Singer and songwriter, Fatboy Slim once wrote: “We’ve come a long, long way together. Through the hard times and the good.”
Twenty years ago and pre-ceasefire, Belfast had a reputation to equal Beirut. Bombed out buildings, British Army checkpoints, civil unrest, razor wire and urban ruins were just as much a part of the landscape among our fields of green.
It’s not that the people of Belfast lost their freedom, their spirit or taste of the good life. On the contrary, it was always a party town despite the ongoing conflict.
The craic prevailed, no matter what, underpinned by a sense of humour as black as the patrolling soldiers’ boots and tourists (a rare breed) were more likely to be killed by kindness than any bullet or bomb.
There was a long period of darkness in Belfast’s food history where a trip to McDonald’s meant a two hour drive down to Dublin.
It was left up to the Chinese, oddly enough, to turn a blind eye to the chaos going on all around them to serve us with their exotic oriental cuisine; a welcome break from our regular staple of meat, potatoes and two vegetables.
Well, that was until Ciro showed up; more famous for his Ferrari and a ferocious Italian temper than fine dining. It just wasn’t a good night out unless some plates were smashed and an unappreciative guest got booted out of his Trattoria.
Ciros was pure theatre. Great craic! We loved it! And with Larry’s Piano Bar hot on its heels.
Today, Belfast has come of age. In the last 15-years, it has blossomed. Paul Rankin, one of NI’s top chefs and a regular TV celebrity reckons that our city is in the top three provincial food destinations in the UK and that it has been up there for quite some time.
I found that out at last week’s Belfast City Hall launch of ‘Belfast on a Plate’, a flavour of the city in recipes and stories. This beautifully crafted book gets under the skin of some of our best chefs, restaurants and owners who have helped put Belfast firmly on the gastronomic map.
For all the foodies out there, this is simply a Christmas must buy!
On the evening of the launch, Danielle Barry, Head Chef of Deane’s Eipic and Ireland’s only female Michelin starred chef was unable to attend because she was in London being awarded the first woman to be named Irish Chef of the Year by Food and Wine Magazine.
Danni and all the other talented and committed chefs and restaurateurs from Coppi, Deanes at Queens, Deanes Eipic, General Merchants, Graze, Hadskis, Home, Howard Street, James St. South, Mourne Seafood Bar, Neill’s Hill, Ox, Saphyre, Shu, Tedfords Kitchen, The Barking Dog, The Ginger Bistro, The Merchant Hotel, The Muddlers Club and Zen are all substantial contributors to the transformation of our hospitable and resilient city.
On the same day last week, Titanic Belfast, the world’s largest Titanic exhibition was named Europe’s Leading Visitor Attraction at the World Travel Awards 2016.
The project which occupies the same spot where the Titanic was built stole the show from the Acropolis, Eiffel Tower and La Sagrada Familia to take the top spot. It has attracted more than three million visitors since it opened its doors in 2012, on the centenary of the ship’s sinking.
Standing in the grandeur and opulence of our beautiful City Hall, at the Belfast on a Plate event organised by Food NI and supported by Taste of Ulster, I couldn’t help but think, how we, in NI really have come a long, long way together and that life is not about what you are given, it is about what you create, it’s about what you overcome and what you achieve that makes it beautiful.
As individuals, I believe, we are all capable of making a unique contribution to our society that will move us from where we have come from towards where we want to be. It is into this exciting and dynamic environment, I recently launched my brand new venture, Carlin Creative ‘Time to Shine’ Events and Communications.
It’s our job to make it really easy for people in and beyond Northern Ireland to put on exceptional special occasions, parties launches and shows and we have the communications and media relations expertise to make you headline news.
What I hope to establish is an artisan, boutique, highly specialised events and communications service for private and corporate clients who want to stand out from the crowd and inspire, inform and entertain their special guests and stakeholders in an aspirational way. Everything is in the detail.
