I have an embarrassing confession to make. Despite living an hour’s drive away from Belfast for the past 12 years, I’ve only been to the city twice — once this past March and again just last week (I don’t count a couple trips to the Ikea off the motorway). So when I heard about the Belfast Bred food and drink walking tour, it seemed like the perfect chance to finally see a bit of the city and eat well along the way for good measure. “Ninety per cent of cooking is using good ingredients,” our guide said at the start. “Good food doesn’t have to cost the earth, which is what we’ll show you on this tour.”
Our guide was Barney, a chef from the Titanic who thawed out after being frozen in an iceberg for the past 99 years. It sounds cheesy, but it was actually good fun. Besides, it turns out a man dressed all in chef’s whites with a plastic crab hanging from his hat and ringing a small bell is a good way to stop traffic when a big group needs to cross a street.
The tour starts at Sawers Deli, an Aladdin’s cave stuffed to the rafters with gourmet food and bric-a-brac taking up every square inch of space. Sawers has the largest selection of cheese in Northern Ireland and their freezers include such delicacies as chocolate-covered ants, BBQ-flavoured worms, green curry crickets, camel and zebra steaks and crocodile, ostrich, kangaroo and water buffalo burgers to liven up your next barbecue. On the tour, though, we had buttered slices of a Belfast bap with crispy bacon, octopus, olives, Guinness cheddar, a sweet chilli feta on crackers and dulse seaweed. And this was just the first stop!
Barney had to force us out of Sawers and on to the next stop, the Mourne Seafood Bar, one of the best seafood restaurants in Belfast, where bowls of salt and chilli squid with a chilli jam were set out on tables for sharing. It’s now one week after I took the tour and I’m still thinking about that squid. I’ve booked into a Thai cooking class at their brand new Belfast Cookery School next month and am planning on getting to the city early so I can have a bowl of it all to myself before the class starts.
The salt and chilli squid was a bit spicy for some of the people in our group, so it was just as well that our next stop was The John Hewitt pub in the Cathedral Quarter, where we tasted Tempted Irish craft cider, made with 100% County Armagh apples, and Barney’s Brew, a wheat beer the pub commissioned the Hilden Brewery to make to commemorate the 200th birthday of Belfast master baker Barney Hughes. The John Hewitt is notable for being the only bar in Northern Ireland that sells beer from all the major local artisan microbrewers. Come for the beer, live music and conversation (regular clientele include artists, writers, poets, journalists, trade unionists and musicians), but stay for the food — the John Hewitt wins many awards as a gastropub, including Best Gastropub in 2010 and 2011 in Belfast and being listed as one of the top 50 gastropubs in the UK by The Independent newspaper. And what’s more, all of the pub’s profits go towards funding the Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre next door.
Next it was on to Nick’s Warehouse, a Cathedral Quarter institution. Nick himself chatted with us while we each sat down to a plate of three different Irish cheeses (Glebe Brethan, Ballyblue and Boilíe), Robert Ditty’s oatcakes and pickled pears, telling us how when he bought the place in 1989, it was a pigeon-infested former whiskey warehouse in a once-thriving part of Belfast that had become neglected and unloved. Today, with its charming cobbled streets, it’s one of the city’s trendiest districts. The focus at Nick’s is on local food. “We don’t have a huge culinary tradition in Belfast,” Nick said, “but what we do have is fabulous produce.” It was a theme that was taken up throughout the day at the different places we visited.
From Nick’s we headed towards the waterfront and to Belfast’s oldest building, which has been home to McHugh’s Bar for 300 years (established 1711). Some early elements and features of the building are visible, such as the original handmade bricks, timber-frame partitions with brick infill, oak-pegged trusses and the original staircase. If those walls could talk! McHugh’s serves traditional Irish food with a modern twist and uses only local ingredients as far as possible. Their specialty, though, is their steaks, which you cook yourself on hot volcanic rocks at your table (and when they say hot, they mean hot — 430°!). Even though they have hundreds of these rocks, they still sell out on Friday and Saturday nights, so if you want to go for the steaks, reserve your Black Rock Grill in advance when you make your booking. At this point people were getting so full that some tables weren’t even finishing the steak (though Barney, our tour guide, might have helped them out a little by having a few samples himself).
The tour ended at St George’s Market, the last surviving Victorian covered market in Belfast (although there has been a market on this site since 1604) and one of the city’s most popular places to visit. Barney finished the tour outside the market, leaving the group to explore inside on their own. I went on the tour on a Friday, but Saturday is the best day to go to the market in terms of food. On Friday it’s the Variety Market, as opposed to Saturday’s Food and Garden Market, which means people were selling curry and crepes, carpets and clothes side by side. There were stalls selling fresh fish, butcher counters and tables piled high with Irish veg such as potatoes, cabbages and swedes. Office workers were on their lunch breaks by the time we arrived at the market, with plenty of men in sharp business suits buying fish for their Friday supper and people tucking into an Ulster fry at a makeshift cafe set off to the side.
As you walk from place to place, Barney gives some potted history lessons about Belfast and little bits of trivia, like the fact that workers at the famous Harland & Wolff shipyard would use the round scraps of metal that were cut out of ships’ porthole windows as griddles. As I’d hoped, it was a wonderful way to see the city centre and some of its best foodie destinations. Barney’s parting words to the group echoed what people had been saying at every stop on the tour: “Stick to good Belfast food. Good, simple and bursting with flavour.” After tasting the food we had that morning, there was no arguing with that.
Belfast Bred is produced by the Kabosh Theatre Company and runs on Fridays and Saturdays for two and a half hours, starting at Sawers Deli at 10:15 a.m. and finishing at St George’s Market at 12:45 p.m. Bring comfortable shoes and an umbrella (just in case!). Tickets cost £20 per person and include all samples. Limited places are available on each tour, so be sure to book ahead, either at the Belfast Welcome Centre or by ringing +44 (0)28 9024 6609. The tour only runs until Saturday, 3 September, so don’t miss your chance to spend a morning eating and drinking your way around Belfast this summer.