Ulster’s corned beef has its place among some top quality products

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What do French Ampuis Apricots, Tennessee Fainting goats, Russian Romanov Sheep, Australian bunya nuts, Nigerian snake tomatoes and dulse from Northern Ireland have in common?

They’re just some of the 2,431 foods list on the Slow Food movement’s “Ark of Taste” project. This is a collection of small-scale quality productions that belong to the cultures, history and traditions of the entire planet. It encompasses fruits, vegetables, animal breeds, breads, cheeses, sweets, cured meats and a myriad of ingredients.

If you go to www.slowfoodfoundation/arkoftaste you’ll find a list of all the foods featured.

At the slow food festival in Turin last October an area was dedicated to exhibit some of the foods on the ark. It was one of the most beautiful, educational and inspiring things I’ve ever seen. Vibrant orange pumpkins from America, bottles of amber and golden beer from around the world, maple syrup and honeys, tomatoes through the colour spectrum, a snail formed out of heritage apples of various shapes, sizes and undertones and in among it all a bowl of dulse from Ballycastle!

There are currently two representations from Northern Ireland on the ark of taste – aforementioned dulse and Ulster corned beef. This doesn’t refer to the cheap tinned variety, but instead traditionally cured cuts of beef salted either using the brining method in a saline bath or with the dry rub method.

The “corn” refers to the rounded lumps of rock salt that look like nibs of corn, used in the process. Spices, herbs, juniper berries, elderberries and even burnt seaweed are added to enhance the flavour. The curing produces a rich red hue to the meat and the texture becomes tighter and more dense.

Farmers from Ireland traded their corned beef with the British and it fed their naval fleets on long ocean journeys. Napoleon offered a huge cash prize to anyone who could solve the problem of corned beef being spoiled on expeditions. Nicholas Appert invented the airtight glass kilner jar, the predecessor to the tin can.

Production of canned corned beef came into full swing during the two world wars. Unfortunately the poor quality of cheap versions manufactured now and the reduced demand for preserved meat, has resulted in a decline in the popularity for corned beef. The stuff in tins bears no resemblance to the original delicious food to which it owes its heritage.

George McCartney, the famous butcher on Moira’s main street, won the Supreme Award for his corned beef in the 2011 Great Taste Awards, the oscars of the food production world. He uses lean silverside, no fat, no gristle and its full of flavour and redolent of expert spicing.

The recipe comes from George’s grandfather and is a perfect example of something that should be on the ark of taste list. Enniskillen based butcher Pat O’Doherty has compiled a book on corned beef and produces a splendid version that’s available in his shop.

Unlike some foods that are endangered and are being protected by this scheme, corned beef is one that should be embraced with gusto to keep the food lore alive.

Later this month I’ll be cooking the starter at an Ark of Taste banquet in Bristol as part of the BBC Radio Four food programme and Bristol Food Connections festival, alongside chefs Tom Hunt, Thomasina Miers and Giorgio Locatelli.

Dulse will be the focus of my dish, alongside Lough Neagh eel, Armagh apples and cider, soup celery and soda farls. The other ingredients should be on the list too and it’s a great opportunity to highlight our indigenous food treasures and hopefully get them recognised.

This week’s recipe takes inspiration from a recipe I was served in the North of England – corned beef pie.

A friend served this to me in Manchester many years ago and it was with great trepidation that I tried it – the thought of cheap canned “bully beef” encased in pastry did not fill me with delight!

It turned out to be great corned beef made with love by a local butcher, studded with vegetables and enrobed in crisp buttery pastry. It was cooked on a pyrex plate, the way we would do a savoury mince pie. All that’s needed is a good splash of brown sauce!

Tasty and a tradition kept alive.

If you’re around Eurospar on Ladas Drive in Belfast on Tuesday 21st April I’ll be ‘demoing’ instore between 3pm and 5pm.

Pop in and say hello!