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The Darina Allen Column

Darina Allen

A sense of discovery for Darina this month, as she recounts a wonderful Slow Food trip to Northern Ireland

If you’ve never taken the train from Dublin to Belfast put it on your ‘must do’ list immediately; it’s certainly one of the loveliest train journeys I have ever experienced, all along the North Dublin coast into Dundalk.

The countryside was looking particularly beautiful with the fresh green growth of early summer and the whin (gorse) in full bloom.

I was on my way to Portaferry to attend a Slow Food dinner at The Narrows, a destination which has been saved from an advanced state of dereliction by a feisty girl called Celia Spouncer.

To celebrate the awakening of The Narrows, Celia, who is leader of Slow Food Northern Ireland, organised a feast to highlight the extraordinary richness of local produce available on the Ards Peninsula and around Strangford Lough. It was a truly memorable evening and a taste of what’s happening on the Northern Ireland food scene.

For many years our Northern Ireland friends looked on enviously at the range of farmhouse cheese and artisan foods available ‘in the South’. The climate in the North was not conducive to this kind of enterprise until relatively recently, but now there is a virtual explosion of new food enterprises and a renewed confidence in the future.

On our way to Portaferry we called in to see St George’s Market, recently short listed for the BBC Food and Farming awards. The buzz and energy is palpable, Saturday is the big day for food stalls.

Then we swung by to see Mike Thompson’s dairy in Newtownards where he makes a raw milk blue cheese called Young Buck. Mike, a self-professed ‘dairy nerd’, learned his craft in Welbeck School of Artisan Food and was inspired by Jo Schneider who makes the beautiful Stichelton cheese also on the estate.

At the Slow Food dinner later, Celia proudly presented a cheeseboard of Northern Ireland Farmhouse cheese for the very first time, it also included a delicious Kearney blue made by Paul McClean and a mild and creamy Leggygowan goat cheese made by Adam and Jason Kelly.

The canapés included local smoked salmon, sweet Strangford Lough crabs and Portavogie prawns from Something Fishy whose mobile fish shop we had passed on the roadside by Portavogie village earlier.

The Slow Food Northern Ireland supper also reflected the wild and foraged food of this beautiful area — Ardkeen Nettle and Wild Garlic soup, Strangford Lough mussels and Rathlin Island kelp.

I met Jane Somerville whose family live, fish sustainably and harvest the kelp on Rathlin Island the same time honoured way as their ancestors. It’s a beautiful product which I also used in my cookery demonstration on St George’s Market next day. The beef came from Arthur’s local butchers and veg from the country garden grocer in Portaferry.

Paula McIntyre, the much loved chef and broadcaster, created a delicious pannacotta from Abernethy’s buttermilk and paired it with new season rhubarb, shortbread and Glastry ice-cream. Guests practically licked their plates. Even the wine came from Winemark in Portaferry.

The homemade breads, which included local dillisk, were made by David Semple and slathered with the beautiful Abernethy’s hand made butter — another contender for the BBC Food and Farming awards. It was a wonderfully convivial event where there was real excitement about the renaissance on the Northern Ireland artisan food scene.

The Radio 4 Food progamme did a 30 minute segment on ‘Food in Northern Ireland: A Golden Era’ a few weeks ago. The word is out.

Ardkeen Nettle and Wild Garlic SoupArdkeen Nettle and Wild Garlic Soup

Serves 4

2oz butter
1 onion
1 leek
4 sticks table celery
3 carrots
2 potatoes
2 pt chicken stock or veg stock cubes and water
20 — 30 nettle tips
A small handful wild garlic leaves
Double cream to garnish

Sweat chopped onions in butter in a heavy based saucepan over low heat till soft and transparent.

Add sliced leek, celery, carrots and potatoes and close lid on pan. When hot add hot stock or cubes and boiling water. Simmer till cooked through.

Add nettle tips and wild garlic leaves.

Blend until fairly smooth with a hand blender or liquidiser and serve hot with a swirl of double cream.


Seabeet Salad

Seabeet, or sea spinach as its sometimes called, grows wild along the sea shore — it’s particularly fresh and lush at present. The texture is less tender than ordinary spinach so slice very thinly.

Seabeet leaves and stalks

French Dressing:

4oz olive oil
1oz balsamic vinegar
1oz white wine vinegar
1oz brown sugar
1tsp Dijon and 1tsp whole grain mustard
Salt and black pepper

Wash seabeet leaves and stalks, then slice in 1cm ribbons. Toss together with French Dressing to make the leaves glisten just before eating.

To make the French Dressing: Add vinegars to dry ingredients and mix well.

Slowly add olive oil whisking briskly till all combined.


Kelp and Smoked Seafood Salad

Serves 6-8

My nephew Ivan Whelan used to serve this lovely salad at his restaurant, Grapefruit Moon, in Ballycotton. If you can’t find kelp then try wakame, a Japanese seaweed that can be found in health-food shops.

50g dried kelp or wakame
150g (5oz) cold-smoked salmon
150g (5oz) smoked eel, weighed after skinning and boning
50g (2oz) pickled ginger (gari)
60g (2½oz) pine nuts
3 tbsp soy sauce
3 tbsp sesame oil
1½ tbsp rice wine vinegar
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 tbsp freshly chopped coriander
30 Smoked mussels

Soak the seaweed in cold water for about 30 minutes to reconstitute.

Drain very well in a colander and press out all the excess water. Put into a large mixing bowl.

Cut the smoked salmon and eel into small pieces and chop the ginger. Add these to the seaweed, along with the pine nuts, soy sauce, sesame oil and rice wine vinegar, coriander and salt and pepper to taste.

Mix gently to avoid breaking up the fish.

Serve stacked on a plate with smoked mussels dotted around.


Paula McIntyre’s Shortbread made with Abernethy’s Handmade Butter

Makes 34 — 36 biscuits

100g (3½ozs) Abernethy’s hand made butter
50g (2ozs) icing sugar
50g (2ozs) cornflour
100g (3½ozs) plain white flour
1 tsp lavender (optional)

Cream the butter well, add the icing sugar and continue to beat until light and fluffy.

Stir in the cornflour and flour and bring together into a ball.

Cover with cling film and allow to rest in the refrigerator for 15 minutes minimum.

Just before baking preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.

Roll the dough to a thickness of ¼ inch (5 mm), stamp out the cookies. Paula used a 2 inch (5 cm) round cutter but it can be whatever size or shape you need.

Spread on a parchment lined baking tray. Cook for 10- 12 minutes approximately or until they are a very pale gold colour. Remove and cool on a wire rack.

Serve dusted with icing sugar — Paula sandwiched them together with raspberry jelly from Castlerock on the north coast but they are delicious served just as they are.

'30 Years at Ballymaloe' - Bord Gáis Avonmore Cookbook of the Year 2013

Good Food Ireland Cookery School of the Year 2012/2013


Ballymaloe Cookery SchoolOnce again, the Ballymaloe Cookery School in East Cork has a great programme of cookery courses for all interests and abilities running throughout 2014. Ranging from a relaxing visit to sit in on an afternoon cookery demonstration to a week long ‘Intensive Introductory Course’.

Sitting in the middle of a 100 acre organic farm the Ballymaloe Cookery School provides its students not only with a life skill learnt under the expert tutelage of their very capable teachers but also a place to relax and unwind from the stresses and strains of normal everyday life. The cottage accommodation available onsite for residential courses consists of a collection of delightful converted outbuildings which have been transformed over the years by the Allens, and other accommodation is available locally for the short courses.




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