From Fasting to Feasting
While the warm welcome of Irish hospitality hasn’t changed much in recent years, Northern Ireland’s culinary culture certainly has.
It is no secret that the Ulster economy has flourished since the signing of the Good Friday Peace Accord in the spring of 1998. Foreign investment has skyrocketed, as have the number of foreign visitors, foreign exchange students and foreign workers looking to gobble up new opportunities.
Bigger centres like Belfast and Derry are plump with cultural diversity, as are the likes of smaller towns such as Larne, Coleraine, Omagh and Strabane.
Nowhere is this change more evident than upon the menus across the Six Counties.
Only a generation ago, hungry patrons were limited to a staple diet of lamb, beef, chicken, fish, vegetables, cheese and breads. And while those essentials remain the core of culinary offerings here, they have been supplemented with a flurry of new flavours.
The Malmaison in Belfast, one of the many innovative and upscale hotels in the region, serves up scrumptious servings of continental cuisine, including provincial mussels from France, excellent paella from Spain and exquisite Belgian truffles.
The Bayview Hotel in Portballintrae, near Bushmills on the northern coast, makes a great stop for seafood, of course. But go out of your way for their Italian Ravioloni and Serrano, or the spicy Chicken Satay and Penang Curry.
In Derry, Browns In Town is the hotspot for Mushroom Pappardelle, Risotto and Black Pudding Beignet. Oh, and be sure to try the lamb, lightly sautéed and seasoned in a soft Chilean rosé.
Also in Derry, the outstanding Everglades Hotel offers up an amazing array of authentic Asian cuisine, including a fiery Thai Green Curry and the finest Vegetable Stir Fry in the British Isles. The resort’s wine and dine menu is a strong option as well – query the on-site sommelier for the perfect pairing.
The newly refurbished Enniskillen Hotel in County Fermanagh is also a great spot to grab a bite, with both international cuisine and traditional pub-grub available. The fully stocked bar includes a wide variety of domestic and imported wines and spirits, including an impressive selection of whiskies from Japan, Sweden and America. And take the time to ask Karen at reception about the book she is writing – you will be glad you asked.
The passion for a new palate can be found in smaller communities as well, where 4 and 5 star restaurants are now the rule rather than the exception. Most prevalent are Eastern European and Middle Eastern eateries, with Indian, Asian and even African options also available.
A number of factors are at play in the region’s recent rise to eating excellence; as stated, a rise in immigration has introduced new flavours to the area; increased internet access has given local chefs more international options; the popularity of culinary culture (in particular, food-reality television programs); the growth in culinary studies at colleges and universities; greater foreign investment opportunities, including subsidies and tax breaks for the hospitality sector; and, perhaps most importantly, the meteoric rise in tourism, the kitchen door swinging wide open to visitors over the last decade and a half.
Driving this growth, however, is a hearty and heartfelt appetite for peace and prosperity. From the famine years to the late 1990s – a period of over 150 years – the residents of Northern Ireland have starved for more. No longer content with mere crumbs from the troubles, they are taking their rightful place at the world’s table.