Presence of a past that can still be cherished savoured and enjoyed

Bronagh Duffin demonstrates her granny's soda bread recipe.
Bronagh Duffin demonstrates her granny's soda bread recipe.
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Wednesday’s page ended in the Elk restaurant and dining complex near Toomebridge with celebrity chef Paula McIntyre and the Elk’s Sean McKeever cooking Lough Neagh pollan.

Their delicious dishes were part of last Saturday’s ‘River to Lough’ festival of food and drink - part of Tourism NI’s on-going ‘Taste the Island’ initiative.

A trio of coracles.

A trio of coracles.

Begun last month and running through November, 150 main events are packed into the 12-week celebration of Northern Ireland’s world-acclaimed cuisine.

Saturday’s impressive line-up highlighted the unique cultural heritage of Lough Neagh and its waterways, starting with numerous food stalls, craft-work displays, exhibitions and presentations in the Lough Neagh Fishermen’s Co-operative.

Soda and wheaten bread topped the bill in the Lock Keepers cottage, with a trio of traditional coracles (or currachs) ‘moored’ outside on the lawn.

There were pollan-tasting sessions in the Fried Fish Warehouse, cookery demonstrations in the Elk and the O’Neill Arms Hotel, and smokehouse demonstrations in the fishermen’s co-op.

Louise Concannon's handmade pyrography.

Louise Concannon's handmade pyrography.

A mini-armada of boats and canoes operated from the Toome Canal jetty and Roamer enjoyed a fast and exhilarating voyage on the lough which included several nautical doughnuts and a hand-brake turn!

And aside from sampling the wide array of local fish and eel dishes mentioned on Wednesday’s page, I perused the local craftwork stalls, including hand-thrown pottery from Ciaran Headley’s Lough Neagh Studio and Louise Concannon’s magnificent handmade pyrography - wood and other materials decorated with burn-patterns, pictures and designs.

There was handmade jewellery, homemade chutney, fruit juice, ice-cream, fudge and cider vinegar - an awesome display of products and produce from around Lough Neagh and further afield in Northern Ireland.

The co-operative’s Product Development and Marketing Manager, Cathy Chauhan, told me that Saturday was the new Visitor Centre’s first public event and she’d tried to “marry up their products with others”, like the display of Irish seaweed dressing from Crossgar.

Ruairidh Morrison at his North Coast Smokehouse stall.

Ruairidh Morrison at his North Coast Smokehouse stall.

It goes brilliantly with the co-op’s wild brown trout; a marriage made in heaven…and Lough Neagh.

I was told that the little bottles of eel oil, on sale for charity at the fishermen’s stall, can ease arthritis when mixed with poteen but I forgot to ask if you drink it or rub it in!

The co-operative’s display of Lough Neagh fish-nibbles on a large, constantly replenished slate, was beside Ruairidh Morrison’s North Coast Smokehouse stall, stocked with smoke-roasted all kinds of everything - salmon, sea salt, dulse, black pepper, rapeseed oil and trout.

Bronagh Duffin’s bakery demonstration in the Lock Keeper’s Cottage began with a gorgeous glass of prosecco mixed with apple and blackberry jam.

“The blackberries grow at the top of the lane near my house” said the founder of Bronagh’s Bakehouse in Bellaghy, before demonstrating how to bake her Granny Maggie’s soda bread.

“It’s traditional bread that’s been made here since the 1800s” Bronagh explained.

Roamer can heat baked beans but has never baked.

“It’s a very easy recipe,” she added reassuringly.

Flour, salt, baking soda and buttermilk were lined up ready for use.

“My granny wouldn’t have measured anything but I don’t want to risk it,” Bronagh admitted “and if you want to you can experiment by adding rosemary, chives, parsley, cheese or chopped olives.”

After kneading the dough she cut it into four quarters with a bread knife.

“The shape of the cross lets the fairies out” said Bronagh, smiling at the superstition.

Then onto the griddle with each quarter “but you can do it on your hob at home with a non-stick frying pan! It’s the same concept as browning a steak on a really hot, non-stick frying pan.”

Though she’s always loved baking and cooking, Bronagh was a nurse before opening the Bakehouse several years ago.

She writes about food, compiles recipes, demonstrates and runs classes, caters for special events and parties and wants “to help others to enjoy cooking and eating delicious food. It’s like a form of nursing. It’s how I express my love and care for people…by cooking.”

She believes that food “heals and comforts in so many ways whether it’s through selecting ingredients, cooking it for those you love or eating it.”

Bronagh whisked up some smoked Lough Neagh eels in a blender with cream cheese and parsley.

“A wee blitz, and that’s it,” she smiled “nice and rustic, not too blended.”

It was an almost overwhelmingly delicious topping on her granny’s soda bread, adorned with home-grown beetroot relish.

She also recommends Ruairidh Morrison’s North Coast Smokehouse pollan on soda bread.

Outside the Lock Keepers Cottage, heroically undeterred by the mouth-watering aroma of fresh-baked soda wafting through the door, Stephen Ryan was concentrating on his pole lathe.

Stephen’s Belfast-based Green Woodwork Ireland organisation promotes, teaches and demonstrates traditional, non-powered, woodland crafts.

Worked by his right foot, the pole bent and straightened, turning the piece of month-old cherry wood in his lathe with a length of cord.

Stephen’s handiwork, “going back thousands of years” he told me, included immaculately turned wooden spoons, forks and dishes.

Sadly, pole lathed kitchenware wasn’t available when local eels were first eaten by Ireland’s earliest human inhabitants in nearby Mountsandel some 9,000 years ago.

Nor were there any fishing and filleting demonstrations, which Roamer missed too, but for very different reasons.

I was whisked back to Belfast by Tourism NI for a ‘Taste of Titanic’ tour, to be recounted here next week!

Full ‘Taste the Island’ details at