Traditional Northern Irish cuisine appears to have withstood the test of time, despite a wave of international dishes being introduced to the province in the last few decades. Produce Business UK takes a journey through the different meals that are still popular in Northern Ireland and assesses how fresh fruits and vegetables, particularly those grown locally, can play an even more important role in revitalising some of its famous foods
Northern Irish favourites
As Michele Shirlow, CEO at Food NI – the single promotional voice for Northern Ireland’s food and drink – recently pointed out: “There is an immensely encouraging trend in the local market towards products with heritage and provenance”.
Traditional Northern Irish food and recipes already typically involve some sort of fruit or vegetable. This includes, most notably, the potato – affectionately known by locals as the ‘spud’ and one of Ireland’s most well-known foods; having been grown in Irish soil since the 1700s.
Across the province, potatoes are readily available and make up a key ingredient in many local recipes, including: ‘champ’, a mashed potato combined with chopped spring onions (aka scallions); ‘boxty’ (found mainly in County Fermanagh), a potato cake made up of 50% mashed potato and 50% grated, strained raw potato; and ‘colcannon’, a creamy potato mixed with cabbage.
It’s also worth mentioning ‘potato bread’, a potato-based bread that’s eaten as part of an ‘Ulster Fry’ (a popular Northern Irish breakfast and lastly, ‘Irish Stew’, a flavoursome casserole that combines potatoes with meat, onions and carrots.
In addition to potatoes, Northern Irish consumers often place a variety of vegetables on their plates. The most popular of these being carrots, parsnips, broccoli, turnip, beetroot, cauliflower and cabbage, which are traditionally boiled or used in authentic Irish vegetable soups or stews.
Resurrecting recipes with a modern twist
Emmett McCourt, world-renowned Northern Irish chef, Irish Food Heritage project campaigner and author of the award-winning book ‘Feast or Famine’, tells Produce Business UK that Ireland in general has been on a journey of late with fresh fruit and vegetables and its traditional recipes.
“The hearth was the centre of Irish living and its culture: all the stories and songs happened around it and the food was obviously cooked on it,” explains McCourt. “The recipes really came out of that time.”
While he says Irish potatoes “obviously suffered” during the famine, he notes that the vegetable has since returned to Irish plates and is enjoyed within many recipes. For example, McCourt singles out boxty, which was one of the signature dishes of the Feast and Famine campaign and represents one of the recipes people are beginning to want to know more about and to learn how it is made. Potato bread is another, he adds.
McCourt explains that traditional Northern Irish food is not only being resurrected but it’s also seeing a new lease life. “As a chef, I still cook traditional vegetables and fruits but I tend to give them a more modern twist,” he says. “For example, I would make a turnip purée or cook it traditionally with a bit of bacon fat and local butter.
“The apple is another good example – I have seen it modernised in many gastronomic ways through desserts and main dishes. Also beetroot – which is now coming to the fore with its health properties – is a great Irish vegetable. And I’ve seen chefs roast vegetables like celeriac, which is very innovative.
“A lot of chefs have travelled the world and are coming back to Northern Ireland with a lot of ideas and inspiration (myself included). It’s about bringing these ideas back home and trying to utilise local produce as opposed to shipping it in from across the world.”
Indeed, McCourt says some recipes that have almost been lost along the way with modern lifestyles are now being resurrected with modern interpretations. “It is almost as though the recipes have gone full circle,” he notes. “People are now sourcing local again; going back to discovering where their food is coming from and, in doing so, they are naturally sourcing traditional recipes”.
Opportunities to champion traditional foods
If the Mighty Spud Awards are anything to go by, Northern Ireland is already doing a good job of celebrating at least one of its most famous foods. As Chef Paula McIntyre, one of the judges of the awards, notes: “The campaign focuses on hailing the potato as mighty, not humble. And what better way to do that than to showcase the culinary talent that exists in Northern Ireland. The spud is more than just a bit on the side – whether it is triple-cooked chips, creamy champ or decadent potato gratin, it is impossible to imagine mealtimes without it.”
In recent years, Northern Ireland’s ‘spud’ has received even wider recognition when the Comber spud was given Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status under EU Law.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tourism NI
So too has the Armagh Bramley Apple, a brand of apple that has orchards producing 40,000 tonnes of Bramley apples annually. In response to the apple’s EU recognition, Northern Ireland’s Agriculture Minister, Michelle O’Neill, claimed Armagh Bramley Apple is “widely recognised” by professional chefs and home cooks alike as “the best apple for cooking”.
PHOTO CREDIT: Tourism NI
Going one step further to revive the province’s traditional food is Northern Ireland’s Tourism Board as they promote a Year of Food and Drink throughout the region in 2016. As part of its festivities, every month will be dedicated to a different aspect of Northern Irish food and in March the theme will be focused on ‘A Feast of Heritage’, a celebration of traditional recipes that “have been passed down for generations”. In honour of this theme, restaurants like The Salty Dog in Bangor have already devised a menu for March that will include a take on traditional favourites, including a ‘Salty Dog Irish stew’, ‘butter baked carrots’ and ‘roast baby turnip’.
Trish Deseine, an acclaimed food writer from Northern Ireland and whose new Northern Ireland-based BBC series ‘Doorstep Food’ and book ‘HOME’ champion the use of fresh and local produce, claims the region is “finally waking up to the fact that it produces some of the best food in the world”.
And, it seems Deseine isn’t the only one to hold this view, with National Geographic recently naming the province’s capital as one of ‘the top food destinations to visit in the world in 2016’ and Emmett McCourt’s Famine and Feast initiative receiving worldwide acclaim when it won the Gourmand World Award for Best Culinary Travel Book last year. With so much attention, it does make Northern Irish food sound very appealing… boxty anyone?