Irish and proud of it

Kalyani Prasher | Updated on March 10, 2018

Step up to the plate: Chef Noel McMeel describes his food as modern Irish: modern flavours, Irish ingredients northern ireland tourist boar.   -  Northern Ireland Tourist Board

The chefs, farmers and meat producers who are helming a locally sourced revolution

It wasn’t so long ago that traditional Irish cuisine — stews and pies and bakes — was totally overpowered by American fast-food style of cooking. “It was horrible,” says Deirdre Morgan, my Irish friend, “everything was deep-fried and tasteless.” We were sitting at the tastefully appointed Catalina, the fine-dining restaurant at Lough Erne Resort. This sprawling hotel and golf course, located on the banks of Lake Erne (County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland), is no stranger to the rich and famous, including the premiers of the 39th G8 Summit in 2013. While the outdoors is more beautiful than the indoors, the food on our plates gives the natural beauty a tough competition.

Noel McMeel’s locally sourced gourmet menus are world famous by now — but even when he wasn’t well known, his brilliance was recognised by the industry. Back in 2002, he did the vegetarian menu for Paul McCartney’s wedding and, more recently, he has cooked for President Obama in 2013, before going back to the White House on St Patrick’s Day this year, to dish out some more of his good stuff. McMeel describes his food as modern Irish: modern flavours, Irish ingredients. He has only one rule: The ingredients have to be locally sourced and of top quality. Every meat and fish on the Catalina menu has its origin next to it: Telfords pork, Keenan’s salmon, Fermanagh bacon, Kettyle beef, Kilkeel hake... local butcher and place names tumble out of the menu. I have chosen the fillet of stone bass from county Antrim: it is flaky and comes with violet mustard, a nearly forgotten French mustard type that is being revived by progressive and thinking chefs worldwide.

McMeel is your typical modern-day celebrity chef with one key difference. He is friendly and damn funny. During a cooking session the next morning (he bakes a dish of ‘mushrooms with bacon, topped with egg’ in 10 minutes flat), he explains that his one-point agenda is to find local food and prepare innovative recipes from only fresh ingredients. If you happen to be at Lough Erne, try his soda breads — especially curry and treacle.

Celebrity chef is okay, but you may have never heard of celebrity butter: Abernethy butter is just that. The chosen one at Fat Duck, among a host of other famous restaurants across the UK, it is a delicate swirl of buttery heaven that is available at high-end stores like Harrods, London and Sawers in Belfast, or at small local farm shops across Northern Ireland. So what makes Abernethy butter special? Irishman Will Abernethy hand-churns the butter every day. From morning to evening, six days a week, the Abernethy family itself produces all the butter that’s in the market; packaging it neatly in simple brown paper, held together with an elegant white sticker announcing the well-respected name.

As I look shocked, Abernethy explains that he really wanted to bring back real butter to people’s tables, “the way it used to be done”, and his artisanal butter does taste more buttery, less salty and, of course, delicious on hot bread. Apart from butter, they do a fudge that has a rich caramel flavour and grainy, buttery texture. In 2014, The Independent featured the Abernethy butter in a story announcing the defeat of margarine, titled ‘Butter Is Back’. We are glad that they were quite right.

Abernethy is a polite man, like most of his countrymen, and I was happy to find the butter on the table at Meat Locker, celebrity chef Michael Deane’s famous restaurant in Belfast. Deane is perhaps the most well-known chef in the whole of Ireland, with the trendiest restaurants in Belfast.

Meat Locker is, as you can guess, his steaks-special restaurant where you can order any cut you like with any sauce you like. Deane is among the first chefs who revolutionised the dining scene in Ireland: he opened Deane’s Brasserie back in 1997 and it got a Michelin star that very year.

He held his Michelin star for 12 years, a record for Ireland. Today, he runs seven successful restaurants and cafés across Belfast, including a cheerfully decorated seafood speciality restaurant called Deanes Love Fish.

The bacon that McMeel used for his mushroom bake was black bacon (which is not black but a traditional British cut). The man behind that is the gregarious Pat O’Doherty, whose shop in Enniskillen is a delight to visit, especially if you find him there. We chat about our love for food while the man — known across the world for his meat produce — showed some party tricks. O’Doherty’s pigs are happy pigs: He lets them roam on an island. Maybe that’s what makes them taste so delicious when they eventually end up on a plate. O’Doherty has also bagged many Irish and British awards for his burgers and bacons. He promises that his nitrate-free bacon will not leave “white scum” on your pan, and the proof of this is his popularity across the UK and Europe… though it might also have something to do with winning over friends worldwide, seeing just how lovely a fellow he is.

Kalyani Prasher is a Delhi-based freelance writer

(The writer was in Northern Ireland on the invitation of Tourism Ireland)

Published on September 16, 2016

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