Northern Ireland revealed itself as a food paradise to me. There hasn’t been one meal that I did not deeply enjoy while there. I only spent three days in Northern Ireland and I tried to eat out every time we could. Even when we had a lot of driving ahead and not enough time to fit in a proper lunch. This is when we usually make our sandwiches and eat them on the go. Even then I loved the local food. That cheddar, that bread… what’s not to love there?
Years ago I used to say that my favourite cultural feature of a foreign country is its language. I was a Language student, so that was an obvious answer. But as I grew older my passion for food increased. So did my budget, not going to lie. Listening to the local language is free, eating in restaurants is not. My travel style has not changed much, I still love to catch cheap flights and let airline deals choose where to next. But now I can afford eating out a little more often than when I was a Language student. So now it’s no longer the language but the local food my favourite feature of foreign countries.
As our fifth anniversary treat my boyfriend and I have recently been on a road trip around Ireland. Our main goal was visiting Irish whiskey distilleries, but of course we made other stops around the road. Some of them were planned around the food. We kicked off our trip in Northern Ireland, where I got to eat some seriously delicious food. So delicious it deserved a dedicated post.
This feature goes morning till evening, as it begins with breakfast and ends with dinner. I must disclose that I did not have these meals just over one day. Here’s one thing about Northern Irish food: it’s incredibly filling! Furthermore, these three restaurants are in three different locations across Northern Ireland. I still thought it would be nice to feature them in the same order as they would happen throughout the day. So here’s Northern Ireland for the foodies, according to me.
Ulster Fry in the heart of Belfast
Let’s start the day in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. I had tried the experience of a full Irish breakfast in the past, but I got to learn that the Northern Irish version has a couple of minor variations. A proper Ulster fry will come with soda bread and potato farls. It normally does not include white pudding, only black pudding, and it generally comes without beans. All the other elements – bacon rashers, sausages, fried tomato, mushrooms and eggs – are the same as in Irish breakfast. So to sample a breakfast fry we headed to Brights Restaurant (23-25 High St., Belfast).
First of all, a large fry is huge! We shared one, and were feeling so full that we had lunch much later in the day than normal. Not only is the food nutritious and filling, but the size of this breakfast was really enormous. Even after many years living abroad, neither of us has lost the habit to have a light sweet breakfast – coffee and biscuits or coffee and a piece of cake – just like we used to in Italy. Any time we get to eat a more filling breakfast we end up surprised of how satisfied one feels after one such meal! This Ulster fry did not disappoint and it was so delicious I could have downed a full one alone. It would have kept me happy until the evening, probably.
Interestingly, we did not notice on the menu that one could choose to have the more traditional black pudding or the beans. Since we didn’t choose, we got the traditional version with the black pudding. For someone who is not accustomed to black pudding, it could be a challenging food to try. The possibility to exchange it for something more familiar sounds just legit, it avoids leftovers. At first we were not too happy about this, as my boyfriend was craving beans and I was not sure I’d like the black pudding. It exists in Poland, too, and I had always avoided eating it. In the end I’m actually pretty happy we got our fry like this. First of all, we got the original version. Second of all, it gave us the chance to try a new food. Guess what, we both loved it. I like liver pâté, black pudding was not too different in taste. So it was a great discovery. And a great breakfast experience.
Afternoon Tea on the Antrim Coast
When you have a filling breakfast you might not be very hungry at noon. If you’re in that situation I would recommend skipping the lunch altogether and going for afternoon tea instead. This is what we did on the day we arrived in Northern Ireland. After a quick stop in Belfast, we drove all the way to Ballygally, on the Antrim coast. We intentionally skipped lunch as we were headed to Ballygally Castle Hotel to treat ourselves to a delightful afternoon tea experience. This was my first time having afternoon tea, and after this one time I’m already hooked and planning on organising one for my birthday party.
