The very lovely Debbie from D Rum Pot (check out her delicious Caribbean food on Facebook) dropped off some amazing treats with a Trinidadian flare. Debbie also runs a great Caribbean supper club, and like me can’t wait for restrictions to lift to get back to it.
Yummy spiced sweetbread, rum punch, homemade raspberry sauce, and Caribbean sweets. The diet can start tomorrow!
If you’ve followed this blog you’ll know I’m a bit of a foraging nerd. I was really lucky to go on an amazing herb walk with 2 fantastic and highly qualified herbalists (Sarah and Luke) down at Helen’s Bay Organic farm.
The weather was bracing to say the least, but Luke and Sarah were so passionate about their subject that you almost didn’t mind the rain showers and wind.
In my part of the world we’re fortunate to have a brilliant variety of wild plants that are delicious and amazingly good for you. To make things even better, they’re free!
When picking wild food it’s advisable to not pick from roadsides (because of all pollution from passing cars). If you’re picking herbs at low level it’s also worth remembering that dogs might have pee’d on them (so give them a quick wash if you’re not sure).
The first wild food we were shown were rosehips, the seedpods of wild roses. It’s not advisable to eat the whole thing as the seeds are an irritant. They make a tasty syrup packed full of vitamin C. In fact only 3 rose hips, has the same amount of vitamin C as a large orange.
Dandelions are seen as a scourge by most gardeners’ but has a range of uses. The young leaves can used in salads, the roots make a decent coffee substitute, and it makes a very good diuretic, that removes sodium but not potassium from your body.
Chick weed (so called because chickens go mad for it) is good in salads and tastes quite like spinach and packed full of vitamins. This herb is also great for your skin and can be used in baths as a little treat for your skin
Speed well was apparently used as far back as ancient Greece, and helps with muscle injuries and fatigue.
Red dead nettle (even though the flowers are pink) is a member of the mint family. A powerful anti spasmodic, it’s useful in the treatment of IBS and period cramps.
Shepherd’s Purse, can be used to reduce inflammation and can help treat heavy periods and intestinal issues.
Stinging nettles are a pain if you brush up against them, but are an almost perfect super food. Packed with vitamins, minerals and trace elements the young leaves can be picked all year round and eaten in soups and stews. Medicinally they are high in iron, and has proved effective in the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis and kidney problems.
As a kid I was always told if I was stung by nettles to rub my skin with a dock leaf, which proved to be absolutely no use. But it turns out there was something in the old wive’s tale that obviously got jumbled over time. If you ignore the big leaves and look towards the root there are little new almost spiky leaves. If you pick these leaves they release a gel similar to aloe vera, which as it turns out can sooth skin irritation. The roots can also be dried and used to treat skin conditions like eczema and psoriasis.
My favourite herb of the day was plantain, which tastes a little bit like dried mushroom, but in a good way. This was traditionally made into a poultice to help wounds heal more quickly. If drunk as a tea about 20 minutes before taking certain antibiotics it can boost their effectivness by 3-4 times.
Ivy is also seen as a pest by most gardeners’ but can also be used to make a tea. The tea helps treat lung problems like hooping cough and bronchitis.
We were also treated to a tasty lunch of home made nettle soup and nibbles. Sarah and Luke run these walks several time a year based on the seasons. I’m not including a quarter of the fascinating stuff they told us. If you like to geek out a little bit about foraging, this is the experience for you. I would definitely recommend it.
Life in lockdown meant most of us had pretty sucky birthdays this year. I had a big birthday in the middle of lockdown, which was c*ap. However, I’m lucky enough to have a great friend (Bronagh), who treated me to a fantastic night at Galgorm Spa and the 5 course tasting menu in their restaurant.
Galgorm is about 30 minutes from Belfast (although we took the scenic route because we got lost). Set amongst 163 acres of mature parkland with the river Maine flowing through the resort, the main hotel reception is a large characterful old house with beautiful open turf fires. The hotel has more modern additions for accommodation, self catering lodges and annexes that cater to weddings and conferences.
I have really been missed travel since Covid hit and visiting here really made me feel like I had proper holiday. The spa facilities are international standard offering a range of treatments and I had one of the best massages I have ever had. The resort has what it calls a spa village which was amazing.
When we arrived we dropped our bags which were taken to our room and all we had to do was change into our swimsuits, and then relax in the robes and flip flops that were provided. Everyone wears these at the spa (it was a but like being in a cult), but with facilities this good I’d be happy to join.
There are a range of indoor and outdoor pools, hydro jets, saunas, steam rooms and a salt cave. It was perfect to sit in the beautiful gardens enjoying a mojito and watch the waterfalls that run beside the hotel.
That evening, totally chilled out we had the fabulous tasting menu in the hotel’s River Room restaurant. The restaurant prides itself in sourcing local artisanal ingredients and grows a lot of what they use in the hotel’s own gardens.
The resort is really luxurious, and the staff who are obviously trained to within an inch of their life are warm and engaging and go out of their way to make your stay feel special. The resort is a destination in itself, but is also close to the gorgeous North Antrim coast if you want to explore . All I can say is thank you Bronagh for an amazing gift.
