’ murals had the ‘soldiers’ with their masks on, guns pointing at you. Then, during peace negotiations a mural came up with the masks still in place, but the guns pointing down, and the other side reciprocated. Now, after the Good Friday Agreement, the guns are shouldered and you can see the men’s faces, the masks are off.”
Focussed as we are on the pursuit of gastronomic happiness, it’s difficult to dwell on troubled histories. In a morning discussion session with a man called Peter Hannan, another, distant feuding region comes up for mention. Hannan is one of the Britsh Isles’ most famous meat suppliers, and the beef he delivers to upper-end restaurants from London to Lough Erne is almost legendary. Over coffee at Newforge House, a lovely old mansion hotel, Hannan explains the process of hanging beef. You need the newly slaughtered carcasses to be hung for as long as possible in order for good bacteria to soften the meat. But the problem is that after a while, bad bacteria also gets to grow in the meat, starting to rot it. The solution? Hang the meat in an environment where growth of the unwanted bacteria is seriously retarded. “We’ve imported 15 tons of pink Himalayan salt and we hang our beef in a chamber, among bricks of this salt.” Salivating patriotically, I ask which part of the Himalayas the salt comes from. The answer: “From the Pakistani Himalayas.” We’ve already tasted some of Hannan’s beef at Deanes/Meat Locker in Belfast, and today we are given another sampling: perfectly cooked steak, medium rare, cut up into little snack-sized pieces. One has heard of meat being hung for 21 days, or even 27 days, but this stuff has been hung for a full 35. Even in a trip loaded with great red meat of all sorts, this is the most memorable bite of flesh.
The most memorable day of the trip, however, begins with a drive to a farm in Abernathy to see another cow product being made: the most exclusive butter in the isles, which again, is supplied to the poshest eateries in Britain and Ireland. Giving just enough time for the amazing scones, butter and jam to be processed, we drive back to Belfast and dive straight into ‘a guided food tour’, trying various cheeses, breads and sausages at St George’s Market, followed by artisanal beers at a local pub, followed by a ‘light snack’ at an Italian wonderland called Coppi’s, a nashta that includes superb pizza layered with goat meat from a nearby farm. All this is only by way of prelude. Our lunch is at OX, a relatively new restaurant by the Logan River, which is already making waves with British food critics.
The meal begins with a zany take on the classic Brit ham-and-eggs breakfast, a highly amusing amuse-bouche of egg yolk, autumn truffle, crispy ham and black trompette mushrooms. This is followed by a dazzling array of small, but brilliant, courses: venison with fermented kohlrabi and nasturtium flowers, cod with hazelnut (I’m given lovely, tiny broccoli instead), a take on a Chateaubriand steak accompanied by parsley root and magically alchemised beetroot, and ending with a dessert of polenta cake with mascarpone, apricot and pecan that looks like it’s in a glass. As you start to eat, the ‘glass’ shatters, and you realise the whole thing was being held in a tube of crystallised sugar.
There is but one false note in the whole amazing meal: at one point I ask the French sommelier-manager (who co-owns OX with the chef) what the little yellow ochre smear is, next to my broccoli and the others’ cod. “Curie,” he replies. “Curie?” I’m thinking Madame Marie, but then I look at the menu and realise he means ‘curry’. I’m so ecstatic with the meal, both the food and the accompanying wines, that I don’t say anything, but the smear is a truly foul concoction made with what tastes like cheap Madras Powder.
This ‘curie’ follows us across Northern Ireland to the Watermill, where another chef, Frenchman Pascal Brissaud, also provides a similar false ‘curie’ note in the middle of an otherwise great meal of somewhat more traditional French fare.
Our last blast of the trip is at the Lough Erne Resort, which held a G-8 summit not too long ago. The farewell dinner at the resort’s Catalina Restaurant is, once again, superb, with whiskey-cured salmon, that Abernathy butter and home-made breads, a fillet of beef (again) paired with parsley (again, but tasting somehow completely different from the dish at OX), and finishing with goat’s cheese, an actual shard of honeycomb, and a vanilla panna cotta with ‘textures of apple’.
On our day of departure, the Lough Erne breakfast is also to die for, but so stuffed are all of us that death by gluttony is no longer such an attractive option. If you go visit Northern Ireland (and you should), you can and should take your time, no matter that we ate and drank for you ten days’ worth of amazing food and drink in half that time. It was a hard job, but someone had to do it.
Where to stay: I stayed at Europa Hotel (www.hastingshotels.com), Belfast. Standard 4-star pile, warm, friendly service, own kitchen gardens support new menus in restaurants. From £140 for doubles.
Where to eat & drink
BELFAST: Brunel’s Newcastle (+44-28-43723951, www.brunelsrestaurant.co.uk) has a lovely, modern menu in the seaside town 50km south of Belfast. Coppi (www.coppi.co.uk) is a superb Italian restaurant. The goat’s meat pizza is a must for lovers of desi mutton: it tastes nothing like desi mutton, but even less like lamb. OX Belfast (+44-28-90314121, www.oxbelfast.com) focusses on seasonal vegetables and fruit, and places them at the forefront of the dish.
Deanes Meat Locker (+44-28-90331134, www.michaeldeane.co.uk) offers a great beef course with salad and bread on the side. The beef is treated in a salt chamber of Himalayan salt bricks. The Cocktail Bar at The Merchant Hotel (+44-28-90234888, www.themerchanthotel.com) serves the award-winning (and truly special) Shortcross Gin (www.shortcrossgin.com) in opulent surroundings. St Georges Market (www.belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket/citymarket.asp) is one of Belfast’s oldest attractions and one of the UK’s best food markets. Famed for local artisan food produce, and continental and specialty foods. Tynedale Farm (+44-77-25653233), located in Antrim County, is where Willie Haire and his wife rear great goats that make it to the menus of many Belfast restaurants, including at Coppi. Abernethy Butter (+44-78-90139357, www.abernathybuttercompany.com), run by Allison and Will, makes arguably the world’s best butter. Newforge House (+44-28-92611255, www.newforgehouse.com), a 30-minute drive from Belfast, is a five-star, family-run Georgian country house, with a fireside—and homemade biscuits. Owner (and chef!) John uses local artisanal produce.
LONDONDERRY: Browns Restaurant and Champagne Lounge (+44-28-71345180, www.brownrestaurant.com) serves outstanding food, including delicious beetroot macaroons. Ditty’s Home Bakery (+44-28-79468243, www.dittysbakery.com) is an artisan bakery using traditional baking methods. Get there early to watch the traditional Irish sourdough bread being made.
ENNISKILLEN: Watermill (+44-28-67724369, www.watermillrestaurantfermanagh.com) is a lakeside restaurant with a great view in Fermanagh county, which offers a traditional French-style menu. (But watch out for the curie!) Lough Erne Resort (+44-28-66323230, www.lougherneresort.com) is a posh resort, with a sprawling golf course and lovely rooms, even if the showers don’t work (in genuine UK style!). The Catalina Restaurant serves a mix of classic and contemporary dishes with an emphasis on fresh, seasonal and local produce.