I came across Ballygally Castle and its afternoon tea in a post about them offering Game of Thrones themed dining experiences. If the popular TV series was what sparked my interest, when I did some more research about the place I was totally fascinated. I had planned to have my first afternoon tea somewhere in Northern Ireland, and when I found out about Ballygally Castle I knew that was going to be the place. The castle dates back to 1625, and if that wasn’t enough it is located just by a beautiful beach. It is a really dreamy location and it serves Afternoon Tea daily.
When we sat down, we decided to order both the classic and the Game of Thrones afternoon tea. First came the teas – my boyfriend had a spicy black one with milk, while I opted for an apple tea. The afternoon tea food offer includes a selection of various sweets and pastries as well as sandwiches. Each of us could choose two sandwiches from the menu, so I chose the Northern Irish Chicken Breast with Sundried Tomato Mayonnaise and Givan’s Honey Roast Ham with Wholegrain Mustard and Cress. From the Game of Thrones selection my boyfriend picked the Rustic Ironborn Focaccia with Glenarm Smoked Salmon and Cream Cheese, and Hodor’s Pulled Pork Brioche. We both agreed that Hodor’s pulled pork and Givan’s ham were our best picks.
While I truly enjoyed the sandwiches, I still remain a sweet tooth at heart so to me the sweets were the best part. Most of the sweets were the same on both platters, but those on the Game of Thrones menu had definitely more creative names. You don’t get to be offered a Kingslayer Cupcake or a Winterfell Jaffa Cake every day, after all. The afternoon tea experience was memorable, and definitely worth the trip from Belfast. Since it was also my very first one I will never forget it.
Gourmet Dinner in Bushmills
As I mentioned before, the Irish whiskey distilleries were the main focus of our trip and the first one we visited was the Old Bushmills Distillery. The building that once used to be the home of the Bushmills Distillery owners nowadays houses Tartine at the Distillers Arms (140 Main Street, Bushmills). Besides being an award winning restaurant, its location sounded like the perfect place to end our day in Bushmills. So after learning all about whiskey, including what is the angels’ share, at the distillery, there was only one place where we could go for dinner and that place was Tartine.
I started off my meal with an appetizer that consisted of a Poached Pear and Cashel Blue Cheese with Hazelnuts, Mixed Leaves and Pesto Dressing. I have a soft spot for blue cheese and I really couldn’t miss out on the opportunity to try a local one. Besides, pear and blue cheese are a match made in heaven, so when I read this one on the menu I instantly made up my mind. The dish came with a side of soda bread and butter.
If choosing the appetizer had been an easy task, picking the main course proved more challenging. There were two very interesting combinations of meat and fish that triggered my curiosity. I don’t usually mix fish and meat so I was very intrigued. One featured monkfish wrapped in prosciutto. The other, which was my choice eventually, was the 6 oz. Char Grilled Fillet Steak with Garlic Butter Prawns, Skinny Fries and Chef’s Garnish. I asked it medium, and it was just perfect. Never had I thought that such a combination of beef and shellfish could work so well. But it just made so much sense, on an island that has such renowned beef farming and fishing traditions.
When handed the dessert menu at the end of my meal I had no hesitation. I had started the day at the Bushmills distillery, I was now sitting in what once was the distiller’s house. My choice was the Bushmills Whiskey Crème Brûlée with Homemade Shortbread, which also came with some berry compote. I just had to end the day honoring one more time the whiskey that made the village of Bushmills famous worldwide.
Don’t do a full afternoon tea if you plan on visiting Tartine later in the day because you want to make sure you have the right appetite for the fine dining experience that awaits you there. One can of course just stick to one course, and the portions are generous enough to satisfy even like that. But the choice of food on the menu is so inviting that it’s hard to resist the temptation to have a full three course meal! I’m glad I did.
I have immensely enjoyed my time in Northern Ireland and the food (I’m including Bushmills whiskey, of course) definitely made the whole experience even better. Three days are not enough, but I’m the kind of traveller that loves going back, as I believe that a place will always look different when you come back different yourself.
Until next time, Northern Ireland. It’s been delicious.
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Disclaimer: The second and third restaurant reviewed in this post have given me complimentary dishes. This has in no way influenced my opinion. Please notice that all pictures featured throughout the post are my own.