The National Trust has some amazing properties around Northern Ireland. Rowallane is just outside Saintfield village (about 20 mins outside Belfast).
Rowallane consists of a beautiful old house (I forgot to take photos), stable block, walled garden, toilets and café, established gardens and woodlands.
Spring is an amazing time to visit, as everything is in full bloom, including the amazing blue Himalayan poppies. The gardens and woodlands are pretty fabulous at anytime, and with the easing of Covid restrictions a full calendar of events will hopefully be back on soon.
The gardens are popular with dog walkers and families, and are generally accessible for anyone with mobility issues. Kids will love the woodlands with plenty of trees to climb and a meadow to run crazy in.
I love love love mushrooms of any kind. I usually stick to regular field mushrooms, as the fancy ones are usually pretty expensive. Mushrooms are a fantastic source of vitamin D, are low in fat and carbohydrates and provide texture and a great savoury kick for vegan dishes.
Due to the recent lockdown I was able to buy a mushroom block from a grower who normally supplies restaurants.
Two days after I ordered it a large lump of compressed saw dust wrapped in plastic arrived. I was a bit sceptical, but my love of oyster mushrooms spurred me on. I hate gardening and pretty much kill every plant I come in contact with. But these were super simple, basically it’s a stump of pressed sawdust impregnated with fungi spores and it just needs sprayed with water once or twice a day.
In less than a week later I had my first crop, and it’s still going. Like most mushrooms these can be added to pretty much anything. My favourite way to eat them is just fried in a little butter.
If you love mushrooms and want to give your loved ones a gift idea I would definitely recommend trying this. It’ll bring out your inner nerd and you will love it. It’s also a great project with kids and helps them understand where food comes from.
Even though I was raised in the city, one of the things my Dad loved to do was to take us on nature walks. During these he would point out trees and plants and let us pick wild blackberries and hazelnuts.
Foraging isn’t practical for everyone but when you get the chance I would recommend it. It helps ground you to where you live, and best of all it’s free. It’s also a fantastic activity to do with kids (just make sure to watch what they’re eating).
Recently Navan Fort and Visitor Centre in Co. Armagh, ran an event which provided a guided foraging walk and demonstration of the food and cooking methods our Celtic ancestors would have ate. I’m a big history nerd, so this was right up my street.
The staff in full Celtic regalia complete with spears really brought history alive, showing not only what the Celts ate, but how they cooked and lived, complete with a genuine Iron Age round house.
The staff were brilliant at getting younger visitors involved and having banter with the participants. They’re also extremely engaging, knowledgeable , and were really interesting.
We were then treated to the foraging element led by Fergal. It was great to be back in nature and learn the history and use of local plants.
I have to admit in being remiss at not taking more photos of the edible berries like haws, rosehips, and sloes (yes the things they make sloe gin with). One of the more interesting plants was Robert’s plant/herb Robert. Apparently this will be one of the most important cancer fighting drugs in the next decade. If you want to put it in a basin of warm water and soak your feet it also has great antioxidant properties.
I honestly couldn’t recommend the place highly enough. We were also treated to nettle soup (packed with iron and surprisingly tasty), pork and apple stew (we were in the orchard county after all), and a dessert of toasted oats and nuts, local honey, and berries and cream. The charming and entertaining Ita not only cooked all this but demonstrated how our ancestors would have made bread. The foraging events are coming to an end due to the time of year, but the place has different events all year round and is still well worth a visit at any time.
Usually when it comes to food I believe you don’t have to slave away for hours to make something that tastes amazing.
However, occasionally you have to push the boat out and treat yourself to something that is really extraordinary.
The food scene in Belfast has changed massively in the last 10-15 years, and the city now has three Michelin star restaurants. As a special treat I visited one of them, OX. Located in Oxford Street in the city centre and overlooking the river Lagan, and the art installation known locally as “Nuala with the hula”
The interior is paired back Scandi chic, with lots is white washed walls and dark wood, making it minimal but also warm. The staff are knowledgeable, and have the gift of leaving you alone when you’re in the middle of a conversation and appearing as if by magic before you knew you needed something. They were also very accomodating when we asked for a rest between courses. I take this as a sign of a good Chef in control his kitchen. A couple of years I was in another pretty fancy restaurant in London (which was half full) and asked for brief break between courses, a shame faced server came back to apologise and say that the Chef was busy and would basically be sending the food out as it came!
We had been waiting patiently since the start of lockdown to go to OX, and decided to go for the six course taster menu (there is the option of an additional cheese course, and wine pairing with each course).
OX prides itself on using the best local and seasonal ingredients. Some of the herbs used are grown the Chef’s own garden.
The restaurant has long been a hit with visiting foodies (I met a German couple last year who when visiting Ireland, made a special trip to Belfast just to eat in OX because they had heard such good things from other foodies).
It will take time before foreign visitors come back to Belfast in any great numbers due to travel restrictions. However, it was heartening to see that the place was fully booked with locals on a Friday lunchtime.
