When you’re asked by the Academy of Chocolate to attend and speak at the Finnebrougue Fine Food Fair in Killyleagh Castle, Northern Ireland, courtesy of Food NI 2016 – the obvious answer to this request is ‘yes’.
The trip was all planned out by Food NI, and after an exhilaratingly turbulent 55 minute flight from Gatwick, I touched down in Belfast City Airport, greeted at the airport by Sharon Machala of Food NI – my chauffeur for the next 28 hours (this was very much a flying visit).
Chocolatiers and chefs, anyone who has a real passion for food, seem to gravitate to one another, and no sooner had we shaken hands, then Sharon and I were deep in chocolate and food conversation. As it was already 11am, it was time for brunch, and what better place to have it and continue our foodie conversation, than Baker Street Belfast cafe, on Belmont Road? Yes, I started my day the best way possible, with avocado, poached eggs and smoked salmon, garnished with pea shoots on a sourdough slice bed – Breakfast of Champions indeed, or Chocolatiers, depending on how you are looking at it. That was just the food, their coffee is equally amazing, served in those magic double-walled glasses to keep your drink hot without burning your hands.
After collecting fellow AoC member and chocolatier, David Greenwood-Haigh, we were off to the Festival – and here is where the fun really begins. Situated outside a castle – the oldest continually inhabited castle in all of the Irish island – is a rather large marquee, housing some of Northern Ireland’s finest in chocolate, slow food, brewing, meat smoking, and dairy producers, to name a few. After sampling the wares, and discussing the ins and outs of the industry in Northern Ireland and the British mainland, I took myself off for a bit of a time warp, quite literally, with one of Killyleagh’s finest historians – Clive Scoular, or should I say, Sir Hans Sloane himself.
For someone who is 350 years old he walked at a surprisingly fast pace, and was a wealth of information not just on himself and his great contributions to science, the British Museum (his vast collection of specimens were the foundations of the museum), but also fellow Killyleaghans whom have left an equally important mark on the small coastal town – did you know that Dr Edward Hinks, a pastor and historian, made some of the greatest breakthroughs in translated hieroglyphics and paved the way for ancient Egyptian knowledge as we know it today? Killyleagh was also home to Admiral Henry Blackwood, who from the age of 8, a mere minor, successfully worked his way up to the highest ranks of the British Navy and even fought alongside Lord Admiral Nelson against Napoleon! And of course, for any discerning football fan, Killyleagh nurtured the talents of not just one, but two, Premier League footballers, one of whom, David Healey, ‘Clive’ had the pleasure of teaching at boy Scouts.
However it’s not just the fine selection of sportsmen, botanists, Admirals and historians, in addition to a delightful Fine food and Chocolate Fair, and a castle this little Northern Irish coastal town has to offer, Killyleagh is also home to some rather remarkable churches, including the Free Presbyterian Church on Crossbar. We (well, Sloane himself) has the keys so we sneak in for a quick look around, admiring the harvest displays set up to celebrate Autumn, after which it’s time to head back to the Chocolate and Fine Food Fair at the castle, for more networking.
In addition to the Fine Food Fair at Killyleagh, Northern Ireland itself is going through somewhat of a food revolution; we are treated to some of this at the food fair – with bean to bar chocolate makers Neary Nogs Chocolate, delicious Glastry Farm ice ream, quite possibly the most amazing butter – Great Taste Gold award winners, hand churned Abernethy Butter. I think possibly the BEST butter that I’ve EVER tried (and I love my butter!) But there is even a slow food movement that is also on the rise with a fine selection of kimchi and kombucha on offer. This tiny corner of the UK could possibly give London a run for its money in the well presented, fine flavoured food steaks, I’m not kidding!!
After the fair, and as the heavens open we slowly make our way down the winding country roads back to our hotel. But along the way it’s time to experience some of the true Northern Irish hospitality, and we’re made so welcome everywhere we go, I almost feel like we’re family.
Our first stop is the Poachers Pantry, just down the road in Lisbane, just outside Comber – a delightful little place with all manner of artisan produce including many items from the festival! The pantry also stocks fresh bread and scones, and locally grown fruit and vegetables in season. You can’t go far wrong with their fine selection of wines, spirits and artisan beers too. And the soups and chowders – I think I’ll have to come back with check in luggage allowance to stock up!
But we’re here to eat, and eat now, so we are guided through an unassuming door at the back of the pantry to the ‘Best Gastro Pub in Ireland 2015’, the Poachers Pocket restaurant. It was clear to see why they were the winner of such a respectable accolade – the selection on offer was amazing and even tho I was delighted with my choice I still suffered food envy – I just want it all! Right from the starters, to mains, even the drinks options were all top notch!
Dusk has become night, and, leaving just enough room for dessert it was time to make our way to our next stop, in Killinchy. The road is windy, made windy-er by the fact there are now no street lights as we are in deep country now. The light of the headlights brings up the mist and the occasional flash of brown indicates an overly confident rabbit making a run for it! We pull up in the gravel driveway to commence our evening of desserts with non other than the founder of NI Food Tours herself – Tracey Jeffrey. I feel incredibly humbled to be invited into such an immaculate house, with a homely whiff of baked apple pie, timed to come out the oven exactly as we arrive. But it’s not just apple pie that’s on offer, a whole spread awaits us – including macarons using local produce and the finest creme brulee I’ve had in a while!
Next morning, up early, it was time to prepare for our talk at SERC college, Bangor County, ultimately the reason why we were here. To help educate and inspire the next generation of Northern Ireland’s finest chocolatiers. I opened the session with a talk on the origins of chocolate and the development of flavour within the beans, and how that can be nurtured and worked with to create a whole range of flavour profiles. Then it was over to the boys – David Greenwood Haigh and Matthieu de Gottal to get messy with the chocolate – including chocolate and beer pairings and finishing off with a step by step to making a classic ganache.
Before long the show was over and time for networking and sharing as much of our chocolate knowledge as we possibly could. Weighed down with Northern Ireland’s finest chocolate, it was time to say our goodbyes and explore a little bit of Bangor before heading to the airport.
I decided to go in search of Bangor castle, which is actually more of a relatively ancient building (1800s) of little interest currently being used as council offices. But, to my delight, in the local park there is the most beautiful ‘Walled Castle Garden’ with poly-tunnels, rose covered walkways and beautiful flowers in the last throws of bloom. Later, on returning to the university, I discovered that the catering students frequently work with the local herbs and vegetables from the gardens, learning about the farm-to-table process in the meantime.
Now heading back to the airport, I can’t help but feel this isn’t the last time I’ll be in this magical and unsung part of the British Isles. Until next time, NI, I’ll be back.