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Yellowman - Special Irish Foods & The People Who Make Them

Sharon Noonan (Devlin) with her grandmother, sister and great aunt at the Lammas Fair in the 1980s.

Georgina Campbell

Yellowman (aka Yellow Man, or Yellaman) is inextricably linked to the Auld Lammas Fair, which has been held in Ballycastle, Co Antrim on the last Monday and Tuesday of August since the 17th century, and is Ireland’s oldest fair. But, with the NI Year of Food 2016 calendar theme for November being ‘Legacy & Learn to…’, what product could be more appropriate to highlight this month? 

While this North Antrim speciality is famous throughout Ulster, where it is also associated (somewhat bemusingly for visitors, perhaps) with the dulse that is foraged along the nearby shores and equally famous at the Fair, it is not particularly well known elsewhere in Ireland - and, not only would a surprising number of people in the South be hard to put to say what it is at all but, of those who are familiar with it, most would think of the bright yellow honeycomb confection that is sold as Yellowman today.

Even the official website discovernorthernireland.com refers to it as ‘a sweet honeycomb candy’ (see recipe below), yet those who know its history describe it differently - the traditional version is a toffee mixture that is hung up on a hook before setting and ‘pulled’ repeatedly to lighten it to a golden colour and, once cold, it is so hard that it needs to be broken up with a hammer.

Sharon Noonan

There are probably plenty of secret recipes hidden away in Co Antrim and there’s at least one in Newcastle West, Co Limerick too, where Ballymena native Sharon Noonan (née Devlin), the presenter of West Limerick 102 FM’s food programme ‘Best Possible Taste’, is the guardian of the Devlin family recipe.

An unexpected encounter with Yellow Man on the petits fours menu at The Mustard Seed in Ballingarry brought a flood of memories back to Sharon, inspiring her to investigate the traditional sweet and its variations in a radio documentary Devlins’ Yellowman - A Taste of Childhood.

In this excellent production, which was supported by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, Sharon goes back to her roots, remembering the three Antrim families - the Devlins, the McKeowns, and the Agnews - who were the main producers of yellowman, and interviewing her father about the annual ritual of making their own Devlins’ Yellowman (literally) by the ton coming up to the Lammas Fair.

Although best known for their greengrocers shops (one of which is still run by a family member, in Broughshane), producing Yellowman for the Lammas Fair was an important diversification for the Devlins in summer, and all the family had a role to play in the making - which was hard physical work - and the selling.

Sharon interviewed chefs with fascinating connections to Yellowman - Kerry chef John Fitzmaurice (a Euro-Toques Young Chef finalist in 2015, currently cooking at Moloughneys in Dublin), who made it for her family on that fateful night in The Mustard Seed; and Co Derry native Noel McMeel, a lifelong ambassador for the foods of Northern Ireland, who famously included it on his menu for the 2013 G8 Summit at Lough Erne Resort.

Sharon also spoke to Will Taylor of Glastry Farm in Co Down, whose Yellowman Honeycomb Icecream is a Great Taste Awards 2 Gold Stars winner and one of the most popular in their range; and Jim Gilmore of the legendary Belfast handmade sweet factory, Aunt Sandra’s…and, perhaps most fascinating of all, she even got a legal opinion on whether a recipe can be patented.

To find out - and to find out whether Sharon has decided it’s time to share the traditional Devlins’ Yellowman recipe, listen to her documentary:

Noel McMeel yellowman

Yellowman Recipe - a modern version, from discovernorthernireland.com:

This sticky delicacy is a true Northern Ireland speciality and it's even immortalised in folk song with the lyric: "Did you treat your Mary Ann to some dulse and Yellow Man / At the Ould Lammas Fair in Ballycastle-O'. It can be found at Aunt Sandra's Candy Factory in Belfast and delicatessens around Northern Ireland, but here's how to make your own.

Ingredients

11/2 cups golden syrup
1 cup brown sugar
50g (2oz) Irish butter
2 tablespoons white vinegar
1 tablespoon bicarbonate of soda

Method

1. Take great care with this one as boiling sugar can be very dangerous!

2. Gently mix the syrup, sugar, butter and vinegar together in a large saucepan. Then bring it slowly to the boil (do not stir).

3. Boil until a drop hardens in cold water, then carefully stir in the baking soda (the mixture will foam up when the soda goes in).

4. Pour out on to a lightly greased slab and when cool enough to handle, work the edges into the centre. Keep doing this until the mixture turns to a pale yellow colour.

5. Pop it into a lightly greased flat tin and leave to cool and set. When cold, break it into bite size chunks with a clean hammer.

6. Bag-it-up, then off you go to the Ould Lammas Fair.
 

 

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