Noel McMeel, acclaimed master of modern Irish cuisine and executive head chef at the prestigious Lough Erne Resort, talks about life close to where he works in the beautiful lakelands of County Fermanagh.
I learned the basics of what makes life worth living growing up in a thatched-roof house on our family farm in the countryside of Toomebridge, County Antrim. Making the most of the bounty of the land, working hard with your own two hands to preserve it, and opening the home to share it – these were the core principles I learned as a young man. What my parents taught me has given me a toolbox for life, and it is certainly standing by me as we all stay confined to the house.
Where I live now, three years have passed where it’s been all work, work, work, so being around the house has allowed me to slow down a bit and I am taking time to reflect on what nature is and what I have right at my own door. In my kitchen I have a series of long windows full of natural light where I can see into the garden. I have beehives, hens and chickens on the go, and I’ve been planting peas, beans, carrots, rhubarb and so on. I do this every year in the spring, but this time around there is time to give the garden more attention and to be a bit more strategic in clearing different areas, trimming branches and setting things out more.
For me, one of the great things about being a chef is being able to live it. When I go down to feed the chickens and let the big rooster out in the morning, I am able to see what actually grows here in Northern Ireland and at what time of the year. I can see how the bees work, where your honey comes from, where your carrots grow and so on. Not many chefs get that opportunity.
I have been fortunate to have worked with some of the world’s best chefs and cooked for presidents, prime ministers, royalty and rock stars, but as executive head chef at the Lough Erne Resort I work in one of the most spectacular places in the world – and I say that having travelled a lot and having worked in truly fantastic places in America. When I drive into Lough Erne at this time of year it is like a dream palace, with the lakes glimmering, the hedgerows alight with blossom and the golf course an emerald green.
We’re in spring, and a beautiful thing we would normally do at the resort around now would be gathering the wild garlic. We’d make that into a pesto with Broighter Gold rapeseed oil, which is farmed nearby. We’d make a garlic oil that would be used as a garnish, or on a soup or on a lamb dish to give it that extra earthiness. At this time of year getting something like Fermanagh spring lamb, which we would use in the fine-dining Catalina Restaurant as one of our signature dishes, just emphasises the absolute quality of what we can get seasonally and locally in Ireland.
Fermanagh is one of the diamonds of Northern Ireland, not just because we have the lakes and the Marble Arch Caves, Enniskillen Castle, Belleek Pottery and other great places to see. They key thing is we have producers, artisans and great people who have so many food stories still to be revealed.
With more time on my hands I am mulling over a follow-up to my first book, Irish Pantry, which to my surprise was a worldwide success. I’m not in a major rush, but I know the next one will focus on the natural and the organic. Most of all it will tell great stories, because I want the world to know all about Northern Ireland, how great our produce is, how great our people are, and how we live.
This period of being confined to the house is giving many Northern Irish people the chance to appreciate what they have, rather than what they don’t have. I am definitely one of them, and right now I feel privileged to call this place home.