Today, I want to persuade you to try a local food tour in Northern Ireland (NI), just for the fun of it. And better yet, give the gift of food, fun and happy memories as a present this year instead of 'things'. Vouchers allow people to be delighted at Christmas, have a treat to look forward to and then have a gorgeous experience once they've been with us. Win, win, win!
There are nearly seventeen food based tours registered with DiscoverNI (and What’s On NI) - there has to be a reason for that, right? There most certainly is. Our food and our chefs and bakers are among the best in the world right now - from traditional scones and whiskeys to modern free-range charcuterie and artisan bread, from grass-fed beef to Lough Neagh eels and Gleanarm Organic Salmon, from freshly griddled soda bread to award-winning cheeses, gins, beers, preserves... I could keep going, you know. Any local market you go to is bursting with fabulous ingredients, and there are so many good ones to visit such as the Naturally North Coast and Glens. Every good restaurant you hear about has delicious dishes, amazing drinks. In such a burgeoning foodie world, where on earth do you begin? Especially if you’re not even sure you’re going to like half of it!
Well, that’s where food tours come in. For locals looking to find new foods, different combinations, exciting eateries, or just experience a delightful morning with friends, or international visitors wondering what each area offers in the way of good food, history and culture and where they can find it, a food tour with Irish Feast solves all those problems. We believe that food is history on a plate – and what a way to experience it!
As Irish Feast stands for Food Experiences and Small Towns, we currently host tours in Ballycastle, Bushmills, Glenarm and Rathlin Island. Each town in Northern Ireland, whether large or small, has its own unique microcosm of food and drink, of eateries and culture as well as history and interesting architecture and art. It's only when you take the time to taste all of this, to savour the individuality, that you begin to really appreciate it.
In Ballycastle, its the fact that it’s an up and coming recognised foodie destination with an Économusée bakehouse, many award-winning restaurants, bakeries, butcheries and chip shops as well as a beautifully refurbished ocean-facing hotel and an old fashioned sweetie shop – all wrapped up in thousands of years of history.
In Bushmills, its the whiskey, salmon, old mills, fine dining eateries and cosy cafés hid amongst over 80 listed buildings, and all nestled in the shadow of the Giant’s Causeway.
On Rathlin, it’s the scenery, beauty, lighthouses, wildlife and welcoming people along with many more good places to eat than people realise.
In Glenarm, it's the charming history and eclectic range of superb food and drink.
Each village, town, area, county, region of Northern Ireland has awe-inspiring views, fabulous foods, inspirational eateries – we just have to go out and discover them. Add in a knowledgeable, fun foodie guide, and it becomes a winning combination for a memory making experience you’ll never forget. Have I persuaded you give the gift of a local food tour yet..?
We recently had coffee (and perhaps some cake, I couldn’t possibly comment) with the lovely Isabella from Glens of Antrim Craft Ales and Beers, based at Murlough near Torr Head. We were on the hunt for ale for the Feast of the Earls because what is a feast without ale?!
Rathlin Red is already a part of the Ballycastle and Rathlin Food Tours; Isabella and I did our OCN Level 2 in Social Media together at NRC’s Limavady site and, as the Feast of the Earls celebrates the history of Bonamargy Friary and Sorley Boy McDonnell, we were hoping to persuade them to supply us with a respectable quantity of ale to wash down our food. Feasts need ale!
Lacada Brewery, by the way, also make fabulous ales and beers, and are hosting a Beer Festival in Portrush on the .... of October and will feature a vast array of wonderful, local, sustainable, delicious ales and beers as well as some excellent food. Well worth a visit!
The McCarry’s make their brews in small batches taking 1 day to brew, 7 days to ferment and then they bottle. The fermentation time is dependent on the atmospheric pressure, the yeast, the water, the grains...all of this needs watching and thinking about. There are no extracts, no carbon dioxide, it’s not pasturised nor filtered. Unlike other breweries, The Glens of Antrim bottle all their ales and beers on site (as do Lacada) Their output is created to match their tastes and to go with the local foods which is why, having bought a filtration unit, they didn’t continue using it. They both thought the finished product was bland and tasteless - not something they’d want to put their name to.
With this much attention to detail, along with the constant feedback from tour guests about how good the ale is, we really, really wanted Pat and Isabella’s output. Thankfully we all agreed that the Feast of the Earls couldn’t have gone ahead without a few cases of this iconic ale as well as some Lizzie’s Ale and a couple of bottles of Fairhead Gold, so we’re all set to have a rollicking time at the Feast, just as Sorley Boy and his clan would have done!
Last night I went to a supper club in Ursa Minor Bakehouse in Ballycastle - a combination of wanting to support Dara and Ciara as they have supported me over the last year, of wanting to try the Levantine foods they were promising and of wanting to have a change of routine for a Saturday night.
I’ve known Dara and Ciara for many years now, having first met them when we worked together at Carrick a Rede Rope Bridge. I asked them to be part of a Ballycastle Food Tour because I loved their bread and thought that the patisserie would be a lovely bite with which to finish. Now that they’re an Économusée partner, a renowned Bakehouse and a real food hero, I’m so glad they continue to showcase Ballycastle’s food, allowing us into their bakery and explaining their ethos and the reasoning behind their venture.