Carlin Creative is different because it combines my own particular set of skills and experiences working in media relations and event management for Channel 4, ITV and the BBC for over twenty years with a very real and life-long passion for creativity, production and the process of transformation.
As the business builds and grows, Carlin Creative aspires to work alongside some of the world class talent showcased in Belfast on a Plate and in their world class venues and eateries including two Michelin starred restaurants, chilled out bistros and exceptional gastro pubs. I loved the Permit Room, in Fountain Street, Belfast, owned by Niall Davis. It’s an intimate space, with great cuisine, ideal for dark autumnal and winter nights and special private occasions.
In my first Carlin Creative blog I wrote: “I am the type of person, weirdly or not, who likes nothing better than to take a recipe, a dining table, an empty restaurant or a corporate venue and turn it into something remarkable. It’s less a mantra more a way of life and it applies to almost everything I do.”
I’ve also claimed that at Carlin Creative, we like to innovate and are up for any challenge so I put myself to the test by trying out three recipes from Belfast on a Plate just to see how I would manage. My amateur images do nothing to reflect David Pauley’s stunning photography in this highly polished book.
The first, thanks to Cath Gradwell and Jonathan Davis from Neill’s Hill was relatively straightforward. I chose to make delicious sizzling Portavogie prawns with chorizo, garlic and chilli. More Barcelona than Belfast, I would have thought with its core ingredients of olive oil, prawns, chorizo, red chilli, garlic and smoked paprika.
My second choice was more complicated than the first! It was chargrilled lamb loin, with kale and quinoa tabouleh, smoked aubergine with tahini and mint yoghurt made by Home’s Stephen Haller.
I stayed true to using only the very best of local produce and took myself off to the multi-award winning Farmview Meats, otherwise locally known as McDowell’s in the Castlereagh Hills, not having the slightest clue what a loin of lamb looked like.
But I could now identify it in a line up having been presented with all sorts of choice, everything from a lamb chop, to a lamb steak, leg of lamb or rack of Irish lamb and to add to the humiliation did I want it rolled, boned, skinned or tied? I had three master butchers involved in the conversation.
No pressure then in front of a lengthening queue of bemused Saturday shoppers!
I was much less stressed by the many Middle Eastern ingredients incorporated into this recipe. Everything from sumac, pomegranate seeds, quinoa and tahini could be easily found in well stocked local supermarkets and were surprisingly easy to use.
It wasn’t such a difficult recipe after all, more a number of processes to meticulously follow. I was really pleased with the end results in a dish that celebrated Irish lamb but resonated of far off places and a warmer climate.
The Piece De Resistance was an Apple Tart Tatin, with the French making it upside down and in a pan just to make it harder than it looks. This recipe came from Michael O’Connor of the Barking Dog, one of the city’s more eclectic eateries located near Queen’s University.
With only five core ingredients, four apples peeled and cored, 100g butter, 100g sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks and 100gms of shop bought puff pastry (don’t torture yourself) this was simple enough to make and a sweet and stunning end to any mealtime.
All there was left to do, was to turn it out on a plate, upside down, dust with icing sugar and serve with your choice of ice cream while avoiding third degree burns from the boiling hot, molten sugar syrup!
To win a copy of Belfast on A Plate, watch out for our competition on Carlin Creative Facebook!
It’s fitting that 2016 marks Northern Ireland’s Year of Food and Drink celebrating and showcasing the best local produce and promoting the people whose lives are dedicated to rearing, making, cooking and serving it.
In a divided society, this sector has struggled, sometimes against the odds, but has achieved a unique form of excellence distinct to Belfast and Northern Ireland.
We have all benefited from our artisans’ love of food, their passion for produce, their curiosity, their experiences at home and abroad and most of all their hard work and determination.
In the words of Fatboy Slim: “We have come a long, long way together, through the hard times and the good. I have to celebrate you Belfast. I have to praise you like I should.”
A phoenix will always rise from its ashes.