First published on Irish Country Living.
The first time I visited Belfast was back in 2002. I took the Enterprise from Dublin’s Connolly Station on a wintery Friday night to meet my new Kiwi boyfriend; we were overnighting there before travelling onwards to Ballymoney. My brief impression was of tall, imposing grey buildings, a sighting of the Europa Hotel – “the most bombed hotel in Europe,” according to my father – and a fine Ulster fry at the B&B.
After that trip, it took me 13 years to get back to Belfast. That was a big mistake. I’ve been there three times in the last 14 months, each time falling a little more in love with the vibrancy of the Northern Irish food scene. It’s an easy city to get to on the train, and to get around – although, if you’re carrying a map as I like to, you might get knocked down by people trying to direct (and helpfully misdirect!) you. Here are a few of my favourite spots.
Stay: where else but the historic Europa Hotel? Smack bang in the city centre so that you can walk everywhere, its rooms are comfortable and it delivers up the morning-after Ulster fry in style.
Coffee: Established Coffee (established.coffee) has the industrial chic thing sorted but there’s also real warmth to the welcome in this airy space. With coffee supplied by Dublin-based artisan roster 3fe, your caffeine fix is in good hands and their food offering is nothing short of stellar, with sandwiches on sourdough bread from Zac’s Bakehouse, Sunday pie & drip specials (pies have included salted caramel apple and lemon meringue pie, with a mug of drip coffee) and a drool-worthy Instagram feed of their brunch specials.
Eat: the Michelin man smiled kindly on Belfast in recent times, and for very good reason. For high end dining in a relaxed environment you can’t beat Ox (oxbelfast.com), which was awarded its first star last year. Vegetables are placed front and centre in this restaurant – the white asparagus wrapped in lardo and sprinkled with burnt onion dust is unforgettable – and their five course seasonal tasting menu, at £50, is a thing of pure joy. A two course lunch comes in at a very comfortable £20.
Go to: the craft beer scene is really taking off in Belfast and the best way to experience this is at a beer festival, which showcases the local brewers and cider makers, as well as including plenty of other drinking options from the rest of Ireland and the UK. There are some great beer festival venues in the city too. In April, the first Belfast Beer Festival (belfastcraftbeerfest.com) took place outdoors in the flood-lit Custom House Square and last year saw the debut of the ABV Beer Fest (www.abvfest.com), which was in the crumbling magnificence of the now closed-for-redevelopment Harland and Wolff Titanic Drawing Offices. ABV returns from 1-3 September, venue to be confirmed.
Drink: Hilden Brewery (www.hildenbrewery.com), the oldest independent microbrewery in Ireland is located in Lisburn, just outside Belfast. They have a restaurant outpost – Molly’s Yard – in the University Quarter, where you can find their beers on tap along with some seriously good food. Get some Molly’s Chocolate Stout with their warm Belgian chocolate brownie for a heavenly pairing. They also do gin – watch out for the locally produced Shortcross and Jawbox brands. Also on tap around town is beer from one of the new kids on the block, Hercules Brewing, who produce a Belfast Pale Ale, or BPA, which is well worth seeking out.
Watch out for: the Belfast In Your Pocket city guides are easy to find, have plenty of eating and touristing tips and include useful maps so that you can figure your way around the city.
Bring home: when you’re in Established, pick up a loaf of Zac’s Bakehouse deliciously chewy sourdough. Aso worth bringing home is some Young Buck raw milk blue cheese. You’ll probably stumble across its maker, Mike Thompson, at a beer festival where he sells generous cheese plates that go brilliantly with the drinks on offer. En route back to the train station, don’t miss the St George’s Market for lots of superb NI baking, a tin of SD Bell’s Belfast tea and a couple of bright pop art-y Belfast Times mugs.
Thanks to Tourism NI for organising the press trip as part of Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink 2016. More information at discovernorthernireland.com
Stout and Treacle Spelt Bread
Watch out for the delectable Piece of Cake Bakery stall at Belfast train station ; I narrowly avoided the giant blueberry scones and cronuts but couldn’t walk past their dark [large multinational brewery] soda bread. And I couldn’t resist trying my own version when I got home. Find some Northern Irish stout – Hilden, Hercules, Boundary, Whitewater, Ards and Pokertree all do versions – make it your own. Makes 1 x 900g loaf.
225g plain flour
225g wholemeal spelt flour
1 tsp bread soda
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp muscovado sugar (optional)
1 tbsp olive oil
2 tbsp treacle
Extra olive oil for the tin
Preheat the oven to 180C. Using a pastry brush, generously oil the base and sides of a 900g loaf tin.
Sift the flours, bread soda and salt into a large mixing bowl, sprinkle over the sugar, if using, and mix well. Whisk the buttermilk, stout, olive oil and treacle together in a large measuring jug until combined – you don’t want large lumps of treacle streaking through the finished bread. Make a dip in the dry mix and pour in the wet ingredients. Using a large wooden spoon or your hand, bring the mixture together quickly. Mix as little as possible. The consistency will be very wet.
Pour and scrape into the prepared tin and bake in the centre of the oven for 50-60 minutes, until well risen and the base of the bread sounds hollow when tapped. I often slip it out of the tin for the last 10 minutes of the cooking time to make sure that it’s baked through.
Remove from the tin, if you haven’t done so already, and cool completely on a wire rack. Best eaten with lots of butter and especially good toasted, buttered, cut into soldiers and dipped into eggs for Sunday night supper.