Supper clubs are an up and coming part of the food culture here - pop up restaurants showcasing amazing chefs, particular foods, unusual venues. I love supper clubs and not only go to many, I intend to develop a regular monthly supper club offering starting this Autumn (more on that later!). Suppers range in price from £20 to £50 to over £100 depending on what is being showcased and where.
I’ve been interested in food and history for some time now as well as ‘gut health’. In generations gone by we actually ate a wider variety of foodstuffs, thereby getting a wider variety of nutrients and vitamins on a regular basis. Although we can no longer forage exclusively due to population growth and lack of truly wild reserves (people look at you funny if you start wandering round their garden picking stuff...), we can still eat a more interesting diet and include foodstuffs such as fermented foods, pickled foods as well as many more herbs and spices than I grew up with. Many cultures still do e.g. Japan, Scandinavia, as well as the middle and far East, including India. I’m listening to a serious of lectures by Ken Albala and it’s fascinating how our food came to be ‘our food’.
So, when I saw the little poster in Ursa Minor’s window about a Persian vegetarian supper club - that had to happen, right?! It gave me a chance to taste many of the 'super' foods I wanted to try with out having to travel to get them or figure out a recipe (#Idon’tcookoften) - here are some pictures of the evening. Stephen wanted to know where the steak was hidden in the menu.
End result? He was pleasantly surprised that he enjoyed so much of it, and I have discovered I love spiced carrot salad as well as fatet batinjan. I already knew I could eat my body weight in hummus and madeleines! This was delicious, healthy, nutritious, colourful, flavourful food - now I just have to learn how to cook it myself...
Try a supper club yourself, bet you’ll be delighted, too!
The Rathlin Sound Maritime Festival takes place at the end of May/beginning of June each year and is growing from strength to strength. The activities to do, the history to find out about, the fun to take part in - its just amazing. This word is overused, sometimes, but in this context is completely correct - I’m amazed at the community spirit that works for months to bring it together, I’m amazed at the pride of place in Ballycastle and Rathlin Island that is on display throughout the festival and I’m amazed at the raft of delights on both sides of the sound as well as the encouragement offered to make us look towards the water as a connecting factor not a barrier. David Quninny Mee did more than most by helping not only organise the festival but row a curragh from Rathlin to Ballycastle to launch the festival! On a side note, I met one of the other rowers - Ruairidh Morrison of the North Coast Smokehouse - at a Taste of the Causeway Coast and Glens celebration that evening and you’d never have known the man had risked life and limb on the Atlantic Ocean to reach the party! Respect to them all!
My own festival was, as you might imagine, very foodie orientated. I compered at the Saturday and Sunday cookery demos and was blown away by the calibre and quality of the chefs and their food. Here is a link to one of the demos I really enjoyed: Oliver Molloy - son of Peter Molloy one of the main organisers. A delight to meet and watch cook. I learnt a lot and so did others who watched the banter. Hope he comes back to Ballycastle for good one day.
The other chefs were Alastair Crown from Corndale Farm Chorizo, Tony Rodgers from Tony’s Griddle Goods and Cara O’Donovan from The Portrush Deli Company.
An important foodie element this year was the Ulster Chowder Cook-off. Pol Shields from Upstairs at Joe’s won last year and represented us beautifully in Kinsale in April at the All Ireland final. This year’s worthy winner was Gary Stewart from Tartine at the Distiller’s Arms with Darren Benham of the Bushmills Inn a very close second. Can’t wait for the Bushmills Salmon and Whiskey Festival to try all their food!
Why not have a scroll through the Festival’s Facebook page, have a laugh at the videos, see if you can see yourself in the photo montage and promise me you’ll be here next year having fun with us. Dare you to enter the Sandcastle Competition!! See you there!
15 Reasons to do a Ballycastle Food Tour
1. It’s the best place to live in Northern Ireland for the second year in a row. Of course. Sunday Times' article:
2. It’s at the heart of the stunningly beautiful Causeway Coastal Route.
3. The food and drink offering in Ballycastle is exceptional, wide ranging (herbs, to beef, to fish, to lobster, to seaweed, to goat!) and award winning.
4. Our stops are so exceptional, they’re on the Economusee Route. - a worldwide celebration of local artisans.
5. Walking is good for the body and the soul.
6. Food Tours are a great way to immerse yourself in a new place (whether you’re on holiday or moved there or just out for the day!)
7. Food Tours are fun!
8. Irish Feast’s Ballycastle Food Tour is #3 tour within the Causeway Coast and Glens.
9. Local guides do it better! And we can guide you on etiquette (NEVER offer someone just a cup of tea - you have to provide food with it), on the local lingo
10.There are so many things to see and do, you need to build yourself up first.
12. Ballycastle is outstandingly, stunningly beautiful.
13. Ballycastle is a small, perfectly formed town, easy to walk around
14. Ballycastle is rich in history and culture.
15. And, finally, I'm good at what I do!