I didn’t initially intend to devote three consecutive pages to my recent Lough Neagh trip, which took me onwards to Belfast, sampling the current ‘Taste the Island’ celebration of local food and drink!
The culinary festivities continue till the end of November, but my packed itinerary, two weekends ago, took barely 30 hours and not much over 100 miles to thoroughly confirm the unique character and quality of our cuisine, culture and countryside!
“They’ve taken the skeleton
Of the Great Irish Elk
Out of the peat, set it up
An astounding crate full of air.”
Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney’s lines, etched on the doors of the lift outside the cookery demonstration in the Elk complex near Lough Neagh, are enormously evocative of food and cuisine.
Heaney’s childhood home, and his HomePlace centre, are close by the Lough, a countryside and culture that profoundly inspired his writings.
And his poem Bogland, partly reproduced on the Elk complex’s lift-doors, includes food in its vivid, visual imagery.
“Butter sunk under
More than a hundred years
Was recovered salty and white.
The ground itself is kind, black butter.”
One of Heaney’s best-known poems Blackberry Picking celebrates the sweet, hedgerow-fruit’s similarity to ‘thickened wine’ and amongst the enormously wide variety of local food and drink that have garnished his lines are chips, Lough Neagh eels, elderberries, River Bann perch, blackcurrant juice, squid, oysters, stout, potatoes, milk and all sorts of greens!
It was completely co-incidental that National Poetry Day was imminent when Roamer partook of Tourism NI’s ‘Taste the Island’ programme, but on arrival in Belfast’s Grand Central Hotel for a one-night stop-over I was greeted by verses from the ‘Belfast Hymn’ by Pulitzer Prize-winner Paul Muldoon!
“…Known, too, the best of days begin and end at the Grand Centralwhere we counter the cold and damp with oatmeal, and ancient grainsentrecôte aux champignons, champ, a flute of gold Champagne”
Paul Muldoon’s father was a market gardener in County Armagh. “I often came with him in the very early morning” the poet once recounted “to St George’s Market, where he sold cauliflowers off the back of a lorry.”
“A sandbar near a river mouth, would give Belfast its name.
The river where we’ve slaked our drouth and where we’ve staked our claim.
Muldoon wrote his Belfast Hymn to celebrate the opening of the Grand Central and relatively speaking its many verses contain more ingredients than Heaney’s Bogland and the hotel’s hugely impressive menu combined!
Muldoon lists eggs and bacon in a bap…wheaten farls and fadge…Portavogie and Ardglass herrings and prawns served on beds of dulse…barm brack, lemon curd, drop scones at high tea…sponge cakes and ‘wee buns’…a wee Bush, apple tarts or pies, gooseberry jam, Nambarrie tea, Irwin’s malt bread and Kerr’s Pinks!
The Belfast Hymn also references our famous artists, writers and poets, and celebrates the city’s former world-renowned industries - aircraft, linen, rope, and of course RMS Titanic.
“That great ship waiting to be launched was set off down the slip by men like us. Stalwart. And staunch.
And taking no auld lip.”
The historic, shipyard-home of RMS Titanic is clearly visible in the panoramic, breathtakingly stunning view from the hotel’s 23rd-floor Observatory Cocktail Lounge.
Tourism NI transported me from Lough Neagh to Belfast specifically for the recent ‘Taste the City’ and ‘Taste of Titanic’ events. And as if ordering from Muldoon’s poem I enjoyed an absolutely delicious Portavogie prawn pappardelle with lemon and mascarpone in Belfast’s award-winning James Street South restaurant - and then onwards to Titanic Belfast.
There are repeat performances at the end of November, but the ‘Taste of Titanic’ event totally surpassed its billing as “the ultimate combination of culture, history, food and fun.”
My guided journey through the Titanic Experience’s fascinating galleries was a dramatically-illustrated story of Belfast’s most famous ship, punctuated by culinary delights from the era.
It was well-nigh impossible to take notes due to the constant supply of food and drink that was offered at every pause by period-costumed guides.
A glass of black stout in one hand and a tin-mug of Irish stew in the other left little leeway for a notebook and biro!
Whether it was a shipyard worker’s snack or a glass of first class passenger’s champagne, it was an epic culinary and cultural journey that included vintage-recipe cakes, cheeses, whiskey, buns and ice-cream.
And Edwina, alias actress Libby Huntley, dramatically recounted her embarkation at Southampton while we munched ‘clangers’ and sipped brown lemonade!
The former - a circular pastry crust with a meat filling - was the right shape, size and consistency for holding in a muddy, greasy, shipyard worker’s hand.
“And that night there was a great feast in Cair Paravel, and revelry and dancing, and gold flashed and wine flowed…”
On cue, after a most luxurious night’s sleep and a traditional Irish breakfast in the Grand Central, were the words of C. S Lewis (from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe) etched on the stone pavement in Belfast’s Writer’s Square.
‘Taste the City’ was in full flow, with more cookery demonstrations and food stalls offering everything from fresh fish (delivered to your door), handmade sea sugar confectionary, local gin, artesian chilli sauce, and Wayne Adair’s magnificent Papas Mineral Company ginger cordial. “It’s my great grandmother’s recipe,” Wayne explained, “it’s over 120 years old.”
Warming, delicious, and a mere snip of NI’s unique culinary culture!
Full ‘Taste the Island’ details are at https://discovernorthernireland.com/tastetheisland/