To date I’ve spent 56 nights of 2019 in hotel rooms in seven different countries.
In that time I’ve had a lot of breakfasts that have ranged from the sublime to hard to digest and the sort that put you in a bad mood before eight o’clock in the morning.
But what I can unequivocally say is that in Northern Ireland no-one can beat us for a great and unique breakfast.
Last week I was in Armagh as a guest of the council there, speaking at a “Future of Food” event alongside butcher extraordinaire Peter Hannan, Brian Irwin of the iconic Irwin’s bakery and Ronan McSweeney the development chef with Linden foods. Ronan develops recipes for Marks and Spencer, Aldi and other conglomerates. He spoke, like the rest of us, on the rise of veganism, apps for cooking our food ( including the development of a gadget that applies the same technology used in coffee pod machines to produce instant flatbreads) and other joyless subjects. The one common denominator that we all agreed on was the simple fact that food should taste good. This should be straightforward but in our quest for convenience and reduced calories, we’ve forgotten the actual joy of eating food that by its very nature should smell and taste delicious.
The night before the conference I stayed in Blackwell House in Scarva. Joyce has been running this luxurious guesthouse for over six years now and like good wine it ages beautifully. When I’m staying away from home I try not to overeat at breakfast time but on this occasion I was happy to make an exception. There was a choice of homemade muesli, fruit, yoghurt and baked confections to start and then I was presented with warm wheaten bread, straight from the oven. It was redolent of treacle and oats, the way a good wheaten should be. Spread with butter and homemade raspberry jam would be a sufficient way to start any day. However having demolished this, the next course of toasted soda, topped with smoked haddock, spinach and a poached egg duly arrived. The egg came straight from the hen – nothing fresher. The haddock was subtly smoked and cooked to perfection, as was the verdant spinach. The orange yolk burst on top of the whole thing and not only was it a work of art on the plate, crucially, it was delicious to eat and savour. I could have had a full Ulster fry or even a vegan breakfast but for me, this was the best start to a day that I could hope for.
With the influx of visitors we’ve been having in Northern Ireland, breakfast is often the last impression they have of our country. Taking time and care to prepare a great breakfast is one way of getting repeat trade to the whole region. We have excellent bacon, eggs, black pudding, fish, mushrooms, indigenous breads and baked goods here so there’s no excuse. In contrast to Joyce’s pitch perfect breakfast and at the other extreme of the scale my worst breakfast experience this year was in a hotel in London – a cold and overcooked egg, cheap nasty sausages, fried pan loaf and boiled tinned plum tomatoes – vile and unforgiveable and not a pleasant way to start the day.
An Ulster Fry should not be underestimated and is quite a difficult thing to get right – with this classic, it’s all about timing. I prefer to make one ingredient the key – so crispy bacon with a soft poached egg on soda toast or sausages cooked with tomatoes ( fresh, never tinned) in the pan with a fried egg on top. My ultimate favourite is a potato hash with crispy bacon bits, scallions and shredded Arbroath Smokie speckled through the mix, topped with a soft egg. You can buy these lovely smoked fish from good fishmongers or at St George’s market in Belfast at the weekend. My other recipe is for the ultimate sausage sandwich - home made soda bread studded with scallions and cheese, toasted, buttered and lathered with mustard and sweet and sour oniony sausages in the middle. Good for breakfast or any other time of the day.