Local brewing businesses have developed greatly in last five years

Armagh-Cider-Company
Armagh-Cider-Company

April’s theme for Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink is “Brewing and Distilling”.

Eight years ago I interviewed Helen Troughton, from the Armagh Cider Company, for Radio Ulster. She told me then that it hadn’t been easy getting people to accept local cider, as they wanted established French or English varieties.

Skip forward and the scenario is like black and white. Local food and drink is being actively sought out as a measure of quality. Nearly a hundred food and drink exhibitors will showcase their produce at the Balmoral Show this year and half of them have only started business in the last five years.

Apple growers in Armagh have now started to make their own artisan craft ciders instead of just supplying apples to the big conglomerate cider makers. Alongside Helen Troughton’s ciders, Long Meadow, MacIvors, Mac’s and Kilmeagan are now well established and new cider makers are popping up all the time. The quality of these ciders is exemplary and ideal for matching with food rather than just for quaffing.

Cider had a bad image for years but this has changed because of the work of these artisans. When you put your heart into making something well, it deserves to be respected and savoured. I love cooking with cider. Mussels cooked with dry cider, instead of the usual traditional white wine, adds a delicious fruity element to the sauce. Pork and cider are a match made in heaven and bacon chops or ribs cooked slowly with cider is a wonderful dish. I add Kilmeagan elderflower cider to a poaching liquid for salmon instead of wine and it brings in sharp, floral notes to the finished dish.

My first recipe this week is for apple cider cake with cider butterscotch sauce. I’ve been making this cake for years and Santa got it on quite a few Christmas Eve’s when my nephew and neice were growing up! Use a sweet cider – Long Meadow do a great variety that’s perfect in this cake and for the sauce.

In Northern Ireland we have the oldest licensed whiskey distillery in the world - Bushmills which started in 1608. Shane Braniff has recently established his Echinville distillery, in Kircubbin, the first to be licensed here in 130 years. There are now two gin distilleries here – the Shortcross, based at the Rademon Estate in Killyleagh and the Belfast-based Jawbox gin. Hughes distillery in Lisburn launched a potato vodka last year to add to the list. All these drinks are recognised globally – none existed five years ago.

One of the first dishes I cooked at college in Belfast was Carbonnade of Beef. It’s a Flemish recipe from Belgium. I had it in Brussels recently and it was a world apart from our college version. Thirty years ago there were no craft brewers here so we substituted Harp lager which was readily available then. To our immature palates, this dish was still fantastic and the smell of the hoppy lager combined with onions and beef is still one I love.

Now every county in Northern Ireland has at least one brewer and they’re producing world class ales and stouts.

Like the American craft industry, brewers here are using their imagination to come up with seasonal flavourings and using old recipes. There are too many to mention but check out the Food NI website for a list of them all and where you can buy them. They have also printed a guide to all the drinks producers in NI that will be available at all the food events coming up, at Ports and at the visitor centres around the country.

Use a pale ale or red ale for the best result with the carbonnade.

We’ve definitely come on a lot...