Ireland is a great country for food lovers. The food has been described as “sturdy,” food that enables people to be well-fed, rather than delicate food which is sparingly served and consumed. 2016 is being celebrated as the The Year of Food and Drink in Northern Ireland. Two Belfast restaurants — OX and Eipic — have received Michelin Stars and are current recipients of considerable attention from foodies both Irish and abroad.
With record-breaking performances at the UK Great Taste Awards year after year, Northern Ireland is something of a well-kept culinary secret. With 2016 having been designated the Year of Food and Drink, there's going to be a big celebration of all that is good about the top notch local produce, and the world is invited.
Irish food has been a long kept secret, known often by visitors to the Emerald Isle and too few others. With this yearlong celebration of Irish food, it is hoped that the quality and deliciousness of it will reach a better and broader audience.
There have been and will be specialties celebrated every month of the year. January was Breakfast Month celebrating the famous Fermanagh’s “10 mile breakfast.” February was called “Love Local,” celebrating chef Noel McMeel’s signature “Lough Erne Pork Dish” with filet of pork, pork cheek, ham hock, black pudding Palmer, and pork belly. March celebrated corned beef and cabbage, traditional champ, and Innis MacSaint gravy. April celebrates Bushmills whiskey cocktails and McIvor’s Armagh cider. May features rhubarb tart, rhubarb carrageen moss, sugared rhubarb, and Yellowman Ice Cream. June celebrates Northern Irish cheeses. In July, smoked eel and crayfish salad are the guests of honor. August features Shorthorn Irish beef. For September there will be Afternoon Tea at Lough Erne Resort, with freshly baked soda, fruit, and banana breads. October is all about the harvest, with pears, apples, and plums being celebrated. November is devoted to chefs using local products, and December is about Christmas and premium foods with jams, chutneys, cake, and biscuits.
The brains behind the festival are this festival are Tourism Ireland CEO Niall Gibbons and Lough Erne Resort executive head chef Noel McMeel. I met them in Washington and was able to sit with Mr. McMeel and ask a few questions.
The Daily Meal: How did you get into cooking?
Noel McMeel: On my family’s farm, The Rock, in Toomebridge, in County Antrim, we were more or less self-sufficient, growing our own food and raising livestock. The influence of this lifestyle infused us with the drive toward sustainability and gratitude for what we had. My hardworking parents instilled an innate respect for the seasonality of food in my four brothers, my sister and myself. In my parents’ place and time, it was up to you to look after yourselves and your children — no ifs, ands, or buts. You rose early, you worked physically and you reaped the benefits of what you sowed. One element of that hard work was the job of keeping the pantry full. Mind you, the pantries of my grandmother’s days, and in many listed houses of today, are cooler than those in standard American houses, but the same ideas apply. You may not leave a holiday turkey in the pantry for a day and a night, covered with a pristine white cloth, but you’d be fine to leave your butter out, soft and welcoming, ready to melt in your mouth when delivered atop a freshly baked cinnamon and sugar teacake.
How do you interact and engage with local suppliers?
My philosophy around food has roots in my homeland’s ancient past with a modern twist, and it’s every bit as Irish as I am: Find the very best locally grown seasonal ingredients. Support farms and grocers that respect the earth. Prepare meals that delight and excite the senses, but don’t get seduced into overcomplicating. Above all else, let the natural flavor of good food shine through. This is the kind of food I keep at arm’s reach to sustain and delight myself, and to offer to the guests who drop in and gather round my table.
What are your plans for the future?
To make the world know that modern Irish food is amazing and they have to visit Ireland to find out how amazing it is.