Roamer: Two days of one month on a year-long calendar of everything that’s delicious

Armagh's apple trees rooted in history
Armagh's apple trees rooted in history

I’m told that a good milk-producing cow can cost around £900, though my uncharacteristic interest in cattle prices is inspired, not by milk, but by cider!

Three or four thousand years ago, according to Ireland’s ancient Brehon Laws, it was illegal to cut down an apple tree, a grave offence punishable by a fine of five cows.

That’s nearly £4,500 in today’s money!

Brehon Law was probably the oldest known European example of a proper legal system.

Thankfully times have changed, though local apples are still greatly cherished, as I discovered during my recent encounter with Northern Ireland’s on-going ‘Year of Food and Drink 2016.’

Tourism NI’s “celebration of everything delicious about this place” is a crammed, 12-month calendar of cuisine, with a different menu every month.

Roamer recently embarked on a two-day taster.

As well as highlighting our “epic landscapes and traditions” Tourism NI is enthusiastically endorsing local food along with “the people who make our food heritage so unique.”

June focuses on dairy goods, with an open invitation to “get involved and celebrate our brilliant creamy, milky, dairy goodness and all that it makes possible.”

July is the sea, loughs and rivers.

September is bread and baking.

October is harvest time, and so it goes on till the turkeys come home!

Enticed by the promise “it’s the month to celebrate all the brilliant things that we’re brewing and distilling” I chose April for my two-day, country-wide aperitif.

“We make cider here, from blossom to bottle!” said Philip Troughton, whose family has been growing apples at Ballinteggart, near Portadown, for four generations since 1898.

His Armagh Cider Company’s 80-acre orchard, with 180 trees per acre, is bereft of gates “because apples don’t break out” he smiled, adding “the Bramley is the one apple that gives us floods and floods and floods of juice.”

His cider boasts P.G.I. status, Protected Geographical Indication, under European law, confirming the regional importance and distinctive characteristics of his wonderfully named Carson’s Crips, Maddens Mellow and Doyles ciders.

Philip and wife Helen explained that 20 tons of carefully hand-picked fruit per day are pressed in a traditional rack and cloth press.

Some is bottled to make ‘A.J.’ - Apple Juice.

A ton of apples gives 700 litres of juice, and about three bottles are filled every second.

Each bottle, hand-packed into 1,000 cases a day, has a proud heritage - King William sent his cider maker to Portadown to make his army’s cider supplies for the Battle of the Boyne and St. Patrick is said to have planted apple trees at an ancient settlement near Armagh.

My next stop was similarly awash with history, at the Lagan-side Hercules Brewing Company.

“It’s just hops, barley, yeast and water - nothing else” said Managing Director Niall McMullan, decanting a bottle of delicious, award winning Yardsman Lager that was filtered through Irish linen during its eight to nine week production process.

“What you put in is what you get out,” a wall-plaque behind Niall stated, “Like our forefathers, we don’t take shortcuts.”

Drawing on Belfast’s incredibly rich industrial past, Niall’s company aims to restore the heritage of the city as the leading powerhouse in brewing that was initially established in the 1800s.

By the 1840s there were over a dozen major brewers in Belfast and the Hercules Brewing Company still uses some of the old brewing traditions for its aptly named Yardsman lager.

My whistle-stop tour of Northern Ireland’s drinks industry included stop-offs for food (and more history!) with some delectable hake, pickled mushrooms and asparagus in Belfast’s James Street South restaurant; beetroot-cured halibut and fennel pollen in the OX Michelin-star restaurant in Oxford Street and a freshly-caught seafood platter in the four-star Bushmills Inn.

With its peat fires, age-old nooks and crannies, gas lighting and a secret library, the Inn has been hugely successful in recreating its origins as an old Coaching Inn and Mill House.

The oldest part of the building dates almost as far back as 1608 though it was in the 1820s that the main hotel was built

as a haven for saddle-sore visitors on their way to the Giant’s Causeway.

They stopped off at the Inn and sampled some of the already internationally-renowned Bushmills whiskey.

Last year over 100,000 visitors watched the distinctive 400-year-old process “from grain to glass” or “from water into gold” in Bushmills Distillery’s gleaming mash tanks, stills, oak casks and copper kettles.

After savouring a 10, 16, and 21-year-old single malt, and after a quick dash to Dunluce Castle and the picturesque little Dunseverick Castle on its sea-washed stony outcrop, my tour ended at the Hilden Brewing Company, in the courtyard of Hilden House, former home of the Barbour linen barons.

William Wordsworth and Edward Prince of Wales both spent a night here.

Separate bookings of course!

“We buy hops carefully,” said brewery owner Seamus Scullion, “we use hops generously,” amply confirmed by the exquisite taste of his Belfast Blonde, Twisted Hop, Molly’s Chocolate Stout and Barney’s Brew.

Full details of Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink 2016 are on www.discovernorthernireland.com

Regular Roamer-readers will know all about Bushmills WWI hero Robert Quigg V.C.

There’ll be lots of delicious food available tomorrow at a fundraising brunch between 10am and 2pm in Bushmills Presbyterian Church on behalf of the Robert Quigg VC Sculpture Fund. Details are on www.robertquiggvc.com