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Where and what to eat in County Down, Northern Ireland

Where and what to eat in County Down, Northern Ireland

by Chloë King 02 May 2019

Chloë King takes us on a whistlestop tour of Newry, Mourne and the rest of County Down to discover Northern Ireland's flourishing food scene.

Arriving at Belfast International in sleet and snow, I drive south to County Down in darkness. It takes an hour to reach the Slieve Donard Resort & Spa in Newcastle – a pretty Victorian seaside town just down from the prolific mussel beds of Dundrum Bay. Newcastle’s vast stretch of sandy beach is shouldered between the Royal County Down Golf Course and the unspeakably beautiful granite peaks of the Mourne Mountains.

The breakfast I wake to is a buffet of fantasy proportions: porridge with Bushmills whiskey and a giant hunk of glistening honeycomb. Fresh and dried fruits, cereals, muesli, smoothies and juices. The creamiest yogurt, cured meats and cheeses. To top it all? An Ulster Fry. Thick-cut back bacon, eggs, tomatoes, mushrooms, beans, hash browns. Perky little Honeybee sausages with Gracehill Fine Foods black and white puddings. A towering display of Irwin’s breads (soda, wheaten and rye). Oh, and there are scuffins, muffins, pancakes and farls.

Looking out at the Mournes, snow-dusted in dazzling sunshine, I can see precisely what inspired CS Lewis to write The Chronicles of Narnia. I think, if that late Easyjet flight was a wardrobe, I must be in a food lover’s Narnia. I also think, almost painfully, this is only the first meal of the day.

Northern Ireland has been named Best Food Destination 2018/19 by the International Travel & Tourism Awards and it hasn’t taken me long to find out why. The region – already well known for world-class golf and Game of Thrones – is home to some outstanding produce and a growing number of creative food entrepreneurs.

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Food NI and Tourism NI, a huge effort is being made to promote the region’s food culture. The initiative really got going with Food NI’s Year of Food & Drink in 2016, and continues with gusto. Lengthy banners advertising produce greet you at the airport, and many producers recently descended on London’s Borough Market over this year’s St Patrick’s Day weekend.

The profile is certainly growing, but the best way to ‘Taste the Greatness’, as they say, is to visit. Down is a stunningly beautiful place, but the export market is such that some local delicacies, such as the award-winning Millbay Oysters, are easier to get hold of in Beijing than they are in Britain.

To really get under the skin of the food scene here, you can let Tracey Jeffery of NI Food Tours be your guide. Tracey, herself a producer of macarons, leads bespoke coach trips into the heart of Co. Down from Belfast. She will introduce you to some of the region’s food talent, to the joys of the area’s famed PGI-protected Comber Potatoes, and she can teach you how to bake.

After breakfast, my first stop is Hanna’s Close where they run classes in traditional home cooking. I try their potato farls, freshly made with the promise that ‘we’re none of us perfect… and so too is the potato bread’. This just sings ‘real food’ to me. The simple fare that Mum made is more memorable, even, than the most incredible hotel breakfast.

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The setting couldn’t be nicer. Dating back to the 1600s, this lovingly-restored semi-circle of dwellings known as a clachan is a rare surviving example of this kind of farm settlement. Hanna’s Close offers comfortable self-catering accommodation that speaks much about life being tied to the land. Butter was churned here by hand in wooden barrels and taken to market in Kilkeel; a traditional method continued to great applaud by nearby Abernethy Butter.

Kilkeel is the nearest big harbour town. Home to the Mourne Seafood Cookery School that offers a range of courses including ‘seaweed foraging’ with Michelle Wilson of Crawford’s Rock Seaweed Co. The shores nearby are dense with dulse, a tasty iodine-rich equivalent to Japanese nori.

The town is home to NearyNógs – Northern Ireland’s ‘first and only’ chocolate manufacturers – but my trip to Kilkeel was to visit Rooney Fish. Andrew Rooney is an oyster farmer and commercial fisher of langoustines, crabs and lobsters, all of which are bountiful here. His Millbay Oysters boast a higher meat yield than any you are likely to try, with pleasing notes of cucumber, grass and kelp.

A little further up the coast is The Harbour Inn in Annalong. The restaurant has its own smoker and a strong menu focusing on the day’s catch. Today’s lunch is lobster, pollock and scallops. My heaven is the handmade wheaten and seaweed bread washed down with Beer Hut Brewing Fluffy Bunny Marshmallow Milk Stout.

I try local cheeses including the acclaimed Ballylisk of Armagh ‘Triple Rose’ served with homemade chutney and apple puree. Chef Trevor Orr’s secret is to use apples from his mother’s tree… and butter, he says. ‘That’s why I’m so slim.’

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Other noteworthy restaurants include Brunel’s in Newcastle, where chef Paul Cunningham creates satisfying dishes influenced by wild ingredients. For my evening meal, I enjoy his hay-smoked venison and beetroot followed by a plate of pretty sea buckthorn curd with shards of fennel meringue.­

The surf is undoubtedly a huge anchor for this area’s foodies. If you’re lucky enough to find Simply Scampi at a market or event, their deep-fried Portavogie prawns will put to shame all scampi in previous memory. Journey further inland, however, and you’ll find the turf is more than decent. In Ballynahinch, the sadly closed Bull & Ram was lorded by Jay Rayner for its ‘prime-cut short-horn steak’ of staggering quality. I admire the tiled front of the former butcher’s shop and wish I’d visited sooner.

Still, there is plenty more here, top of the list being the native Dexter beef – a compact, hardy breed with full-flavoured, succulent meat. Castlescreen Farm, in particular, is known for its happy animals and exceptional produce.

Today, the big draw to Ballynahinch is the redeveloped Montalto Estate. The visitor centre and event space with walking trails has a new café offering lunches, cakes and savouries to satisfy all ages. The plan is to supply the café with produce from the on-site orchard and kitchen garden and ‘bring the outside-in’, an idea already executed beautifully in the space.

No food tour would be complete without mentioning the drink, and here, unsurprisingly, there are many brewers and distillers also doing good things.

Nestled between Tollymore and Castlewellan Forest Parks, Whitewater Brewing Co. offers regular brewery tours that end with the chance to sample some of their stunning beers. These accomplished brewers enjoy experimenting with a range of styles – from American IPAs to a memorable Imperial Russian Stout named Kreme de la Kremlin that stacks up 10.5% ABV in rich barley malt, muscovado sugar and rum-infused vanilla pods.

Kilmegan Cider is produced by Andrew Boyd, a multi-award-winning maker with a range of sophisticated products that are infinitely drinkable. Worth looking out for is newcomer Mourne Dew distillery whose Kilbroney and Ruby Irish gins use foraged mountain botanicals. To the north, deep in Saint Patrick’s Country, you’ll find Rademon Estate Distillery, where their impressive newly-built visitor centre offers informative tasting experiences.

As the first, and largest, premium craft distiller in the region, Rademon Estate’s popular Shortcross Gin has notes of fragrant elderflower, oily elderberry, sweet apple and bitter clover. Their first release single malt whiskey will also be launched later this year. Happily, for me, this presents another great excuse to return to the wonderlands of Co. Down.

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Where and what to eat in County Down, Northern Ireland

 
 

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