If a culture is defined by its cuisine, then a group of young culinary artisans are redefining Northern Ireland’s identity.
“Twenty years ago, you would be hard-pressed to describe Northern Irish cuisine,” admits Aiden Morrow, the youthful manager of Glenarm Estate in County Antrim. “Unlike Italy, France, Japan and elsewhere, where the food is instantly recognizable, we are only now making a name for ourselves in the culinary sector.”
Along with homegrown dairy, poultry and vegetable produce, Morrow lists meat and seafood as staples of the region’s diet.
“We specialize in locally sourced smoked salmon and Shorthorn beef. We offer our product here at the estate, and sell it at area markets on weekends. We have picked up a few awards over the last year or two, and that has helped to shine a spotlight on the ‘real food’ industry in Northern Ireland.”
Just a few miles west, Ursa Minor Bakehouse in Ballycastle serves up the very best in ‘real’ bread.
“We have taken things back to basics,” says 28-year-old master-baker Dara O’hArtghaile, who – along with his wife Ciara – founded the facility in 2014. “Our bread has only three core ingredients; flour, water and salt. We use no preservatives, nor additives of any sort. It tastes as it should, as it traditionally did for our ancestors.”
The result is a hearty, wholesome – though never heavy – sourdough base that is both delicious and nutritious. Along with fresh, daily-baked loaves, the couple and their 10-person team produce a number of other delights, including an assortment of organic, artisan coffees, cakes, and pastries.
“We also work with several local and area food producers to help educate people on the benefits of healthy eating,” says Dara. “It is a shift in the lifestyle paradigm here, and it will take time, but there are many of us now moving in the same direction.”
Sandy Cole agrees.
“Our motto is Forward Thinking Farming,” says the 26-year-old co-manager of the family-run Broughgammon Farm in Ballycastle.
Along with his parents and siblings, Cole is committed to environmentally sustainable food production.
“We work with a farm-to-fork philosophy,” he explains. “Our main product is cabrito (goat) and free-range rose veal. We raise the animals in the most humane and ethical manner possible, and they are always properly groomed and well-fed with natural grass and hay.”
The business’ biggest challenge to date, he notes, has been the backlash against the consumption of meat products.
“One of our aims here is to provide proper information on the nutritional benefits of a balanced diet. We do that through a variety of in-house events, including our recent ‘Goatober’ festival, our annual ‘open-farm’ weekend, themed dinners, and workshops, where we emphasize food quality over quantity.
“People are always amazed to learn that there are so many great ways to properly prepare and enjoy meat – as well say here, whatever floats your goat.”
Options are a hallmark of Northern Ireland’s progressive palate, and you won’t find more anywhere than at the Walled City Brewery in Derry-Londonderry.
“Right now, we have 10 craft beers on tap,” notes the site’s twentysomething brew-master Josh Kyle, adding that many are monikered to reflect the area’s personality, including ‘Stitch’ (linen industry), ‘Wit’ (Irish humour), and ‘Cherry-Londoncherry’.
“While the art of craft-brewing isn’t new, it is relatively new to our part of the world. Guinness and the other major producers have had a monopoly on the marketplace for a long time here, so we have our challenges to be sure, but so far so good.”
Founded by James Huey and his wife Lou in 2015, the brewery – which also serves up artful appetizers, main plates and tapas – rests its head upon four pillars; flavour, local, authenticity, and quality.
“We really do have something for everybody,” continues Kyle. “If someone says that they don’t like beer, we reply that it is only that they haven’t found their favourite flavour yet.”
The trend towards artisan food is a major step towards better physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health for the region’s 1.8 million residents, says holistic nutritionist Debbie Caskey.
“We have seen a major shift in the way that we think about food and eating in Northern Ireland over the last two decades,” says Caskey, who also runs the Stradeen Luxury Boutique Bed & Breakfast in the stunning seaside town of Port Stewart.
“A food revolution by any other name is still a revolution…and this one leaves a much better taste in our mouths. And what’s great is that the movement is all being driven by young people – young people who are working together, often across once-divided communities, with a simple and common vision for the betterment of Northern Ireland. There is room for everyone at that table.”