It had been 13 years since I last visited Belfast. Back in 2002, I hopped on the Enterprise one cold Friday evening en route to meet the new Kiwi boyfriend for, perhaps, the third or fourth time. At the time he was living and working in Cambridge; that particular weekend he was visiting a friend working in NI, along with “a few others,” which turned out to be an intimidating half dozen of his closest mates.
All I remember of Belfast was walking through the city at night, spotting signs for place names that were familiar from news reports of the Troubles. That, and being thrown in at the deep end with a new boyfriend’s friends. Food certainly wasn’t what I was concentrating on.
A lot changes in 13 years.
For my most recent trip in January, with the Irish Food Writers’ Guild, I had to get up well before the crack of dawn for the first leg of my journey: the 06.21 train from Mallow to Dublin. Not a lot of people about at that weekend hour. (In fact, I think Iarnród Éireann may have since re-jigged the timetable.)
I legged it off the train in Dublin at 08.30 and straight onto the Luas to Connolly, making it there in plenty of time for the 09.35 train to Belfast and to grab a coffee at the station. Can I give you a word of advice? DON’T. That coffee was just not worth it.
Hold out for a few hours until you can get to Established. Take a look at their Instagram feed to see what I mean. Or just look at the coffee below.
One of the things I loved about Belfast was using an actual map. No, not some app on my phone but a real, honest-to-goodness, printed-on-paper map. With a list of spots that I wanted to check out while in town, I asked one of the helpful porters at The Europa Hotel to mark them on the map and away I went, walking the city without needing to keep my nose glued to my phone.
I got some great help from passers-by too – everyone loves being asked for directions. Even better, Belfast is so walkable, I kept stumbling across great spots, like Alley Cat. alleycatbelfast.com
Being in Belfast with a group of food writers has many advantages, not least of which was the Northern Irish Tourist Board-organised opportunity to visit Hannan’s Meats in Moria, which is just outside the city. We got to check out Peter Hannan’s wall of pink Himalayan rock salt, which he uses to dry-age some glorious beef, like the steak that you’ll find on the menu in Mark Hix’s London restaurants and in Fortnum and Mason.
A word to the wise: if you wish to get your own hands on such meat, there’s a neat little outlet shop on site which sells it at wholesale prices, along with a selection of well-chosen local products, like Abernethy Butter. And make sure you pick up the finger-licking Moyallon 3 Sweet Bacon Ribs, while you’re there; they’re sweet, succulent and very moreish. www.themeatmerchant.com
Dinner that night was at the sublime OX Belfast, which is SO worth travelling for. oxbelfast.com
Belfast – a city that’s full of good food, great coffee and incredibly helpful passers-by when you’re in need of some directions (they might not know where you’re going but they’re full of helpful suggestions!).
The piece that I wrote for the Irish Examiner, with lots more eating and drinking tips, is online here:
Irish Examiner – Saturday 28 February – This is how to spend 24 hours in Belfast
Some useful sites for plotting your own food trip to Belfast:
Thanks to the Northern Irish Tourist Board and Food NI for organising the trip for the Irish Food Writers’ Guild.