Published: 16/01/2014 12:55 - Updated: 16/01/2014 13:16

Food for thought in Northern Ireland

Written byRon Smith

NORTHERN Ireland has emerged as one of the top places for good food.

There are a number of top chefs working in Belfast and there are many good places there to eat.

Northern Ireland has an energy about it these days; people have their heads up and are cheerful and busy.

There are also a growing number of small family companies producing world class food which is being sought after by top chefs, and top shops, everywhere.

Here are just a few – go to Northern Ireland yourself and explore, you will not be disappointed!

Drive a few miles north of Belfast and you will be in verdant green rolling hills with cows dotted across the fields. The climate (frequently wet!) means that the Holstein cows are grass fed outdoors for almost all the year. This gives the added richness to the milk.

You will come to Drumara, County Down. At Beechtree Farm Will and Alison Abernethy (Yes! Abernethy – must have some Scottish ancestors) make butter in the old fashioned way.

Most milk drunk these days is semi-skimmed, which leaves a lot of cream to use up. From a local dairy Will takes the rich cream and churns it into butter, with just two level teaspoons of salt added for every kilo of butter. And that is it. Nothing added or taken away.

When the cream has turned into butter Will patiently pats it with wooden patters, then rolls it up into 125 grams rolls, wraps it in greaseproof paper, a brown paper outer wrapper, a sticker, and off it goes to top chefs and around 70 shops.

In the past three years sales have expanded to Eire, London, Scotland, Canada and the USA. You know those little foil wrapped portions of butter that you usually get in hotels? These often contain a lot of salt to preserve it for a long time. In better places they simply slice Will’s roll and put it on a wee dish with maybe a label on the top – good butter, you can’t beat it.

They also make butter fudge – again simple, pure and melt in the mouth. To order on-line go to www.abernethybuttercompany.com Both the butter and the fudge have won "Great taste" awards.

Another good place to discover is Moira. In the town is Hannan Meats. (www.hannanmeat.com). Peter Hannon was a farmer, and he has moved up the value chain. He has a passion – almost an obsession – about meat, particularly beef.

To get the best out of it, it must be matured. Peter worked out that you need pure salt to absorb the beasties that take over and cause the beef to start to rot. He tried various sea salts, but the seas are polluted, and it didn’t work.

Finally he found pure salt in the Himalayas, in the Punjab. This salt has 82 trace elements and minerals in it. It used to be on the sea bed, and is pure, so he imports brick sized blocks by the tonne and builds it up into a wall in the chill chambers, and then fills the chamber with beef. He has found that the beef will mature perfectly well up to 65 days, but the maturation process plateaus at around 45 days, so it is brought out then.

The chambers are only opened once a week for as short a time as possible. The staff call it the "smash and grab raid" as they dash in to extract the meat that has matured to meet the growing demand. The beef is the best you will taste. It is dry, no running water or blood, but unbelievably tender and full of taste.

It cooks in half the time because around 20% of the moisture has gone – you are not buying water when you buy his beef! He also produces three month dry aged bacon, so superb it is being exported to Italy for use in carbonaras.

The 23 employees are kept busy, as is the on-site shop which also sells a range of products from other Northern Irish small producers –all working together.

Hannon meats has won so many prizes for taste, it is becoming very well known and exports are now going to Scotland, England, Portugal and France. Peter Hannon started his crusade over seven years ago. Trial and error and the difficulty of breaking the mould has taken him a while to break through, but now it is taking off in a big way. You will see his meat mentioned by name on menus in top restaurants in Belfast.

If you head towards Derry you will come to Limavady. Leona and Richard Kane farm at Broglasco Farm, on land that was reclaimed from the sea of Lough Foyle centuries ago (they still have sea shells in the soil).

This fertile land is the family farm. It used to be a dairy farm but the small scale is uneconomic these days, so the young couple diverted into wheat and rape. They have refined their operation after trying different varieties and now grow just the one strain of rape. They only use rape seed grown on their land to produce a cold pressed pure bottled rape seed oil.

The air drying process is by gas burners, rather than the usual diesel powered ones, and this gives better results. It is dried to ensure that it does not deteriorate while stored on the farm, and to keep up the quality.

They cold press the grains on site, taking just the first 30% of the oil. This is the best and purest. The resulting waste is squeezed into rolls for high protein animal feed. The golden oil is bottled on the farm, labelled and packed and despatched.

There is a viewing corridor where you can see through windows as the one employee works the bottling machine, and there is a small shop. The secret of this top quality oil is the rich soil, the single variety of rape, and the drying.

You will see this golden oil for sale in many places and also in the kitchens of top restaurants; it is highly valued by chefs for its versatility. More information is available at www.broightergold.co.uk

Castledawson is a pleasant little town with little to distinguish it, and you could easily pass through without stopping at Dittys Bakery on the main street.

This is a "must visit" place. The bland, discreet façade hides the 70 employees working away in the bakery behind. The business was started in 1963 by his father and today Robert Ditty is well known for his passion for good baking. (www.dittysbakery.com)

The shop sells a whole range of good cakes, bread and biscuits, and further on is the café area where you can taste the products, and then there is the actual bakery. On Wednesday afternoons (the only time when production pauses and the public can have access) you can go in and have a demonstration. This is a real experience.

