Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink 2016 is a celebration of everything delicious about the North. Over 366 days, there are countless ways to get a true taste of Northern Ireland, but experiencing each and every one would be a challenge for even the most die hard foodie.
Thankfully, the year is neatly divided into monthly themes, keeping the momentum going throughout 2016, spreading the love to producers of all shapes and sizes, and helping food fanatics make the very most of the year; down to the very last drop, crumb and sip.
January was a celebration of breakfast, February championed all things local, and in March we learnt how Northern Ireland’s heritage and traditions have shaped Northern Ireland’s produce and cuisine. April had the distinction of being Brewing and Distilling month.
With an explosion in the manufacturing of craft beers and unique gins, whiskeys and ciders, TheTaste travelled North to experience some of these exciting new products, as well as long standing legends; meeting the producers, and seeing how they are made. Follow our tasting trail and see what’s ‘hoppening’ in Northern Ireland’s brewing and distilling scene.
Less than two hours drive from Dublin is Armagh Cider Company, Portadown; the heart of the Orchard County. A former supplier of apples to Magner’s, farmer Philip Troughton launched the Armagh Cider Company in 2005, becoming first commercial craft cider company in Northern Ireland. “To be quite honest I have changed from a cider maker who grows apples, to an apple grower who makes cider,” says Philip on the importance he places on the quality of the apples that go into their cider, predominantly the Armagh Bramley Apple, which has PGI status. He even sought the advice of a ‘pommologist’, to grow the perfect variety of apples.
Philip, and his wife Helen, talked us through the process from ‘blossom to bottle’, all of which are carried out on their farm where tours are now available by appointment. Afterwards we tasted everything from their original, award winning Carson’s Crisp and Maddens Mellow Cider, to their new innovative flavoured blends, Doyle’s Cider, all of which proved Armagh Cider Company have taken craft cider to the next level; leaving the commercial types in the shade, of the apple tree.
In a blissful haze from our cider sampling, we made our way to Belfast city centre for lunch at James Street South. The modern dining room was a stark contrast to the rustic barn we had just been in, but Head Chef David Gillmore takes just as much care with his product. Originally opened in 2003 by chef Niall McKenna, James Street South serves up the freshest Northern Irish produce with a classical touch. That day’s dishes included Hannan’s Corned Ox Cheek, and Rademnon Estate Pigeon, as well as a pat of Abernethy butter to accompany the bread.
From there we darted across the city, passing Samson and Goliath, the famous landmark gantry cranes that dominate the Belfast skyline, to Hercules Brewing Company. Owner Niall McMullan explained to us how Belfast was once a leading powerhouse in brewing, and he how sought to restore that history. In February 2014, Hercules Brewing Company became the first craft brewery to open in Belfast for almost 160 years. Named after one of the original breweries on Belfast’s Hercules Street, the brewery uses some of the old traditions of brewing to create a small batch brew lager called Yardsman, which is even filtered through Irish linen.
From restoring history to making it; that evening we dined at one of two Michelin star restaurants in Northern Ireland, OX. Co-owners Chef Stephen Toman, and sommelier Alain Kerloc’h, achieved that Michelin star in their first year in business, 2013. That evening, by means of a surprise tasting menu, we sampled some of that imaginative and creative approach to seasonality that so impressed Michelin. Over five courses we were continually left aghast at dishes that showcased the very best of Spring’s bounty, as well as top quality local meats and sustainably sourced fish.
After a truly memorable dining experience at OX, we walked along the waterfront to Custom House Square, where the first night of the inaugural Belfast Craft Beer & Cider Festival was just kicking off. As the sun set and the square lit up, we made our way around the tent tasting some of the 25 producers and over 150 different craft beverages on offer, from Bushmills, Farmageddon Brewing Co-Op, Hilden Brewery, Mac Ivors Cider, Mourne Mountain, and North Bound Brewery amongst a host of others.
Food trucks served some of the city’s favourite artisan dishes, like goat jalfezi curry from Broughgammon Farm, steak and stout pies from Jolly Pies; which proved to be perfect fare to wash down with a cold beer.
A trip dedicated to craft brewing and distillery wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t take in Ireland’s oldest whiskey distillery, Bushmills. Though meeting with master blender Helen Mullholland she suggests that there might be an even stronger claim; the world’s oldest distillery, as their licence to distil dates back to 1608. Even after 400 years it is still very much a working distillery. Local Niall Mehaffey guided us through the distillery showing us exactly how they ‘turn water into gold’; from mashing, fermentation, distilling, maturation, and blending, right through to bottling.
Over 100,000 visitors that do the same distillery tour each year, though Niall says they plan to revamp the tour route over the next few years, and will invest £30m in the next ten years, so that even more people can experience Bushmills from grain to glass.
A five minute stroll from the distillery, into village of Bushmills, is the four star Bushmills Inn. The old coach house has an idyllic charm, and a comforting aroma of a peat fire, that burns away regardless of season. In a cosy wooden clad dining room, we sampled their lunch menu that focuses on local Antrim classics, such as Dalriada cullen skink, and Prime Ulster beef strips served with champ. The Atlantic seafood platter was a particular hit.
On our return to Dublin, we called in for a tour of the family run Hilden Brewery, located just outside the City of Lisburn. Hilden Brewery is a family run micro-brewery, that boasts being the oldest independent brewery in Ireland. Hilden also introduced Ireland to its first beer festival. Now in its 25th year, the brewery is running a beer and music festival on the bank holiday weekend in August. Owner Seamus Scullion explained how they achieve the unique character of their traditionally brewed beers, through the careful selection of malt and hops.
“Hops only have one commercial use, and that is to flavour beer,” says Seamus. “We hops define beer, and we want to set our beers apart from all other beers, and one of the key ways to do that is through the use of hops. We buy hops carefully, we use hops generously, so our beers have a distinct hoppy character.”
We got a chance to sample these subtleties of flavour and character in Hilden’s beers in The Tap Room, the restaurant situated in the converted stables in the grounds of the beautiful and historic Georgian Hilden House. Favourites were Molly’s Chocolate Stout, with real cocoa, and Barney’s Brew, named after baker Barney Hughes, the creator of The Belfast Bap, a wheat beer spiced with cardamom, coriander and black pepper.
“We like to give our customers variety,” Seamus concludes. A statement that I think the community of brewers and distillers across Northern Ireland would whole heartedly agree with.
For more information on Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink 201 visit www.discovernorthernireland.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 a brief dalliance with law, she completed a Masters degree 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.