I’ve just spent the weekend in a place buzzing with life, good food and great people. Under an hour’s flight from Edinburgh, Belfast has truly captured this girl’s heart.
A whirlwind few days saw me eating and drinking the finest produce, meeting some of Northern Ireland’s top chefs and most importantly experience the warmest welcome you could ever wish for. Everywhere you turn in the centre, you can see investment in the City. From the stunning Titanic visitor centre to hotels set up where there were none. This city is going somewhere.
The first ever Belfast Restaurant week was on whilst I was there. More than 70 restaurants across the city took the opportunity to create special menus highlighting Northern Ireland’s local produce; they set up activities including cookery demonstrations , chef challenges were set and bloggers took over a top restaurant for two nights (but that’s another story I will write more about ). Even Charles Campion, the restaurant critic, was in Belfast for a special afternoon tea.
It doesn’t have to be Restaurant Week to enjoy all Belfast has to offer. Let me tell you about some of the activities and tastes you can try all year round and some throughout the summer months. The locals would love you to come and visit. What are you waiting for?
You might be slightly alarmed by a food tour led by a person claiming to be Barney a chef from the Titanic. Very much an ex-chef in the Monty Python sense of the word, with blued lips and a wild look, you could almost believe he’d thawed out from an iceberg as he’d claimed.
It didn’t take us long to warm to Barney. The morning we spent with him on the Belfast Bred food tour led us on a discovery of fine food peppered with just enough history to whet our appetites. Starting at Sawers deli where I have never seen quite so many different foods on sale; visiting restaurants: Mourne’s Seafood, Nick’s Warehouse and McHughs to tasting local cider and beer at the John Halkin pub it was a packed morning
We tasted so many different items, cheeses, Belfast bap, squid and dulce at Sawers to the most amazing salt and pepper squid at Mourne’s Seafood, more local cheese at Nick’s Warehouse and sizzling beef at McHugh’s. On the way we got a flavour of what Belfast must have been like at the turn if the last century – can you imagine, 20,000 people worked in the shipyards! We admire fine old buildings, heard many tales and meet proud chefs and welcoming managers and owners before finishing at St George’s Market, tired, exhausted and sated.
A great old-fashioned sweet shop
Later that day, we hopped on a bus to visit Aunt Sandra’s sweet shop where we were invited in to see some sweets being made, flavoured with clove and cassia the caramel was manipulated until cool enough to roll through a 100 year old machine to fashion it into balls.
No matter what age you are you must visit this shop and its wonderful owners, Uncles Jim and David – their love for what they do is infectious. They run interactive sessions for kids and adults or you can simply sit in the cafe and have a cup of tea (£1 a cup). It’s as you imagine a sweet shop used to be, dozens upon dozens of types of sweet stacked from floor to ceiling. The shop is a little way out of the centre, but they have a stand at St George’s Market on Saturdays.
St George’s Market
St George’s Market. Well I wish we had such a place in Edinburgh. It’s a vast covered structure currently open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. It has a great mixture of food stalls and crafts, with food the main focus on Saturdays. The choice is astonishing and prices keen. There’s places to sit and eat the food you’ve purchased from the stalls and other areas where demos are held.
You can browse the many food stalls, crafts and buy from the many fish, meat and vegetable stalls. It was at that point I wishes I were living nearby so I could cook with the ingredients available!
The locals love eating out in Belfast and they know what they’re looking for. Good honest cooking at a reasonable price. There are no Michelin starred restaurants here and for a good reason, it’s not what the sits well with those eating out. But those of you who are fans of Great British Menu will have come across some of the excellent chefs that Northern Ireland offers and there are plenty more to discover.
I was lucky enough to meet both Michael Deane and Paul Rankin during my visit. Michael generously lent his restaurant the Circle to the food bloggers who cooked there for two nights, raising money for the Bubbles charity. Read more about this great event. His passion for food and the industry is very much in evidence. He has several outlets in the city providing excellent food at different price points. He’s clearly very proud of chefs who have worked for him (including Chris Bell) and who now have gone on to open their own restaurants and is a great mentor. The food at Deane’s cooked by the bloggers was fantastic, not least due to Michael gently guiding them through what was achievable when cooking for so many people for the first time.
The menu at Paul Rankin’s restaurant Cayenne clearly shows Paul’s passion for food with many Asian influences. He considers India, China and Japan as the truly great cuisines. His philosophy is to keep focused, stay narrow and balanced. He’s stepped back from cooking in his restaurant these days leaving David O’Callahan in charge and is relishing other opportunities such as a second TV series with Scotland’s Nick Nairn. Cayenne features a fabulous sounding vegetarian menu – and Paul’ hints that that might just become a focus going forward.
I am eager to go back to eat at restaurants we didn’t have time to visit including James Street South, the Potted Hen and the ones that we had a small sample of on tour, Mourne’s Seafood (I can still taste the salt and pepper squid we tried) and Nick’s Warehouse where we tasted some excellent local cheeses. James St South and Mourne’s Seafood also both run cookery courses. We’re also keen to try some of the out of town restaurants including Chris Bell’s River Room at Glagorm and Mark Saunderson at Caffé Spice.
Who should visit?
Belfast is an ideal place for a long weekend. There’s plenty to do for everyone, but it you love your food you’ll be in your element – it’s worth taking a case rather than carry on luggage so you can bring plenty back.
Find Out More
Discover Northern Ireland and Discover Ireland for comprehensive guides to accommodation, tours, etc.
A visit to Belfast wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Titanic Belfast . Allow at least 2 1/2 hours for your visit and don’t miss the delightful Titanic 401 bistrot.
I use many, many Apps and I am particularly impressed with this one. It includes a section where you can note how much time you have available and what type of activity you’d like to do, and up pop selections. It’s also got some interesting food stories, restaurant guides etc. Free to download from ITunes
You can fly by EasyJet and Flybe from Edinburgh and many other regional airports. The George Best Airport is the closest to the city – choose Flybe fly if you’d like to go to that one.
Aunt Sandra’s Sweet Shop
Cayenne Restaurant (now closed)
James Street South Restaurant
John Hewitt Bar
Mc Hugh’s Bar
Mourne’s Seafood Restaurant
Squeeze Juice Cafe
St. George’s Market
Thanks to Geoff Telford Photography for the photo of Bloggers at the Pass.