A lot of fine dining restaurants can be intimidating for people who don’t eat in them regularly. Like the best of these types of restaurants, OX has found the perfect balance of making you feel that you’re eating somewhere special without being stuffy or pretentious.
Most people from Northern Ireland will remember grandparents trying to force dulse on them as a child. If you were lucky enough to escape this and don’t know what dulse is, it’s deep purple seaweed gathered around the coast of Northern Ireland (and other places too). As a child I found it too salty, and the long strands too chewy (I wasn’t a fan).
The reason most grandparents tried to make kids eat it is because it’s amazingly good for you. It’s jam packed full of iodine, calcium, potassium, and all sorts of vitamins and anti oxidants.
I know apart from the health benefits, I’m not really selling dulse as something you can cook with. However, like the big food nerd that I am, I went on a coastal foraging day last year which was amazing, and ended with a fantastic meal cooked by Celia Sponcer (brilliant local chef). She used different seaweeds as seasoning for breads like focaccia and they were delicious, so she inspired me to try this. Dulse provides a saltiness to dishes, but also a deeper flavour that reminds you of the ozone smell you get when you’re at the coast.
In Northern Ireland dulse is sold in most greengrocers, but if you aren’t able to get hold of it you can buy it online from a lot of health food retailers or online (because it’s so good for you).
This recipe calls for buttermilk, which i never have, so if you don’t have it use ordinary milk and the juice of half a lemon (the acidity from the buttermilk/lemon juice is needed to cause the chemical reaction that makes the bread rise).
If you can’t find dulse, or aren’t brave enough to try it, this still makes really delicious and healthy bread. If you’re not using dulse replace it with 1 teaspoon of salt. It’s great served with soups, but my favourite way to enjoy this is sliced with cheese.
375 Grams Wholemeal flour
75 Grams Plain flour
1 Level Tsp Bicarbonate Soda
2 Tbsp Dulse (finely chopped)
325-350 ml Buttermilk (or use ordinary milk with the juice of half a lemon added to it)
Add the flour, bicarbonate of soda, dulse and baking powder to bowl
Stir in the butter milk/milk and lemon juice mixture until it’s s soft dough
Handle as little as possible, but make the dough into a ball
Turn onto a sheet of baking parchment
With a sharp knife, cut a cross (about one third of the depth of the dough) across the centre of the bread
Bake in an oven pre-heated to 180 degrees for 45 minutes or until the base sounds hollow when you tap it
I’ve always steered away from cooking fish. The honest reason is that I was never really sure how to. Growing up, my dear sainted mother was an awful cook (sorry Mo, but you are). She would cook fish until it had no flavour and was like a piece of cardboard.
I’m lucky enough to live on an island with amazing sea food, which it turns out we mostly export. I’m convinced the reason for this is that most of us don’t know how easy it is to cook, so we avoid it.
As a birthday present, I was given a voucher for Belfast Cookery School. They have a fantastic range of classes, but I decided to up my fish skills.
The class cost £60 for 3-4 hours, and is in central Belfast with about 10-12 people in each class. Staff are friendly and welcoming and the class includes a welcome drink and tea/coffee throughout the class.
Once settled in, Ian our chef expertly demonstrated how to fillet and skin both flat fish (brill), and round fish (salmon). He also gave members of the class a chance to try this as well.
I love squid/calimari in restaurants, but they always looked a bit like aliens in the fish market, (I’ll admit I was intimidated). We were shown how to prepare squid, and make one of my all time favourite seafood dishes, salt and chilli squid. Which once you know how to deal with squid, is surprisingly straight forward.
We all got to sample some of the demonstrated dishes, the brill cooked in a beurre noisette (browned butter), and salmon with caponatta (slow roasted red pepper, onion, tomato and garlic).
After trying all these we were shown the the dishes we would be cooking by ourselves. First was mussels cooked with fennel, cream and white wine. Again, super delicious and pretty straight forward once you know what to do.
The second dish was cod topped with herbed breadcrumbs, served on top of a shellfish ragu (fancy name for a stew), topped with a Dublin Bay prawn. It turns out they aren’t prawns at all, but micro lobster, 90% of which are shipped abroad.
The whole class was excellent, and I have now faced my fear of fish. I may even break out my newly gained fish skills at a future supper club. Everything we ate and cooked was beyond delicious and I left unable to eat another bite and in serious danger of slipping into a food coma. I’ll definately go back to the school, but they are currently so popular they’re booked up months in advance. It’s definitely worth the wait, so check them out.
Well folks, I know everyone is super busy in December, and then generally broke in January. With this in mind I’ve scheduled two new dates for the new year. This should allow everyone time to put this in the diary, sort baby sitters etc.
The first supper club of 2020 will be on Saturday, 01 February. The theme will be Greek food. Because it’s delicious, and at that time of year we probably need something that reminds us of sunshine.
The second date will be 21 March, I haven’t decided on a menu/theme but I’m open to suggestions.
As always, we provide a welcome drink on arrival, and a few extra treats, and the night is BYO.
I’ll be posting the menus and how to book shortly, so stay in touch. Supper club tickets also make a great Christmas present for the foodies in your life, or anyone who might just like to try something new.