apCelebration of cuisine, culture and countryside begins with fish dish

Sorting and grading eels at the Fishermen's Co-op.
Sorting and grading eels at the Fishermen's Co-op.
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Back in July 2015 a Roamer-reader shared an unusual commemoration here - the 75th anniversary of a bumper catch of pollan on 11 July 1940.

The reader introduced pollan as “fresh-water herring that were abundant in Lough Neagh” and explained in an e-mail that exactly three quarters of a century ago several local newspapers here reported massive catches of ‘polian’.

Sean McKeever and Paula McIntyre.

Sean McKeever and Paula McIntyre.

Whilst there were evidently colloquial spelling variations, the fishy news was greatly welcomed at the time due to wartime food restrictions, never mind the terrible disruption caused by the German navy to our sea-fishing industry.

Lough Neagh’s abundant, fresh-water herring were a handy and flavoursome substitute for their salt-water relatives that shoaled unnervingly close to Hitler’s marauding U-Boats and the Lough’s fishermen hauled in their silver-scaled harvest in huge quantities - a tasty addition to the nation’s meagre wartime menu.

Their mention here in 2015 instigated a flurry of memories and recipes.

Some folk lamented difficulties sourcing pollan though several readers said they were still available in a shop near Lough Neagh.

Fishermen brothers Dick (left) and Dee McElroy haul in pollan.

Fishermen brothers Dick (left) and Dee McElroy haul in pollan.

This has all changed - spectacularly.

On Saturday morning a weekend of scrumptious feasting began for Roamer in Toomebridge’s Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative and Visitor Centre with smoked pollan, prepared and served by celebrity chef, broadcaster and cookbook author Paula McIntyre.

It was an unforgettable breakfast, the delicious start of Toome and district’s ‘River to Lough’ Festival, a celebration of our unique local food, drinks, crafts and culture, part of NI Tourism’s on-going ‘Taste the Island’ initiative.

Having won the top International Travel and Tourism Award at last year’s prestigious World Travel Market in London, Northern Ireland was named the World’s Best Food Destination for 2018-19.

Old Lough Neagh eel boat.

Old Lough Neagh eel boat.

Celebrating the award, the Taste the Island programme of countywide events has been focusing on our amazing. locally-produced food and drink, the unquestionable stars of Saturday’s ‘River to Lough’ Festival.

Paula’s smoked pollan was served with dollaghan (Lough Neagh trout) pâté, followed by smoked eel garnished with balsamic apple jelly - three species of fish so far and the day had barely begun.

I wondered what other delicacies were available from the depths of Lough Neagh.

On the edge of the Toome Canal, the building I was in opened in May, but the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative has been amongst the fore runners of wild eel producers for decades and is recognised as the largest producer of wild, caught eel in Europe, producing around 400 tonnes annually.

With approximately 500 tonnes of commercial coarse fish caught every year from the Lough, the co-op’s scale-fish like pollan and dollaghan are acclaimed worldwide.

But there’s lots more. I asked Cathy Chauhan, the Co-operative’s Product Development and Marketing Manager, about their other fish.

She listed perch, pike, bream and roach, and hastened me to the processing plant, converted into an exhibition and in-door market area for the Festival.

We paused at an original Lough Neagh eel boat, in use until the early 1960s, and beside it, an old Lough Neagh cot, and proceeded past rows of stalls promoting all sorts of food, drinks, and local crafts. There’ll be more on Friday’s page about my hugely-packed itinerary at the ‘River to Lough’ Festival, and about my onward journey to some of Belfast’s ‘Taste the Island’ weekend events, but for the time being we’ll stay with Lough Neagh’s eels and pollan.

The latter is the first product in Northern Ireland to be awarded Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status.

The award of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) provided by EU law in 2011 to ‘Lough Neagh Eel’ is an enormously significant accolade recognising the heritage, tradition and authenticity of what is regarded as the best quality eel in Europe.

PGI distinguishes the Eel as unique, like Parma ham, Champagne and Feta cheese.

(Other local products similarly awarded include Comber early potatoes and Armagh Bramley Apples).

Lough Neagh Pollan was registered as a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) in 2018. The pollan are produced, processed and prepared using traditional production methods and the quality and characteristics of the fish are unique to the Lough.

They’re the only European vertebrate found exclusively in Ireland and their distribution is restricted to five Irish loughs, but they’re only commercially available from Lough Neagh, where they’re a genetically unique variant of Irish pollan.

But history and biology didn’t really feature in my thoughts at the nearby Elk restaurant, dining and wedding complex on the busy A6.

The Elk’s chef, Sean McKeever and Paula McIntyre demonstrated how to cook pollan using locally sourced ingredients, creating world-class dishes that put Northern Ireland top of the international food league.

Paula told us about her greatly-loved apple tree at home - she wouldn’t move house because of it! - and used one of its apples to prepare a vividly-coloured salad that included smoked dulse and kelp amongst its myriad of ingredients.

Meanwhile Sean made potato pancakes with scallions and garlic - ingenious, distinctive rings of flavour where “the starch that comes out of the potatoes is put back into them again to keep the pancakes crispy.”

The pancakes and salad went absolutely superbly with Sean’s deep-fried, battered, marinated pollan and with Paula’s elderberry-cured pollan fillets with kelp pesto.

There’ll be further culinary delights on Friday’s page from the ‘Taste the Island’ programme and the ‘River to Lough’ Festival. Details at https://discovernorthernireland.com/tastetheisland/