I first realise the Irish are serious about their gastronomic renaissance when, on the menu of a restaurant in the picturesque seaside village of Carlingford, I spy the following: black pudding with muesli mousse and red onion jam.
Nouvelle black pudding? Faith and begorrah, is nothing sacred? Next we’ll be having the boiled gammon with a cabbage beurre blanc, the boxty served with a frisé salad and eels pan-fried with Burgundy?
Well, why not? I remember many years ago when Le Gavroche, the Roux brothers’ temple of gastronomy in London, served home-made black pudding without raising an eyebrow. The trick was to call it boudin noir, serve it on Villeroy and Boch porcelain and charge $50 a serving.
Jordan’s was the restaurant, a pretty place in a row of cannibalised 17th-century fishermen’s cottages on Carlingford Sound, just south of the border with Northern Ireland. While the rest of our party go sailing and admiring the distant vista of the Mountains of Mourne, I adjourn to sample a little of what is being called (don’t laugh) la nouvelle cuisine Irelandaise.
The black pudding is rich and succulent. The ceviche of fresh local salmon with shallots and sauce Dijonnaise is (says my companion) equally excellent. It is only when we come to the lobster that the chef responds to some ancient instinct.
There is nothing wrong with the lobster – one of those sweet, large-clawed North Atlantic numbers fished fresh from a tank – it is simply boiled and served with drawn butter and lemon. But the accompaniments are intimidating. Not one, but three kinds of potato (boiled, roasted and mashed), a forest of broccoli and an avalanche of carrot.
Says Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, a Belfast gastronome who runs the A Taste of Ulster restaurant rating scheme: “It’s called eating for Ireland. I think the great potato famine left us with a historically scarred psyche – there’s this fear that every meal might be our last.”
But in a fortnight of travelling through north and south Ireland, I was amazed at the way the island’s new prosperity – and the impact of millions of visitors – has revolutionised the way the Irish eat. “For foodies, we have become the last undiscovered destination in Europe,” declares Jay-O’Boyle bravely.
Twenty years ago when I was last in Ulster, there was only one restaurant (the Skandia) which stayed open until the debauched hour of 8.30pm – not that anyone in their right mind would want to be out on the streets of Belfast after dark – and the choice of wine rarely ran beyond red or white.
Today, Ireland has a two-star Michelin restaurant, Patrick Guilbaud, in the luxurious new Merrion Hotel, housed in a row of Georgian terrace houses almost opposite the parliament building in Dublin. And it has several one-star establishments, though regrettably celebrity chefs Paul and Jeanne Rankin (known to Australian foodies for their TV series), who put Belfast on the map with the eclectic Roscoffs, have lost theirs. Never mind, there are other up-and-coming stars.
Nick Price, who runs a trendy eatery in a converted whiskey bond-store in Belfast, was recently invited to a cooking demonstration at London’s snooty Fortnum and Mason’s. He amazed the snobby Brits with wheaten bread with dulse (a type of seaweed), and spiced fried oysters on soda bread with a tomato salsa.
Norah Brown, famous for her hospitality at Grange Lodge gourmet retreat in Dungannon, recently starred on Sophie (daughter of Jane) Grigson’s top-rating show on BBC TV. And who would have thought Gourmet magazine, the bible of American foodies, would do a spread on the cooking of Ulster.
Exotica has been imported – you can go Nepalese in Dublin, Mongolian in Belfast – but from the overseas visitor’s perspective, the most exciting development is the rediscovery and reinterpretation of Ireland’s own produce and tradition.
I enjoyed a grilled tail of monkfish (a firm-fleshed flat-fish a bit like a shark or a ray) with a parmesan risotto at the Burrendale country club in the bracing North Sea resort town of Newcastle; splendid Pacific oysters from Strangford Lough at the Portaferry Hotel (in my opinion far superior to the more famous oysters of Galway Bay); hand-made farmhouse cheeses, particularly a camembert-like St Killians, at the imposing Gothic mansion Adare Manor in County Limerick.
Corinne McAlister, for one, can’t believe the transformation. A Chinchilla girl originally, she came to northern Ireland 20 years ago from multicultural Wollongong and found she couldn’t buy basic ingredients such as ricotta cheese, filo pastry, spices and fresh herbs.
