Earlier in the month I was lucky enough to attend the re-launch party at Hilden Brewing Company for their restaurant The Tap Room. I got to rub shoulders with the great and the good of Northern Ireland’s fledgling foodie scene.
Philip Clasper Head Chef at The Tap Room really nailed it on the night with his delicious menu of canapes to much applause from all the guests.
Here’s a sample of what we had…
The day after the night before, as I was nursing my rather fragile brain, contemplating a greasy filled soda, due to a few too many sherberts of Twisted Hop and Belfast Blonde, I got to thinking about the discussion I’d had in the courtyard of Hilden with Frances and Siobhan Scullion and Jorris Minne about what lies ahead for Northern Ireland’s food offering.
Northern Ireland’s food scene is on the cusp of change, which is a long-time coming. There is a strong heritage of farming, baking, and butchering in this country. We have quality raw products, world-class chefs and restaurants and more artisan producers seem to be appearing. Isn’t it about time we caught up with our cousins south of the border?
We have all of this great stuff but it feels fragmented. The Northern Ireland assembly puts lots of focus on the commercial intensive farming sector, but there seems to be little focus on encouraging an added value artisan food sector. Both sectors are extremely valuable to a country’s economy, as Bord Bia shows in the Republic.
Every great cultural movement through the ages had a headquarters. In the late 60s Haight Ashbury in San Francisco was the epicentre for the Hippy movement, the ‘Madchester’ scene had Factory Records and the Hacienda. The beat poets had the City Lights bookstore and Hope Road was where Bob Marley kept council on his worldwide reggae movement. One could argue that molecular gastronomy’s headquarters was El Bulli.
The point is, every great cultural movement needs a headquarters. A place that houses the idealism, the think tanks, the creativity, the blood, sweat and tears, the place for minds to meet and carve out a path for the future. Somewhere to share knowledge and offer support to each other.
It strikes me that what we need is an epicentre from which to focus efforts and pull things together into a movement in which farmers, fishermen, bakers, butchers, fishmongers, artisan producers, chefs, food writers, bloggers and journalists can come together for the greater good of the Northern Irish food scene and really put ourselves on the map.
The Scullion family at Hilden are one of those artisan producers that I’m talking about, even though they’ve actually been brewing native craft beer since 1981. So not only are they Ireland’s oldest independent brewery, but they are the first artisan producer that Northern Ireland ever had. They have it all, a family that is passionate about hand crafted beer and a restaurant with a Head Chef who is passionate about local produce.
Standing in the courtyard that evening, appreciating the history of Hilden in the old house and the grounds, overlooked by the empty Barbour linen mill, I had a vision that Hilden is the ideal place to become the headquarters of the new food movement in Northern Ireland. It feels like the right place and the right family for the job. They were producing a native craft product years before the word ‘artisan’ was being uttered in the context of food here in Northern Ireland.
I see great discussions in the teepees, tastings, food festivals, politicians attending and listening to what the people have to say. In order to work towards the goal of creating a speciality artisan food policy for Northern Ireland and getting to the same level as things south of the border.
What about a weekend event at Hilden, which showcases Northern Ireland’s artisan produce? There could be workshops, skills sharing, cooking demos, a farmers’ market, bespoke menus, debates. The potential is huge!
I left Hilden feeling inspired about all that we have in Northern Ireland in terms of raw produce, growers, producers and creators, great restaurants and chefs. But this needs to be built on, we have momentum now and Hilden could be the ideal place from which to ride the crest of the wave that is coming.