Thursday, January 16, 2014

Road trip up north

It’s a new year and soon it’s going to be a time of new beginnings on this blog. Following research I’ve done (and am still doing) into a health condition I’ve got, I’m changing the way I eat. And because this blog has always been about my personal relationship with food, it will change to reflect that. I haven’t quite decided what these changes will be so in the meantime, I thought I’d tell you about a short trip my boyfriend and I took to Northern Ireland late last year.
A cold but beautiful November day on the Antrim coast
My visits to Northern Ireland have been rare. It may be a legacy of all those years of troubles but I’m guilty of having very little personal knowledge of just what life is like up there.  I visited a friend in Belfast in 1998 and what I remember most from then was the sense of hope that was palpable on the streets of the city. The peace process was new and it seemed people were finally allowing themselves to feel positive about the future.

I’d hardly visited since then so when we got an opportunity to do so in November, I was enthusiastic to discover more about Northern Ireland.

Here are some highlights from our trip:

1: We used Airbnb for the first time. Our hosts were Adrian and Sheldon. Their penthouse (!) apartment complete with hot tub (!!) is modern, comfortable and warm - almost as warm as their welcome. Adrian brought us on a whistle-stop tour on the evening of our arrival; pointing out places he thought most of interest in his city. Staying with locals really added to our time in Belfast. It felt as though we got under the skin of the place more than we might have done had we stayed in a hotel.

2: Before going to Belfast, I'd read rave reviews of a new restaurant called Ox and booked us in for dinner so we could check it out for ourselves.

We liked almost everything about it. We liked the stripped-back décor; all high ceilings, huge windows overlooking the River Lagan, simple wooden tables and chairs and dimmed lighting accentuated by plain white candles on each table.
We liked the short menu from which it didn't take us long to choose our dishes. We liked the staff, all of whom were chatty, friendly and professional.

And then there was the food.  My starter of romanesco, squid, oyster and chorizo was a work of art, both on the plate and on the palate. Crunchy romanesco, succulent squid, a saline hit from the oysters and such depth of flavour from sauces of chorizo and dark squid ink - I can taste it still.

My boyfriend had rich, sweet confit shallot, earthy girolle mushrooms and crunchy chicken skin sitting atop some cheesy spelt risotto.  Again, this was a marvel of texture and tastes and we were both immediately won over by Ox.

For mains, I had the brill, carrot, scallop, seaweed and shellfish butter. My brill had a caramelised topping that was slightly sweet and crunched like crème brulee. The fish was perfectly cooked. The scallop was juicy. And the sauce was a serious burst of flavour.
My boyfriend had the rabbit saddle, apricot, pistachio and braised pork cheek and immediately declared it one of the best things he had ever eaten.

Seriously high from what we had eaten so far, we moved on to desserts. These were slightly disappointing. So disappointing I forgot to note exactly what they were. I had something chocolate-y and my boyfriend had crumble. Now, I'm not saying they were bad because they weren't. They just didn't match the exalted standard of the rest of the meal.

3: We took a black taxi tour of the city with Mark.

A local raised right in the heart of Belfast, in a house that has since been razed to the ground to create breathing space between loyalist and nationalist communities; he told us his own personal story of the troubles as well as recounting the long and contested history of Northern Ireland as he drove us to see murals: 

And peace walls (which despite their poetic name are there to keep communities protected from each other and thereby divided):

And memorial gardens to people lost in the fighting:

If you're ever in Belfast and have even the slightest interest in history, take one of these tours. Our heads were spinning with information by the time we finished but we gained such an insight into what life was like for ordinary people during that time and the impact it still has on them today. 

4: We visited St George's Market on Saturday morning. Bursting with stalls selling all sorts of food, bustling with people shopping and eating; and resounding to musicians busking; there is so much to see, do and taste here.

Two beautiful girls were selling their dad's delicious range of breads:
Northern Ireland has a reputation for the sheer variety of its breads and we had to sample a few.
Some arts and crafts

Musicians performing 

Local baking hero Cakes by James  
We tried both types of brownies and a blueberry and lemon slice - yum!
5: The drive along the Antrim coast is a stunning one, with views at every twist and turn in the road and occasional glimpses of Scotland on the horizon. 

6:We stopped to cross the Carrick-a-Rede bridge, which I'm pleased to say didn't cause my nerves to flutter too much.

We loved the little island and the fisherman's hut on the other side and both agreed that some enterprising person should restore the hut and rent it out by the night. I can't imagine a more romantic, rain- and wind-battered place to stay...

7: And then we arrived at the Giant's Causeway. Having never been here before I was very excited and I'm pleased to say it lived up to its billing. There's a sense of ancient magic about this place. Standing on its stones, I felt connected to the earth and its energy in a way I don't think I've ever felt before. I felt grounded in the very best possible way.

The beautiful patterns on the stones are mesmerising
The following morning, after a brief stop at Dunluce Castle, we headed home. We've vowed to go back, because there is a lot more of Northern Ireland yet to see. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this fabulous pics. This place is really magnificent