From Pat O’Doherty’s Black Bacon to ice cream from Glastry Farm, the food producers and farmers within gorgeously green county borders of Fermanagh have a secret weapon.
Well not so secret, as this food hero’s superpower is singing their praises from the rooftops.
Chef Noel McMeel is a true ambassador for local produce and has dedicated his entire career to sourcing, preparing and serving fresh food in season.
Having worked in top restaurants in Ireland and the US, Noel is now firmly established at five-star Lough Erne Resort, one of Northern Ireland’s top hotels, from where he has shared his unique style of modern Irish cooking with world leaders, A-list stars, and Ireland’s flourishing audience of food lovers.
His career is one that deserves to be chronicled and applauded, so we chatted to the much-loved culinary leader about the 6 dishes which have defined his evolution as a chef.
“I enjoyed reflecting back on these great dishes and the great things I have achieved. I am the type of person that thanks God every day for what I’ve got so looking back on these experiences I really appreciate the opportunities I’ve been lucky to have. It’s what makes me alive, and it’s what makes everybody here in the kitchen alive.”
In the house where I grew up, in the countryside of Toomebridge, County Antrim, my mother’s pantry featured shelves laden with traditional snacks and treats standing at the ready to sustain my large family. Recipes that stand out in my mind include the family barm brack, shortbread and Yellowman, chewy toffee-textured honeycomb. Mum used to make the barm brack, and all other breads, over a coal fire, and you could taste the earthiness of the turf fuel in the breads. This is the kind of food I still keep at arm’s reach to sustain myself, and feed friends and relatives who drop in and gather round my table. My philosophy around food has roots in my homeland, albeit now with a modern twist. I think it’s so important that we understand our culture and our roots and respect all of them, North, South East and West.
At Chez Panisse, which is an 100 per cent organic restaurant, there was a guy called Alan who was the forager. He would go out every morning to all the different organic farms around Napa to shop. When we’d come in all the ingredients would be in an old wine crate on a big board in kitchen and from what he collected we’d figure out what we’d cook that day. One day there were lots of beautiful green apples and we made Apple Tarte Tatin. A dish so pure and simple that it always stuck in my memory. For me, it says exactly what Chez Pannisse is all about.
It was only because I had been working at Watergate restaurant in Washington under Jean-Louis Palladin, one of the best chefs in the States at the time, that I got a chance to work Le Cirque. It was an incredible experience, one night I cooked for three former presidents who were dining together, and, talk about luck of the Irish, it just so happened that another time we did a tribute dinner for the three great kings of food, Paul Bucose, Rodger Verge, and Joel Robuchon. These chefs were in the kitchen during the day and then dined there that evening, so I cooked and plated the menu they had created and that’s where this dish came from. It’s one I’ve recreated many times ever since.
When we were asked to cater for the G8 Summit at the beginning we were given a list of ingredients that we were expected to work with, and I had a lump in my throat when I looked at it as I could never have cooked and served the type of food that they wanted. The produce was not local, it was all from England. Being cheeky I sent back a revised list and I managed to persuade them to allow us to showcase all our own local producers and ingredients.
One dish was Kettle Beef with a woodland mushroom duxelle, pickled baby onions, and black back bacon lardons that all sat on a boxty made my a local lady called Marion McGrath. David Cameron actually tweeted about how brilliant the beef was, and when I was seeing Barack Obama off he mentioned it too. He also said that he would come back, I replied if you don’t then I’ll go to the White House and that’s how I got my invite to visit!
If we do a signature dish that’s is always on the menu I think it’s so important that we tell a story about why we would put on that dish. ‘Pat’s Pork’ is an homage to Pat O’Doherty, my butcher who gets on a boat and goes over to feed his black pig herd on Inishcorkish Island, Lough Erne every day. His Fermanagh Black Bacon is the very essence of this dish composed of the belly, fillet and cheek of pork, black pudding, and ham hock served with apple butter. A nice simple dish, nothing too crazy, but that in itself tells a wee story and as a chef that’s what we should strive to do, to tell a story.
One of the fantastic things about doing big events like the G8 Summit, or going to Downing Street or the White House is that you get to see the real personalities of these great people. For Paul McCartney’s wedding, each evening he’d come into the kitchen and he was great craic. For one dish at that wedding, which was 100 per cent vegetarian, I had to source all of the strawberries in Portadown! I remember going back and forth a couple of times to collect them, my car smelt of strawberries for about a week afterwards! Paul and Heather just wanted simple things that tasted good. I served the strawberries with strawberry and raspberry jelly and a soya and yellowman icecream. Nature produces wonderful things and it’s great when someone appreciates that like they did.
For more information on Noel McMeel and Lough Erne Resort visit www.lougherneresort.com.
Erica grew up with a baker and confectioner for a father and a mother with an instinct and love for good food. It is little wonder then that, after completing a law degree, she went on to do a Masters in Food Business at UCC. With a consuming passion for all things food, nutrition and wellness, working with TheTaste is a perfect fit for Erica; allowing her to learn and experience every aspect of the food world meeting its characters and influencers along the way.