Northern Ireland: Irish cooks keep it simple (+recipe)

By Peter Calder

Peter Calder sounds out the sources of Ireland's traditional tucker.

Bloody Foreland is one of Donegal's popular walks. Photo / Tourism Ireland
Bloody Foreland is one of Donegal's popular walks. Photo / Tourism Ireland

Sure and it's turned out a fine day," says Pat O'Doherty, as he throttles the aluminium skiff across the glassy waters of Upper Lough Erne.

"Up to a point," I think to myself. The rain that's been falling all day stopped just as we stepped into the boat but the low-hanging sky varies from slate to smoky grey and without a watch you'd never know if it was late morning or early evening.

We're only a few miles - they still talk miles here and meat is sold by the pound - from the Northern Ireland town of Enniskillen, which nestles between the upper and lower loughs and is home to his legendary butchery.

And we're off to see 100 of the reasons for his success - the pigs that root and roam on the island of Inishcorkish in the middle of the lake.

Our first landfall, gumboot-deep in the shallows, is problematic. Alarmingly curious cattle approach, scenting the mix of oats and barley that O'Doherty's bringing to feed the pigs and he predicts "all sorts of bother".

We push off again, barely eluding the snouts of the hungriest steers, and motor around to the other side of the island.

It's here I understand why the collective noun for pigs is a "sounder" because squeals and shrieks of delight at O'Doherty's arrival - slightly menacing to a squeamish Antipodean city slicker - rend the late-afternoon air. The Wessex saddlebacks gallop into view, swarming around the mash he empties on to the mud, bashing each other aside in a squelching and snorting melee. The best option looks like standing clear.

"This isn't their diet," O'Doherty explains. "It's a treat for them. They're better off finding the berries and roots and so on. They could live here for ever."

They don't, of course. By the time they're a year old, O'Doherty's pigs will have become O'Doherty's pork belly, or sausages (the most original line is whiskey and orange) or, best of all, O'Doherty's famous black bacon.

"Black", a bit like "fine day", is a relative term. In truth, Pat's bacon is more red than black, but it's the red of prime beef not the pink of the phosphate- and nitrite-soaked commercial bacon that glows in your supermarket freezer. But unsliced in the slab it looks pretty black. At his shop, Pat showed me a leg of lamb he'd salted and smoked as "lamb bacon" - an option for Irish Muslims who want to enjoy a pork-free full Ulster breakfast.

O'Doherty's black bacon has become a noted feature on the Irish food landscape since the butcher embarked on his mission to boost the quality of the meat, which is an Irish staple.

"We're not so much a niche market as a cult market," says O'Doherty, who obtained a degree in environmental science before he became a butcher. He developed his techniques by interviewing local farmers and gathered up their old tricks, which included adding wildflowers to the curing brine and smoking the meat by hanging it in the wide chimney flue above the peat fire.

He sells to a handful of "like-minded shops" but has rebuffed all approaches from the big supermarket chains because, he says, a deal would quickly become a form of slavery in which the customer dictated to the producer and the emphasis on cost-cutting would inevitably erode standards. It's a situation familiar to Robert Ditty, whose eponymous bakery in Castledawson is a haven of fine breads and Irish baking that is most politely described as ascetic (if you think oat biscuits are tough going, try the ones made with smoked oats; when it comes to baking the Irish aren't exactly French, if you get my drift).

"To the Irish, food is pretty basic," Ditty says. "You're not going to pull a book of Irish cuisine down off your shelf now, are you? So it's about making the ingredients as good as possible."

Ditty and O'Doherty are two of a small but hardy band of operators in Northern Ireland trying to season traditional foods with organic and chemical-free techniques. They gather under the banner of what is called Good Food Ireland.

Bed and breakfast places have begun to add a culinary angle for their guests, such as cook schools that allow visitors the chance to make their own dinner.

You'll be shown how to make the Irish staple, soda bread, called farl in Ulster - a griddle-cooked bread in which the rising agent is baking soda, not yeast - then move on to the rest of the menu.

This can vary from the sublime to the ridiculous. At one place, a woman was about to instruct me in the niceties of leek and potato soup until I mentioned that the dish, while doubtless of Irish origin, was a Kiwi staple of my childhood which I'd made several dozen times. Her recipe for "citrus chicken" (marmalade and apple juice) did not, meanwhile, address the fundamental problem I've never solved of how to avoid boneless chicken breasts ending up as succulent as gib board.

By contrast, at Donegal Manor Guest House on the outskirts of Donegal Town, chef Anthony Armstrong showed me how to bone a trout while leaving it whole (his side looked a lot better than mine at the end, I have to admit). We cooked it "country style" - stuffed with fresh redcurrants marinated in Cointreau and cashews and it quite conquered my prejudice against letting fruit escape from the dessert menu. Speaking of dessert menus, the thin-crusted pie made with Bramley apples from County Armagh is the last word in apple pies.

And you haven't tasted porridge until Ralph Brown of Grange Lodge near Dungannon shows you his house specialty. He pours a halo of cream and Old Bushmills 12-year-old malt whiskey around the rim and shows you how to gently fold it in ("Don't stir," he intones solemnly). Sure and it's enough to set you up for the day.

Norah Brown's Champ

This supercharged mashed potato, an Irish staple, is particularly delicious, though it seems to me that you can add cream and butter to just about anything and make heavenly food. In Donegal, they call it poundies.

900g potatoes boiled and seasoned to taste
Small bunch spring onions, chopped
150ml cream (or cream and milk)
25g butter

1. Bring cream and spring onions to boil in a saucepan and simmer for five minutes.

2. Mash the potatoes well. Add the contents of the saucepan and half the butter. Beat until fluffy.

3. Stir through the rest of the butter just before serving.

Peter Calder was assisted by the Northern Irish Trust Board, Failte Ireland and by Cathay Pacific.

- Herald on Sunday

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