A Bite of Belfast: Northern Ireland's hottest foodie ticket
Year of Food & Drink 2016
Northern Ireland's foodie reputation is growing, says Aoife McElwain, and Belfast is its beating heart.
Have you ever gotten your first impression of a city from a rooftop hot tub? I certainly hadn't. At least, not until I arrived in Belfast.
Now here I am, sitting in a hot tub atop of the beautiful art deco wing of The Merchant Hotel in the city's Cathedral Quarter, taking in the view of the Albert Memorial Clock and the slope of Black Mountain to the west of the city.
You know… no big deal.
The Merchant is housed in the historic former Ulster Bank HQ, and it's my base for a foodie-themed break in the city. Northern Ireland's Year of Food & Drink is underway, and following my rooftop soak, I kick things off with a meander down the cobbled lanes of Hill Street to Established Coffee (established.coffee).
Opened over two years ago by Bridgeen Barbour and Mark Ashbridge (pictured below), this coffee shop is locally acknowledged as a game-changer in terms of the quality of coffee and food it dishes up.
Working directly with coffee roasters like Dublin's 3FE and London's Workshop, it serves up sticky cinnamon buns alongside waffles for breakfast, a creative selection of daily specials such as Veggie Tacos (£5.50/€7), and sandwiches made in-house on spongy sourdough supplied by local artisan bakery Zac's Bakehouse (zacsbakehouse.com).
A decade ago, I wonder whether you could have found a business like this in Belfast. But today, Established Coffee is among a new wave of food and drink ventures in a city growing in culinary confidence - similar to Dublin over the last decade.
Internationally, Belfast has been put back on the map by Stephen Toman and Alain Kerloc'h's OX (oxbelfast.com) and Michael Deane's EIPIC (michaeldeane.ie/eipic), both of which were awarded Michelin stars last year (Northern Ireland had lost its sole star in 2011). Alain Kerloc'h of OX recognises the changes in a blossoming food scene.
"It has grown in confidence. We are now proud of showcasing our produce and the customers are becoming more adventurous," he tells me.
The recognition of EIPIC and OX has been a well-timed boost to the culinary confidence of the local scene, but Belfast's (and Northern Ireland's) progress is about far more than Michelin Stars.
The 10-minute bus ride to General Merchants (generalmerchants.co.uk), a neighbourhood café with an Antipodean influence on the Newtownards Road, is worth it for the all-day Melbourne Breakfast (£7.50/€9.60) alone - a plate of toasted sourdough (also from Zac's) smeared with Vegemite and topped with creamy avocado and two gloriously runny poached free-range eggs from Drayne's Farm in Lisburn (draynesfarm.co.uk).
Right around the corner, just off Albertbridge Road, is the Punjana Tea Factory (punjana.com), a brand with a Belfast family behind it. I'm struck by the story of Thompson's Family Tea, who have rebranded relatively recently to introduce their family name, and it's hard not to suppose that the political landscape of Belfast played a part in that hesitation.
"I think it's fair to say the Troubles led to a stagnation in Northern Ireland's food and drink culture," Barbara Collins, food writer and former BBC journalist, explains. "Obviously, they had a big impact on where people ate out. Belfast suffered from what was called the 'doughnut' effect for decades. The city centre was deserted in the evenings because of bomb fears."
Belfast's story is about more than politics, of course. It also has a long history of creativity through its craft and linen heritage, an influence that I see reflected in the Yardsman Brewery (yardsmanlager.com), which uses the old technique of straining hops through unprocessed linen.
Broughgammon Farm (broughgammon.com), an hour's drive away in Co Antrim, marries the contemporary and traditional in its outstanding smoked goat bacon. That's right, I said goat bacon - and it is delicious. This dark, delectably smokey meat tastes somewhere between pork bacon and the deeper flavour of American-style beef bacon. You'll find Broughgammon Farm's van parked every Saturday in Dublin's Temple Bar Food Market, as well as every Sunday in St George's Food Market in Belfast.
Having tried and failed to get a table at OX at short notice, I feel like I've found the next best thing at The Muddler's Club (themuddlersclubbelfast.com).
Hidden down Warehouse Lane, this understated spot was recently opened by Chef Gareth McCaughey, formerly sous chef at OX. Among other dishes, I devour a plate of roast squash (£10/€12.80) surrounded by baby carrots, orange, kale and goat cheese, and a plate of lime-rubbed lamb slices (£10/€12.80) - both celebrations of local produce. Expect exquisite cooking at outstanding value, with a great front of house team.
So, what has changed to boost this growing Belfast scene?
"I think it's the global attitude to Northern Ireland," says Becky Cole of Broughgammon Farm. "The increased limelight is slowly giving us the confidence to shout about it. We think Trish Deseine's book, Home, is wonderfully reflective of this. She embraces the purity of our food - something we have taken for granted - and makes us realise that we have something to offer the world."
Belfast is a two-hour drive from Dublin, and roughly 4.5 hours from Cork. The Enterprise rail service connects Dublin to Belfast up to eight times daily, taking around two hours from Connolly Station. Check out irishrail.ie or translink.co.uk. Fares start from €14.99 each-way.
What to pack
The sterling exchange is tough on the euro, but most places accept payment by card and it's easy to find ATMs. I'd recommend bringing your sense of humour so you can keep up with the inimitable Northern Irish wit. Oh, and don't forget your swimsuit for some rooftop hot tub action!
Where to stay
On a budget, check out Vagabonds Hostel (vagabondsbelfast.com) near Queen's University, where beds start from around €16.50 per night. For a splash, try The Merchant Hotel (themerchanthotel.com), where Aoife stayed as a guest of Tourism Northern Ireland. Luxury rooms start from around €230 per night.
1) Market fare
Head to St George’s Market for a wander around this historic Victorian hub. Pick up a fresh juice from the socially-driven Mango Street Juicery (mangostreet.co.uk), a bar of handmade chocolate from Ní Cho (nichocolate.com), or a bib with Belfast phrases (“wee pet”; “bout ye!”) from teeandtoast.com.
2) Worth a trip
Wine & Brine in Moira, Co. Armagh is a 35-minute drive from Belfast. Run by Chris and Davina MacGowan, the menu acts as a culinary tour of Northern Ireland, taking in products such as Leggygowan Farm’s goat’s milk and pheasant from Tryone's Baronscourt Estate. wineandbrine.co.uk.
3) Belfast food tour
Operating every Saturday, and some Fridays and Sundays, this four-hour walking tour led by local food enthusiast Caroline Wilson includes over 20 tastings of food and drink for £45/€57pp. It's a whistelstop tour of Northern Ireland's finest produce. Book your place at belfastfoodtour.com.