Today, with husband Seamus, she runs the Morning Star, an 1810 mailcoach inn in a laneway off the pedestrian mall in the heart of Belfast, which features on its menu such exotica as ostrich (Ulster is overrun with ostriches, the relics of get-rich-quick schemes of the early 1990s), crocodile, buffalo and, yes, kangaroo.
Downstairs in the bar you can tackle genuine rib-sticking traditional grub such as Irish stew, champ (mashed potatoes with scallions) with pork sausages and onion gravy, beef pies or boxty (a complicated potato pancake).
Upstairs, McAlister focuses on more sophisticated ways with Irish produce. She has venison and boar sausages with rosemary and red cabbage; at Craigavon in Armagh an enterprising farmer, named Jilly Acheson, is breeding game and rare old-fashioned breeds of beef, lamb and pork. During the late-autumn hunting season McAlister will have pheasant, mallard, grouse and snipe on the menu. When there is an “r” in the month there will be plump Cuan oysters, and year-round Ireland’s splendid oak-smoked salmon.
Today, she has managed to find me some eel. In fact, a whole bucketful of the things, which are gathered wild in Lough Neagh when they are in their “silver” stage by a co-operative organised by an enterprising priest, Father Kennedy.
Her chef fries the eel in a dry pan (eels have fat enough of their own), deglazes it with some red wine, and serves it with a salad – it’s close to the best I have tasted, not that I’ve eaten a lot of eel.
A few minutes up the road, I meet up with the affable Nick Price, the proprietor of Nick’s Warehouse and chairman of the Northern Ireland Restaurateurs’ Association. Price opened a lunchtime wine bar/bistro in a derelict warehouse about 10 years ago, and says everyone thought he was mad when he later decided to open for dinner: “No-one goes out at night in Belfast,” they said.
Now the place is packed, lunch and dinner, with a younger crowd downstairs quaffing vintages from France, Chile, South Africa and Australia. The bizoids upstairs tuck into some more serious dining. Like McAlister, Price is focusing on regional and seasonal produce – rope mussels, again from Strangford Lough, flavour-filled pork from unfashionably fat old breeds such as tamworth and gloucester old spots.
I lunch on a creamy haddock soup and a warm salad of pigeon breast, chorizo sausage, button mushrooms and wilted spinach with a balsamic vinegar dressing – chosen from a menu that includes a roast fillet of salmon with a chervil and oregano pesto.
Delicious. And not a spud in sight.
A Taste of Ulster is one of the few officially sponsored endorsements that does appear to be credible. It is policed anonymously by inspectors who pay their own way and check each establishment annually; they have even taken legal action to have a restaurant that slipped below standard return the Mourne granite trophy that was its imprimatur. The guide, which lists only 124 of the 3,000 or so restaurants in Ulster, is available from the All Ireland Tourism (02) 9299 6177.
Jordan’s guesthouse and restaurant, Newry Street, Carlingford, County Leith; phone (0011 353) 427 3223
Patrick Juilbaud, Hotel Merrion, Upper Merrion Street, Dublin; phone (0011 353) 1 676 4192
Roscoffs, Shaftsbury Square, Belfast (44) 1 2323 31532
Nick’s Warehouse, Hill Street, Belfast (44) 1 2324 39690
Grange Lodge, Grange Road, Dungannon, County Tyrone (44) 1 8687 84212
Burrendale Hotel and Country Club, Castlewellan Road, Newcastle, County Down (44) 1 3967 22599
Portaferry Hotel, The Strand, Portaferry, County Down (44) 1 2477 28231
Adare Manor, Adare, County Limerick (353) 61 396566
Morning Star, Pottinger’s Entry, Belfast (0011 44) 1 2323 23976
Pub date: Saturday 23 October 1999
Word count: 1515
Geographic area: Republic Of Ireland
1. Eel-met by moonlight: publican Corinne McAlister prepares a traditional Ulster treat for lunch at Belfast’s historic Morning Star.
2. Nouvelle cuisine Irelandaise: Jordan’s offers succulent black pudding.
3. Chef Nick Price was dubbed mad for opening his restaurant at night.
Photos: Ben Hills.