Sometimes fish, like our eels, aren’t even prophets in their own land

Lough Neagh Eel is being celebrated with the first Eel-Eat restaurant week until Saturday 2 July. Participating restaurants can be found at #EelsAreTasty
Lough Neagh Eel is being celebrated with the first Eel-Eat restaurant week until Saturday 2 July. Participating restaurants can be found at #EelsAreTasty

The Rond Schumann street in the European Quarter of Brussels twinkled with thousands of sparkling lights last Wednesday night as part of an international food event.

The Northern Ireland Executive in the European Union hosted an area within a beautifully lit marquee, along with representatives from other member states, Canada, Iceland and New Zealand. I was there to cook and showcase food from here. Protected Geographic Indicated (PGI) Lough Neath eels and Armagh Bramley apples took centre stage with other produce like rapeseed oil, butter and apple jelly playing a big supporting role. Sometimes when I cook eel here it can receive a very mixed reception. People are put off by what it looks like in its natural state and are hesitant about oily fresh water fish. There wasn’t any such reticence in Belgium - in fact it was hard to keep up with demand. Sometimes even fish aren’t prophets in their own land.

Soda farls are also something we take for granted but the power of fresh bread, redolent of buttermilk and slightly scorched flour should never be underestimated, especially on a chilly Belgian evening. Pieces of smoked eel were flashed in a hot pan with a glaze of reduced cider and honey. To incorporate the iconic apples they were thinly sliced on the mandolin, tossed in a dressing of mustard, honey, Broighter gold rapeseed oil and Armagh cider vinegar. Finely chopped scallions and red onions followed. To create a savoury essence I added lightly blanched and shredded soup celery. We tend to use this indigenous leaf to, quite rightly, enhance our broth. But it also adds a delicious dimension to salads or if it’s fried in bacon with onion and garlic it becomes a star in its own right. The salad was piled onto pieces of scallion soda bread and topped with specially flown in smoked Lough Neagh eel. The verdant, zingy apple, cut through the rich, sweet glazed fish and warm buttery bread, resulting in a true taste of home.

The chilly atmosphere was soothed with hot mulled cider from the Armagh Cider company and regular chilled cider from Long Meadow for the more warm blooded. Other soda farls were made with cider soaked dried fruits, treacle and spice, split and spread with butter.

For my first recipe this week I’ve included one for a cake studded with Armagh apple and cider soaked cranberries. You could have this cake on its own with a cup of tea (or leave out a slice for Santa) but the addition of a spiced butterscotch sauce makes it even more delicious. Serve the cake warm, enrobed with the sauce and a generous dollop of cream or ice-cream on the side.

Soup celery is an essential ingredient in our broth but I’ve given it a slightly more sophisticated use in a velvety soup with it and leeks. Leeks and onions are cooked gently in quite a lot of butter to start the soup – the golden fat will add a silky finish and ultimately make the taste unforgettable. For extra crunch, fry soda farl croutons with crispy bacon and some lush Limavady Broighter Gold rapeseed oil to scatter on top.

These wonderful local ingredients all deserve an audience at home as well as away!

Prettige feestdagen as they say in Brussels.