The food and drink of Northern Ireland

The food and drink of Northern Ireland

by Chloë King 07 January 2020

Chloë King introduces us to the rapidly expanding food scene of Northern Ireland, talking to the chefs and food producers at the heart of it and sharing six recipes which showcase the country's traditional cuisine.

Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books.

Writer and illustrator Chloe King is founder of the food lovers’ book club Cook the Books.

The unifying theme of Irish food has to be the quality of the produce and the unpretentious grace of its serving – two hallmarks, surely, of every world-class cuisine. Whether Irish food will be recognised as such is a point to discuss, but it is unarguably going through a renaissance right now.

I admit, until recently, I’d seen little of Ireland. I was doubtful there was enough of a ‘thing’ about Irish food to even call it a cuisine. If you’d asked me what I knew, I might have remembered boiling bucketloads of bacon and cabbage with my mother-in-law for St Patrick’s Day at our London local. I might have told you that I ‘quite like’ black pudding, or that a card my mother received featured a cartoon of her, pregnant with me, pint of Guinness in hand.

The popular preconception that Irish food is all pork, potatoes and porter is just wrong, however. Hearty family favourites are a big part of the culinary cannon, but today’s chefs bring together the best elements of their home kitchens – the beautiful ingredients, the attraction to simplicity – with techniques from all over the world. The result is often ambitious, accomplished, original dishes that invariably tell a story.

From the Michelin-starred Ox, EIPIC and Muddlers Club, to its huge array of great cafés, restaurants, delis and pubs, Belfast has enough to satisfy both residents and food tourists of all stripes. Some indie success stories include the award-winning Bia Rebel Ramen; the trendy Established Coffee; and Mike’s Fancy Cheese, home to cheesemaker Michael Thomson, producer of Young Buck – Northern Ireland’s first, and favourite, raw milk blue cheese.

Belfast is as such, a leading light of the Northern Ireland food scene that can sometimes take attention from gems in rural areas. Exciting campaigns like Taste the Island, celebrating the richness of Irish food and drink culture across north and south, urban and rural, are helping to challenge this tendency.

Because of this, people are starting to sit up. Ireland won an unprecedented number of Michelin stars at the 2020 awards this October, hot on the heels of Northern Ireland winning Best Food Destination at the International Travel and Tourism Awards in 2018.

Jim Mulholland, Head Chef at No.14 at The Georgian House in Comber, is a talented chef with over thirty years’ experience who has mentored many young stars and helped champion the rise of Irish food. He says the impressive Michelin results show ‘Ireland is a destination’, and the impact is that more chefs are seeing the benefit of coming back.

I asked why Irish food has developed at such a high rate over the last ten years, and he says it’s largely down to travel. ‘Irish people have travelled a lot,’ he says. ‘They come back and they say, ‘why are we not doing this here?’’

One chef who is leading the way home is Noel McMeel. one of Northern Ireland’s notable exports and a bestselling cookery book author whose CV sports greats like NYC’s Le Cirque and Chez Panisse in California. ‘I had the taste for travel and travel I did,’ says Noel. ‘I was lucky to go to some of the best culinary schools in the world, but home is where the heart is… I love Ireland. I love the people, I love the culture and I love my family.’

Noel is currently executive head chef at The Catalina Restaurant in Enniskillen’s prestigious Lough Erne Resort, where he prepares immaculate dishes like Indigenous, showcasing smoked Lough Neagh eel and scallop. ‘Having cooked for some of the most famous people on Earth,’ he says. ‘it’s seen to be honest when I say Irish food is on a world stage.

‘It’s our natural ingredients,’ he adds. These famously include Comber Early potatoes and Armagh Bramley apples, both with PGI status. Then there are Strangford Lough langoustines; award-winning Millbay Oysters; Dundrum Bay mussels; lobsters; and salmon from the River Foyle, to name but a few.

Noel McMeel is head chef at The Catalina Restaurant on Lough Erne, where he showcases local ingredients including the famous Lough Neagh eel
Northern Irish cuisine focuses on incredible ingredients and simplicity, with the quality and skill of the chefs elevating the food to another level

Bordered by five counties, Lough Neagh is the largest lake in the British Isles and home to Europe’s largest wild glass eel fishery. Its produce, says Pat Close, CEO of the Lough Neagh Fisherman’s Co-operative, ‘is regarded by all and sundry to be the best eels found in all of Europe’.

The quality of Lough Neagh eel is a product of the unique feeding substrate that produces a high fat content, rich in Omega 3, that is well-suited to smoking and jellying. As well as the eel, the lough is full of brown trout, or dollaghan, beloved of chefs, and pollan, perch, roach, bream and pike. The pollan is important as it was the first product in Northern Ireland to be awarded PDO status in 2018. The flavour, says Pat, ‘is often likened to herring but without the saltiness, more of an earthy taste’.

