Today the River to Lough Festival takes place in and around the town of Toome on the shores of the River Bann.
The focus of the festival is on the Lough Neagh Pollan.
Pollan (a member of the Salmon family) are one of only a handful of fish species native to Ireland that have remained with us following the extinction impacts of Ice Ages.
In science terms we call them a glacial relict, left over from the Saalian Ice Age (200,000 years ago), having lost their previous migratory behaviour as a consequence of sea temperature and salinity rises. Instead, the Pollan became restricted to the temperate freshwaters of Lough Neagh, leaving behind its closest relatives like the Arctic Omul and other members of the Cisco whitefish family to the cold waters of the Arctic. Last year it became the first Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) for Northern Ireland. It’s a celebration of the authentic heritage of fishing on the lough and something to be immensely proud of
Most of the Pollan is exported to Switzerland where it’s fully appreciated. Only a handful of restaurants serve it here which is a real shame. It looks like a herring but has the taste of a freshwater fish. Traditionally it was fried in bacon fat with a few oats thrown in at the end.
The festival today is based at the new Visitor Centre, just over the bridge in Toome. You’ll get a chance to meet the fishermen and learn how they prepare and fish for pollan.
There’ll also be scientists on hand to show off many fascinating creatures from the lough, including live species in aquariums. Ruaridh Morrison of North Coast Smokehouse will prepare and hot smoke pollan to sample. I, alongside local chefs, will be cooking pollan at a couple of different venues. Pollan is one of my favourite ingredients – it’s a uniquely Northern Irish ingredient with a rich history. Most importantly it’s delicious to eat and easy to cook. My late granny used to buy pollan from fishermen at the street market in Cookstown. The pollan were stored in a bucket of water and wrapped in newspaper to take home. The fish was simply fried and served with wheaten bread. It’s still one of the best food memories I have.
Pollan are small fish and the fillets take a short amount of time to cook. My two recipes this week are for pollan paired with seasonal ingredients. The first is for cider glazed pollan with creamed leek and horseradish and grilled potatoes. The other recipe pairs pollan with beetroot, buttered radish and Armagh bramley apple. I’ve used candy stripe and golden beetroot – you’ll find them in good greengrocers.
Pollan isn’t easily sourced – you’ll never find it in a supermarket. The festival today is the ideal time to celebrate this local treasure and bring some home to cook.
The festival starts at 11am.