Gracehill House’s magnificent boulevard of ancient beech trees – the Dark Hedges near Stranocum – is Ulster’s most photographed beauty spot.
An avenue of statuesque conifers at Ballinteggart House near Portadown, which framed a soaring gateway to my country-wide tasting tour, could capture Gracehill’s crown in Northern Ireland’s beauty-spot pageant.
My whistlestop itinerary promised “epic landscapes, traditions and people that make our food heritage so unique.”
“We make cider here, from blossom to bottle!” said Philip Troughton, whose family has been growing apples at Ballinteggart 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 first 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.
King William of Apple!?
After feasting on delectable hake with pickled mushrooms, asparagus and squash in Belfast’s James Street South restaurant, my next stop was 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 plaque behind Niall stated, “Like our forefathers, we don’t take shortcuts.”
“We can’t brew enough of our new Double Stout,” he added. “People are going absolutely mad about it!”
My next appointment was for a six-course tasting menu in the multi-awarded OX Michelin-star restaurant in Oxford Street.
I couldn’t find enough superlatives for chef/owner Stephen Toman’s beetroot cured halibut and fennel pollen.
“Eating’s eating,” said Stephen, “if you enjoy it that’s what it’s all about!” After a nightcap at Custom House Square’s flood-lit Craft Beer Festival boasting “150+ local beers, ciders and whiskeys”, deepest sleep was further aided and abetted by the elegant luxuries of a Europa Hotel executive suite.
I was whisked from my full Irish breakfast, via Slemish Mountain, Dunluce Castle and Royal Portrush Golf Club, to the world-famous Old Bushmills Distillery.
Last year over 100,000 visitors watched the distinctive 400-year-old process “from grain to glass” or “from water into gold” in gleaming mash tanks, stills, oak casks and copper kettles.
After savouring a 10, 16, and 21-year-old single malt, and a similarly delicious, freshly-caught Seafood Platter in the four-star Bushmills Inn, my tour ended at Hilden Brewing Company, in the courtyard of Hilden House, former home of the Barbour linen barons.
William Wordsworth once spent a night here!
“We buy hops carefully,” said 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.
‘And oft when on my couch I lie’ my two-day taster of local food and drink ‘will flash upon that inward eye.’
Readers’ taste buds can also dance with pleasure at: www.discovernorthernireland.com.