Almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, there are now a few good restaurants in Northern Irelandby / November 17, 2016 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2016 issue of Prospect Magazine
I went to Northern Ireland in October because my boyfriend Adrien was writing a story about the consequences of Brexit. Perhaps unsurprisingly they have made it a sectarian issue. Unionists campaigned to “Leave”; Republicans to “Remain.”
“Why haven’t they taken down the wall?” I asked our driver on a taxi tour of the murals in Belfast. He had kept saying that it was different now, troubles in the past.
“That’s what we ask!” But, nevertheless, the Peace Wall, an ugly edifice of concrete, iron and chain-link, stands. People have written peace messages all over it. Which I thought was nice, until I stood back and saw a more recent addition: “Fuck all Muslims.”
Belfast is a brownfield city of spiked fences, an anodyne shopping mall centre, and the excellent fish and chip shop, Longs. After lunch we drove to Derry. The prefix “London” was crossed out with graffiti on every road sign. We walked along the Bogside Bloody Sunday murals and looked up at the ramparts of a town walled in the early-17th century; the Union flag fluttered on the other side of a high fence. We continued to Sandino’s, a guerilla-themed pub with pictures of Che Guevara. Two pints of Guinness please. We discussed tribes, flags and why Guinness tastes better in Northern Ireland. We admired its chic black and white stripe, ruby glints against the fairy lights strung up in the bar.
Northern Ireland is beautiful; it rains three times a day and the grass is so luminous it’s practically neon. Driving south from Derry, we tried to figure out how the us-and-them of British rule versus an all-Ireland had translated into in-or-out of the European Union. “I think for Unionists, it’s sentimental, it’s emotional,” one Catholic priest in Enniskillen told us, “they want a border, they don’t like the idea of not having one.”
We went to dinner in a local restaurant and mused on how fear can trump economics (Northern Ireland receives a lot of EU development funds; a no-customs land border is a great boon to two adjacent, interlinked markets) and why, as we picked at an over-cooked lump of meat, so often, food in small towns can be so disappointing.
Call it the square plate syndrome. Gussied-up pretention, trying too hard. (It’s as prevalent in small-town France as it is in the UK.) Slate plates, chips served in frying baskets, everything covered in zigzag drizzles of sickly balsamic vinegar. What’s wrong with simple? Why can’t we just have a half decent stew or sausages and mash?
It’s true that in Britain, food is getting better. In Wales this spring, we ate a lot of good lamb. Particularly at the Walnut Tree Inn outside Abergavenny where Shaun Hill, one of the old school, first generation of really good British chefs, still cooks every day. The Walnut Tree is doing well—full on a weekday lunchtime—but Hill told me it had taken five years to get into profit after he took it over just before the 2008 recession. The economics of the countryside make running a good restaurant difficult. Tourist seasons are short and locals tend to be more price conscious. There is also an issue of comfort-zone. Hill told me he thought the popularity of gastropubs had something to do with their implied informality. A pub, with food, no need to dress up, it’s not going to be posh and palaver. “Restaurants are traditionally more of a metropolitan phenomenon,” he said. Part of the Walnut Tree’s charm is that prices are reasonable (not cheap, but not London) and tables are open for the odd walk-in. “Proper drinking and dining in an informal setting.”
Almost 20 years since the Good Friday Agreement, there are now a few good restaurants in Northern Ireland, catering to a more prosperous generation. (Belfast now has two Michelin-starred restaurants.) On our last night we went to Wine and Brine which opened last year in Moira, a pretty village outside Belfast. It has already been voted Best Local Restaurant in the UK by the Waitrose Food and Wine Guide. The chef, Chris McGowan, grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles, “when I left university, I was keen to get away.” He went to London, and spent 12 years cooking at Richard Corrigan’s Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair. A motorbike accident made him re-evaluate; his wife is from Northern Ireland too and they wanted to bring up their twin girls closer to family. “We wanted to have a good local restaurant,” he told me.
We came in from a wet Wednesday evening. Sometimes you just know you have arrived in the right place. A glass of champagne, almost as good as Guinness, and a menu that was full of dishes that seemed to be exactly what I was hungry for. Pressed country terrine, beetroot chutney, crispy bits; pork chop with cavolo nero and macaroni cheese; game pie, beef shin suet pudding. I had a mackerel tartare of celadon refinement with cubes of pickled kohlrabi, crème fraîche, a hint of smokey eel. Adrien had lamb that was extraordinarily good.
McGowan said he had been surprised by the enthusiasm of his local customers. Some are in twice a week. “Six months ago I was in a quandary, I wanted to put a dish of ox tongue with salt cod on the menu. But I needn’t have worried, it sold out. Our customers are trusting of us. We can do quirky things.” He had to be careful about price, but the beef on the menu was £30 and he had found that people only complained if something wasn’t good. The perception of value is in the tasting. The couple at the next table were celebrating their 48th wedding anniversary. “We don’t usually go somewhere so expensive but tonight we pushed the boat out,” the woman told me as she spooned up a rhubarb soufflé (above). Happy people, good food. Call it a peace dividend, and cross your fingers it can survive the Brexit re-bordering.