At the Mourne Seafood Bar on Bank Street in Belfast, owner Bob McCoubrey waved the food from his kitchen to our table. It was a friendly mix of oysters served Japanese style, hake perched on a cassoulet of white beans and chorizo, rope-raised mussels in a white wine and cream sauce, and a sticky toffee pudding that would make the angels sing.
Food tourism is a new and expanding travel experience worldwide, and in Northern Ireland the food revolution has arrived. Think sustainable sourcing, ethical farming, and a network of growers, producers, and chefs who support each other while blazing new trails in taste experience.
Traditionally when Irish food is mentioned what springs to mind is corned beef and cabbage, and green beer on St. Patrick’s Day. But in the last five years Irish food has undergone a dramatic transformation, and in Northern Ireland you don’t have to look far for Michelin quality food at affordable prices.
Part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is made up of six counties and shares with its sister to the south, the Republic of Ireland, some of the most fertile soil, green pastures, and fish-rich seas in the world. Autumn is a great time to explore the region and not only sample the quality and variety of the food but the dazzling display of changing leaves, berry-studded hedgerows, and softly surging seas.
Bread and Butter
I started my food tour in County Down. Each item on a Northern Irish menu creates its own suggestions for places to visit. Abernethy Butter appeared regularly with my breakfast toast and so I headed to Beach Tree Farm owned by Allison and Will Abernethy. Their golden spread takes its flavour from the carotene in the grass that feeds their cows and is made using traditional methods: hand-churned then hand-rolled with wooden paddles. Beech Tree produces some of the world’s best butter, which comes smoked, flavoured with dulse, or just plain.
And how about some bread to put that butter on? At the Folktown Market in Belfast’s Bank Square I met Mark Douglas, a.k.a. the Krazi Baker, who bakes soda and potato breads on a square griddle. Inviting me into his stall, he showed me how to mix the flour, soda, buttermilk, and salt into a biscuit dough, cut it into fourths (or farls) and cook it on the griddle. With a healthy dollop of Abernethy Butter, it melted in my mouth.
All around the market were stall-keepers demonstrating baking, peg weaving, rope making, and even stilt walking. Charlie Cole at the neighbouring meat stall explained the free range farming that his family employs at their Broughgammon Farm in County Antrim. There’s nowhere like a market to get the feel of a people and a place.
One of Northern Ireland’s most beautiful drives is around the headland that connects the counties of Antrim and Derry. On a breezy day I drove down the coast past the swinging rope bridge at Carrick-a-Rede to Northern Ireland’s signature destination, the Giant’s Causeway. Made up of 40,000 interlocking hexagonal basalt columns erupting from the sea, it is one of only two places in the world where such volcanic formations exist. The columns are carved by nature with lines that look like the petroglyphs of a lost race of giants, and in between the rocks, lovers and loners have hammered coins as offerings to the gods of the sea.
West along the coast from the causeway and set right on the beach at Portstewart I found a place for lunch. Harry’s Shack specializes in food from the sea and owner Donal Doughty pairs his dishes with various beers from the mushrooming microbreweries that are springing up all over the country. Settling on an amber ale called Kinnegar Devil’s Back (although I could have had Hillstown Horny Bull Stout or Spitting Llama Ale), I sampled succulent Malin Head crab fresh off the boat, Mulroy Bay mussels cooked with barley, and Irish cider and megrim sole with smoked bacon, fennel, and cockles.
Shell-seekers in brightly coloured coats explored the shoreline right outside the window and in the distance a fishing boat put out to sea. The scenery was glorious, and it was the food that gave it its character.
One of the pleasures of autumn in Northern Ireland is the Richhill Harvest Festival in Armagh, which gathers up the apples of the area’s 140 farms and presents them in a multitude of forms. Cider-tasting was on my menu for the morning and it didn’t disappoint. Dry cider, sweet cider, non-alcoholic cider—there was a drink for every taste and a grower ready to explain the intricacies of apple-growing, juice-mixing, and the expanding world of cider appreciation.
Like seafood, cider was once considered something only the poor could enjoy. But Ireland’s celebration of its own food resources and the growing business of food tourism have changed all that. At the Brewer’s House in Dungannon in County Tyrone, owner Ciaren McCausland matched not only cider but his own microbrewery’s Red Hand Pale Ale with his award-winning seafood chowder. This was followed by a venison slider from meat brought in by a local hunter and an Armagh apple compote poached in cider syrup. It doesn’t get any fresher or more local than that.
Lough Erne Resort
My last stop on my culinary tour of Northern Ireland was just outside the historic town of Einniskillen in County Fermanagh. The American connection to this area is strong. President Bill Clinton dedicated a peace centre here named for him, and at Lough Erne Resort down the road, President Barack Obama attended the G8 Summit in 2013.
Presiding over the kitchen at Lough Erne is executive chef Noel McMeel. Cooking for heads of state can be a rough gig but McMeel insisted to G8 organizers that the food eaten must be local.
Sitting near the spot where the most powerful leaders in the world had eaten, surrounded by the shimmering waters of Lough Erne and a pristine golf course designed by Sir Nick Faldo, I expected some good food and I got it. A delicate rabbit pie was followed by succulent Liscanner crab and Ballycastle scallop, a fillet of Irish beef with mushroom duxcelle, and a bitter cocoa chocolate delice topped with passion fruit and mango sorbet. It was a sensory experience to savour. President Obama himself couldn’t have asked for more.
Susan James is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She has lived in India, the U.K., and Hawaii, and writes about travel, art, and culture.