Think of Northern Ireland and a destination for the finest artisan-produced food and drink might not immediately come to mind. But with 2016 nominated as Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink, the whole of last year was dedicated to showcasing the best of locally-made produce, as well as the people and passion that go into making them. I packed my notebook – and my appetite – and set off for Belfast.
A trip to the capital city makes an excellent starting point for any gastronomical adventure, and Belfast has a number of local food markets that allow you to encounter both produce and producers in one go. The historic St George’s Market hosts food and craft sellers on a Saturday morning, and you’ll quickly see why it has racked up numerous accolades including the Observer Best Market of the Year 2016. You can amuse yourself by hopping between Great Taste Award winners including the Suki Tea stand (their Oolong Orange Blossom won the maximum 3 stars) as well as Ann’s Pantry of Larne, whose spelt and black pudding potato bread was also rewarded, while their traditional Irish sofa farls were so good I had to bring a batch home.
If you’re looking for a delicious lunch near to the market, James St. South comes highly recommended. Opened in 2003 by chef Niall McKenna, the restaurant offers a creative and exciting menu which adapts with the seasons. If you can’t make your mind up, you might opt for the 4 or 5-course Taste of Ulster Tasting Menu where Glenarm salmon and Ballinteer quail eggs precede County Derry pheasant and later, cockles and gherkin cream. If you’re keen on learning to recreate Niall’s style yourself, he offers regular classes at his cooking school just next door.
Northern Ireland’s dedication to premium, locally-sourced food and drink is not a new trend. The historic Slieve Donard Resort in County Down already had its own bakery, vegetable gardens and pigs when it opened in 1898. Today, every dining table features a brochure on food heritage, profiling their hundreds of local suppliers and their commitment to food provenance principles. Whether you’re a guest of the hotel or not, the afternoon tea with views over the coastline and the Mourne Mountains is well worth the detour.
Luxury loose teas are supplied by Thompson’s Family Teas – a third-generation family business based in Belfast – and marry perfectly with the finger sandwiches, scones, financiers and more dainty delicacies from chef Hazel Magill’s kitchen. Luckily, the hotel has everything you need post-afternoon tea, be it a treatment or mere lie down in the hotel’s 2-floor ESPA spa, or a dip in the pool where you can work some calories off afterwards.
No visit to Northern Ireland would be complete without venturing north up the coast into Giant’s Causeway territory. The spectacular scenery of County Antrim seduced Games of Thrones producers who chose it as the backdrop for many Winterfell locations. If you fancy your chances at spotting a GoT star, your chances would be high at the Ballygally Castle hotel, where the cast usually stay during filming. You can also eat like you’re in GoT at the hotel restaurant, where you can enjoy a themed afternoon tea or dinner. I enjoyed the latter, with its 20oz Salt Aged Northern Irish Beef Steak on the Bone – I would strongly recommend going light on the lunch beforehand.
Any such feast should be followed by a respectable digestif, and you won’t get more local than a Bushmills whisky. The Bushmills Distillery, the oldest licensed distillery in the world founded more than 400 years ago, is an hour’s drive from the hotel, and a stone’s throw from the Giant’s Causeway. If you do pick yourself up a bottle, don’t reserve it just for drinking from a glass – the breakfast buffets at the Slieve Resort and BallyGally Castle propose a dash of Bushmills in your porridge, and frankly, I’m a convert!
Hastings Hotels (hastingshotels.com, 02890471066) offers rooms at The Slieve Donard Resort & Spa from £125 per night and Ballygally Castle from £140 per night. Running in Heels was a guest of Ireland.com during Northern Ireland’s Year of Food & Drink 2016.