First published in the Irish Examiner on Saturday 28 February:
This is how to spend 24 hours in Belfast
With sublime raw materials on offer, including Himalayan salt-aged beef from Hannan’s Meats, delicious rolls of Abernathy butter and piquant Young Buck raw milk blue cheese, Northern Ireland has more than a few delicious treats in store. Caroline Hennessy makes a quick visit to Belfast to see just how much food she can pack into 24 hours.
11.47am wake up time
After a little snooze on the comfortable Dublin-Belfast Enterprise train, it’s walking shoes at the ready. Breakfast was a long time ago and you’ve earned a good coffee. It’s the perfect time to head to Established (54 Hill Street, Cathedral Quarter), one of the leaders of Belfast’s coffee revolution. Grab a stool by the window and admire the clean, industrial layout, brilliant sourcing – coffee from Dublin’s 3fe, bread from Zac’s Bakehouse. Man Made cakes – and an imaginative brunch menu (think coconut and lime waffles, £6). For another time.
12.45pm get orientated
On a short city break, you need to be central and the legendary – formerly known as “the most bombed hotel in Europe” – Europa Hotel is perfectly situated on Great Victoria Street (prices starting at £90 per room for b&b). Comfortable and within easy walking distance of everything in the city centre, it’s the perfect spot to stay. Go old school and pick up a map of Belfast at the porter’s desk. The helpful staff there will mark in all the spots you need, much easier than trying to navigate by Google Maps. While you’re there, get them to direct you to the Visit Belfast Welcome Centre (8 – 9 Donegall Square North) where you can pick up a copy of Food NI/Taste of Ulster’s useful guide to places that serve local produce. As well as Belfast, it covers the entire province – something to have in hand for your next, longer, trip northwards.
Proper sustenance is needed before a real wander so, map in hand, head to Alley Cat (46 Church Lane) for properly improper, down and dirty diner food matched with a bottle of craft beer from local breweries like Farmageddon, ClearSky and Pokertree. Burgers (£8) are made in-house, American cheese is a mere .50p extra, Hawt Dawgs are available and the chilli cheese fries come with crack sauce. ‘Nuff said.
3pm stock up
Wander to Sawers Deli (7 Fountain Centre) to find a veritable treasure trove of rare and wonderful food treasures to investigate. Lots of exotic items to spot but this trip is a celebration of all the best in Northern Ireland so focus is needed. Bypass the local fish and organic veggies – not so easy to transport! – and you’ll be able to get your hands on some tasty take home pressies: a crafted roll of Abernethy’s new smoked butter, some boxes of Robert Ditty’s oatcakes and shortbread, and a chunk of piquant Young Buck raw milk blue cheese from young cheesemaker Michael Thompson.
5pm a swift one
Pop across the road from the hotel and into the National Trust-owned Crown Liquor Saloon (46 Great Victoria Street), a beautifully preserved Victorian gin palace. There’s an extensive selection of real ale on cask here – watch out for local producers like Hilden, which has the distinction of being Ireland’s oldest independent brewery, and Co Down’s Whitewater.
8pm taste the OX
Trot to OX (No 1 Oxford Street) which, since it opened in March 2013, has been creating waves in Belfast and beyond. Owned and run by chef Stephen Toman and front-of-house Alain Kerloc’h, it’s a relaxed waterside setting for some truly outstanding cooking and impeccable service. Seasonal vegetables are front, centre and celebrated, but fish and meat are definitely not forgotten. Go for the five course tasting menu (£45, with wines £70), sit back and prepare to eat very, very well.
10.30pm-ish the cocktail hour
Wend your relaxed way to the glamorous cocktail bar at The Merchant Hotel (16 Skipper Street) for post-prandial drinks. No ultra sweet, sugary confections here but instead an entire book of a menu, with notes on styles and explanations that makes for a night’s reading itself. I’d say skip the text and go straight for a Merchant-created Sloe Gin Ginger Sling (£9.95), a long and refreshing drink, which also includes apricot brandy, cherry liqueur and lime.
9am rise and shine
No time for a sleep in – the train is at 11.05am! Up and at it in the Europa for your Ulster Fry: this perfect morning-after-too-many-cocktails-the-night-before meal includes fried potato and soda breads for ultimate soakage. Good food sourcing at the hotel includes irresistible granola from Just Live a Little and tart apple juice from the Armagh Cider Company.
10am move it!
Just time to leg it down to St George’s Market which is, when you’re finished browsing, only five minutes walk from the train station. It’s a covered market, hosting a variety of stalls selling food, fish, fruit and even local crafts. There are egg-bacon-sausage Belfast baps (£4.50) to eat there and then, bags of Suki Belfast Brew tea to bring home and you’ll find the best nut butter ever, Keen’s almond dark chocolate, at the Biostore stall. Make sure you pick up some Fifteens, a traditional Northern Irish treat that includes chocolate, condensed milk and marshmallows amongst its ingredients, for the ideal mid-morning train sugar coma.
TIP: You can connect from Cork on a Saturday morning by catching the 6am Dublin train to Heuston, taking the Luas across the city and joining the Enterprise at Connolly Station. You will have to book separate return tickets for Cork-Dublin and Dublin-Belfast; the price for those, Luas included, was just under €80. UPDATE MAY 2015: The train times have changed since January and no longer mesh so neatly. Take a good hard look at the timetable before you book – or just go for longer!
Thanks to the Northern Irish Tourist Board and Food NI for organising the trip for the Irish Food Writers’ Guild.
More Belfast: Good eating in Belfast