While he is talking to you, Robert and his nephew calmly and effortlessly mix up and bake farls and loaves of bread, which are cooked in just half an hour and you can take it away with you.

Robert uses local ingredients wherever possible and regrets that the bread flour of the quality that he demands is not available from the UK – he has to import it from Belgium. His bread is superb and keeps for a week without any deterioration whatever.

He explained that cheap supermarket bread is poor quality flour, and it is so full of water that it goes mouldy in no time, and is difficult to toast properly because of the water content. He also makes oatcakes using rolled oats from Antrim. For our Scottish palette they seem a little on the sweet side and are more like a thick biscuit, but the smoked oatcakes (using an artisan smokehouse) are rather special.

Robert’s hobby is bee keeping, so his own honey goes into the wheaten bread rather than sugar. The larger supermarkets of this world killed Ditty’s role as the village baker, but Robert has continued to grow by using the best of ingredients; local as far as possible, and using for example his granny’s recipes.

He makes tattie cakes in the traditional way, and also in a small size, approx. 7cms (2.5 inches) in diameter, and these are canapés in posh restaurants with fish or egg or bacon on the top. There is a second shop along the road at Magherafelt, which is also popular, but sales are now international with customers as far away as Australia.

There are many more producers of excellent local food – more than I could fit into this article – go and discover them for yourself. A good place to start is St. George’s Market in the centre of Belfast (www.belfastcity.gov.uk/stgeorgesmarket) As well as top quality fish meat fruit and vegetables, you will find many food producers, have a cup of tea on a stall (with plenty of chat and laughter thrown in) and crafts.

But where can you eat all these good foods? Well, here are a few suggestions.

You can learn how to cook some of the specialities at the Belfast Cookery School(www.belfastcookeryschool.com) which is in the centre of the city and you can access it via its own front door or through Mourne Seafood Bar (www.seafoodbar.com) on bank Street, and with which it is affiliated.

You can spend a day or an hour, in a group or individually. Chef Stephen Jeffers cheerfully flicks his wrist, waves his arms and hey presto! A super main dish appears in a few minutes – easy!

If, like my wife, you prefer to be at the consumption end rather than the production end of meals, there are many top class restaurants. It is unfair to pick out just a few, but these are the ones that I tried and enjoyed.

OX (www.oxbelfast.com) Stephen and Alain started this in March 2013. The restaurant overlooks the River Lagan and each course is accompanied by the appropriate wine, with vegetables given as much priority as the meat or fish – a great culinary experience.

SHU (www.shu-restaurant.com) set in a Victorian terrace, this stylish restaurant (using local ingredients and Peter Hannan beef of course) was totally packed when I was there – best to make a reservation. You can see the chefs at work – always a good thing. Top quality again, with excellent wines to accompany, and good value for money.

The "Nomadic". This miniature luxury liner was the tender vessel ferrying 1st and 2nd class passengers from Cherbourg out to the Titanic and other luxury White Star liners. After a mixed career, it is today superbly restored in a dry dock where you can visit it, and dine in it.

"Posh Nosh" (www.poshnoshireland.com) provide 6 course meals on board – I have one recommendation – go there hungry!

For accommodation there is the full range of hotels, and one of the best is the Fitzwilliam hotel, right in the heart of Belfast. (www.fitzwilliamhotelbelfast.com)

It is a top class hotel, and won the Ulster Good Food Guide award in 2012. It is an oasis of calm and luxury.

There is also a tradition of friendly B&Bs, and one of the very best is Newforge House, which has won many of awards (www.newforgehouse.com)

It is at Magheralin, Craigavon. Lou and John Mathers own the 16th century, six bed mansion that sits in its own grounds with its own vegetable garden and hens. Local produce is used wherever possible. They used to do afternoon teas, the very best of sandwiches, scones oatcakes and shortbread, all freshly made by John – but they have to give it up at the end of 2013 as it is too popular, it was taking over! Now the guests will have tranquillity and be totally spoiled.

It is good to see these enterprising, dynamic family businesses thriving and producing such world class food. This must be good for the Northern Ireland economy, not just financially, it keeps people in the country, achieving and developing and creating an excellence that is drawing tourists from all over the world.

Flybe (www.flybe.com) fly from both Inverness and Aberdeen to Belfast City Airport – and it is in the city! A taxi ride to the centre took about 10 minutes. Value Cabs are really good value – they have the lowest fixed charge I have ever seen.

Finally, just to show you that good food is available everywhere, top chef Kevin Pike and his assistant chef have bought a van and serve instantly cooked, on the spot, incredible food on the side of the River Foyle, on one of the three walking trails!

They will also come to your house, park outside, and cook a meal for you for your dinner party. This is so far removed from the typical burger van that unless you see and taste it you won’t believe me. And it is SO popular!

The lunchtime that we were there a queue of 40 people patiently waited their turn. You don’t mind waiting when you can see them preparing and cooking the food in front of you.

There are a lot of good things happening in Northern Ireland. For more information look at www.discovernorthernireland.com

I would like to tell you about the many tourist sights – but that will have to wait for a future article.

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