Northern Ireland still putting its best plates forward

Kilkeel Harbour, the home of NearyNógs Chocolates.

Brexit is creating uncertainty for the food industry across the border, but it’s well worth a visit writes Michelle Darmody.

Apple growing has a long history in Northern Ireland. There are miles of orchards that become a soft lacey pink as the spring progresses. 

Apple trees and their fruit are revered by many of those I spoke to on a recent visit to the area. East of Armagh, the Orchard County, in Dundrum Kilmegan Cider is produced. The cider harnesses the tastes of the beloved fruit beautifully, it is tart but vibrantly appley, a perfect mix of flavours. It tastes of the land that it comes from but there is also a hint of saline from the sea air that tumbles over the orchards. 

The slightly astringent taste of the bitter cider makes for a balanced, golden delicate drink. If you do not like your cider with a tart twist there is also a sweeter version of Kilmegan available. The cider has won awards for its branding but the labels may soon have to be adjusted, as the separation from the European Union looms. Regulations are sure to change and each bottle will need to reflect this.

As the past months have shown Northern Ireland may suffer the most as the exit from the European Union is haggled over and painstakingly debated. This is a shame because there is considerable energy and enthusiasm in the Northern Irish food and drinks scene at the moment. A young generation, who have grown-up in the last 20 years of peace have started to become business owners and food entrepreneurs creating admirable food products and reviving small towns villages, which were damaged by the Troubles.

These small enterprises emerging among the green pastures, sloping hills and the coastal plains. The fertile land is excellent for cattle and dairy, and the convergence of the Irish Sea and Atlantic Ocean provide ample fishing territories. Broughgammon Farm is in Ballycastle, one of the most northern tips of the island. 

Charlie Broughgammon with his award-winning.

The Cole family produce rose veal and award winning lamb. They open their farm to visitors every Friday and you can wander through the fields of donkeys, goats, cows and vegetable gardens. A farm café serves locally roasted Bailies coffee, tea and homemade cakes. It, along with the farm shop, is open Tuesday through to Friday, or you can also order their meat online and have it delivered.

Brexit is a frustration for those like the Cole’s who are creating food products in Northern Ireland. It is difficult to expand while there are so many unknowns: banks are not willing to loan money; the import and export laws may change radically; stops at the border will lead to complications and shipping costs will rise. If you are creating a gorgeous cheese or rose veal salami, you spend your energy on perfecting your product, all of other challenges are an additional burden.

The Irish Food Writers Guild awarded Broughgammon Farm with a best producer award this year. Two of the other winners were also from Northern Ireland. Mike Thomson of Mike’s Fancy Cheese is the only raw milk cheese producer in the North. He makes Young Buck, a piquant, pungent and creamy blue cheese. Mike has now opened a cheese shop in Belfast, it is walking distance from Ox, a Michelin-starred restaurant where Young Buck is on the menu.

Hannon Meats welcomes visits to its farm.

Peter Hannon, of Hannon Meats, also received an Irish Food Writers Guild Award, it was a lifetime achievement award for his consistently excellent meat. You can call into Hannon’s farm and purchase directly from their shop.

Like Hannon’s and Broughgammon many producers are welcoming visitors to their farms, distilleries or production places. Shortcross, small batch gin, is made on the Rademon Estate. 

Apples from the walled garden are used to flavour the gin in addition to clover and elderflower from the surrounding fields, again this gin tastes of the place where it is created, it is shaped by the green hills and the sea breeze, which arrives laden with moisture that dampens the trees and blossoms on the estate. 

A tour of the facilities can be booked, it is magical, the sweet floral aroma of the botanicals waft through the air, copper valves hiss and pop as bubbling liquid is pushed through. Their new compressor was so large that the owners had to build a glass and high ceilinged section to house it, which is like a magical laboratory nestling among the fields.

Craft beer is an ever growing market in the North of Ireland as well as the South and export is on the tip of everyone’s tongue. But for this section of the industry labelling is not the only unknown, customs and excises and distribution channels will certainly change. Maggies Leap is a great beer made by Whitewater Craft Brewery and they have a visitor centre in Castlewellan, where the samples they serve are generous.

Visitors to the North can support small businesses and initiatives by dropping into the farm shops and dining in local restaurants and cafés that are highlighting the quality produce from the region. People really do appreciate the support in uncertain times; everywhere I went I met people who were enthusiastic and optimistic regardless.

The Harbour Inn Annalong serves excellent food in very unassuming surroundings. The inn is perched directly on the wall of the harbour and fish is landed within a few metres of the door. It is a family-run business with the owners both front of house and in the kitchen, while the chef’s father smokes fish out in the back yard. I ended my trip here listening to the clink of boats as the waves lap against their sides and I tasted a soft apple sauce made from local handpicked apples. 

The chef explained that the apples are from a tree his grandmother transplanted on her wedding day, bringing her favourite fruit to her new home. The apple sauce sits on the plate with a wedge of Young Buck cheese, the ancient apple and new cheese sitting side by side, a perfect analogy for this new Northern Ireland. Let us hope that Brexit will be kind, and not dampen the spirt of these producers and chefs.

WHERE TO STAY:

Montalto Estate, with its lush gardens.

Tyrella Country House Downpatrick - www.tyrellahouse.com Slieve Donard hotel in Newcastle has a spa and sea views - www.hastingshotels.com/slieve-donard-resort-and-spa/ Hanna’s Close self-catering cottages for an old Irish experience, this ‘clogh’ or enclave of cottages is nestled in the hills below the Mourne Mountains. www.mournecountrycottages.com

An organised tour of small food producers:

If you would like someone to take the guesswork out of your trip Tracy from Northern Ireland Food Tours will tailor a tour for a group or individuals. www.nifoodtours.com

Family days:

A 20-minute drive from Belfast is Montalto Estate with lush gardens, walking trails and a large play area. Lunch is cooked with local ingredients and served in their airy café. montaltoestate.com. NearyNógs, Northern Ireland’s first chocolate manufacturers, are based in Kilkeel, the family hand sort the beans, then roast, stone grind and temper the chocolate themselves.

Other recommended places to eat in Belfast:

The Curated Kitchen and Bia Rebel are two other restaurants that have recently opened, both offering good food and using local produce where possible. At The Curated Kitchen the menu changes radically each week, recipes are selected from a cookbook picked from the owner, Alan Cahoon’s extensive collection.

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