Lough Neagh eel, explains Jim, is really oily. It doesn’t need extra fat so there’s no need to baste. ‘We cook it in the oven in tin foil, flake it and make it into a mousse to serve with ox tongue so you get this smoky taste of Lough Neagh… I’ve also tried it when out with the fishermen, we had a camp stove beside the lough and just barbecued the freshly caught eel; it was absolutely amazing.’

Many of the chefs you’ll speak to here will agree that good food comes down to the bare necessities. ‘In the last ten years the produce here has become really exceptional,’ says Jim. ‘The suppliers are really focused. Chefs here are looking at simplicity, at high level produce and how to enhance it with a style of cooking… It comes down to passion. I see a lot of passion on a day-to-day basis.’

An example of such can be found in Joe McGirr, the man behind exceptional Boatyard gins and vodka. Founding Boatyard hot on the heels of a successful spirits career in London, Joe says it was a way ‘to come home’. He tells me he has a farming background. ‘The Derry farm comes into everything we do.’

Joe is typical of many producers here in that his farming roots go way back, but his business creates thoroughly modern products. There is definitely a sense that people are building on their food heritage all the time. ‘In terms of flavour we talk about terroir like it’s very overused,’ says Joe. ‘I think it’s more necessity. For a lot of food and drink we use what’s around us first.’

For his gin, Joe uses a botanical named Sweet Gale, or Bog Myrtle, that has a tea-like flavour with notes of eucalyptus. The native herb was used in eleventh-century brewing and, like dulse and kelp, is a foraged ingredient enjoying new uses as chefs and producers look for authentic flavours that capture the wildness of the landscape.

‘It’s grown on my dad’s farm in the bog where we used to cut turf for winter fuel,’ explains Joe. ‘When I was eight years old being eaten by midges clamping turf I never in this world thought I’d be back in the bog harvesting one of the botanicals we became so immune to, to make hundreds of thousands of bottles of gin!’

You might say the fact that Northern Ireland missed out on post-war infrastructure improvements has had the unexpected effect of helping to preserve people’s connection to the land. Farming in Northern Ireland remains a way of life, and food production is a big concern that in many ways still adheres to the tradition of family farming being central to community.

Much of what is regarded as traditional Irish cuisine – soda bread, apple tart, barmbrack, boxty, champ, colcannon, Irish stew, potatoes and bacon – were developed ‘in the kitchens of the solid farming classes’, explains Noel. Many of these dishes are designed to be cooked in a pot or skillet, because poorer homes were frequently without ovens. Definitive recipes are hard to pin down because they are highly personal.

This lasting respect for tradition is now being matched by international influences. Corndale Farm and Ispini are two companies making amazing salamis, chorizo and bresaola that build on the solid status of Irish pork. Johnny McDowell is proprietor of the artisan grocer Indie Füde in Comber, Co. Down, and the speedy growth of his business (which started as a market stall five years ago) reflects growing interest in local alternatives to European classics.

‘My big passion from day one has been the cheese,’ says Johnny, who is currently developing his own cheese and has recently returned from judging at the World Cheese Awards in Bergamo. ‘I know that Irish cheese is just world-class,’ he says. ‘It’s in its infancy, but we have great pastures and dairies, and knowledge that benefits from migration and skills passed through generations.’

Another noticeable inspiration is Nordic food. The enchanting landscape of Nordic archipelagos is somewhat mirrored by the glistening loughs and shores of Ireland and the food is also a natural fit for its focus on native ingredients, cooked simply and prettily.

As Jim explains, ‘There’s a Scandinavian influence coming through in the interest in fermentation and pickling. We’re into curing fish and pickling brill. We ferment spelt and barley to serve with pigeon. We make yeasted cauliflower and use whey to cook veg – the whey would otherwise be a waste product, but we use it to make a salt dough to bake whole beetroot in. It comes out of the oven looking like a dinosaur egg.’

I ask Jim whether he agrees there’s a food revolution going on in Northern Ireland at the moment, and he replies confidently. ‘Absolutely.’

When you spend even a little time here, it becomes clear that there is something uniquely special about Irish food. When you consider that so much of this island is used to farm the finest beef, dairy and pork. When you learn that its waters yield fish and shellfish eaten all over the world, you see that the cook’s canvas is exceptional, and needs little decoration.

You also start to think that the health and prosperity of Irish food is important to everyone. Not least because so much of that which is grown, reared or fished here ends up on dinner plates elsewhere. I think it’s time to give Irish food the credit it deserves.