We might be loving local now but that wasn’t always the case

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The theme this month for Year of Food and Drink in Northern Ireland is “Love Local”. We think of local now as something to celebrate here but it wasn’t always the case. Easy access to foreign travel in the 1980’s exposed us to a whole new range of culinary ingredients and cuisines.

Suddenly we were shunning potatoes in favour of pasta and rice, carrots and turnips were cast aside and replaced with imported mangetout and baby sweetcorn. We embraced insipid Egyptian strawberries and tasteless Peruvian asparagus in the winter months and ignored the beautiful seasonal produce around us.

I got my second catering job in 1983 working in the Ramore restaurant in Portrush. A box would arrive from Rungis market in Paris every week full of fresh herbs and lettuces, veal and quail. This seems unimaginable now when we know you can grow herbs and lettuces in pots and Irish rose veal and quail are quite commonplace. People flocked to the restaurant for the “nouvelle cuisine” and the winebar downstairs pumped out masses of lasagna and moussaka, all washed down with Lambrusco and people couldn’t get enough of it!

When you start cooking professionally you really want to show off all your skills and product knowledge which can result in plates of food that could do without half the ingredients. I teach in Northern Regional College one day a week and the students often want to create what they call Mexican chicken or Thai noodles. Increasingly these terms are used on menus across Northern Ireland. The words are meaningless and their use is just an excuse to overindulge in spices or chillis. Cajun spice is one of the terms I’d ban from the English language (along with “basically” and “the likes of” but that’s another story...) Spice companies do a blend that they call Cajun – they might as well call it ‘Doris’ because it resembles nothing I ever had in Louisiana.

When visitors come to Northern Ireland they want food that’s grown and produced here. They want food that’s in season and cooked with care and skill – which equals thought and love.

This week sees the start of the Lough Neagh Pollan season. Pollan are fresh water herrings, trapped in the lough during the last ice age, and, as well as being indigenous, are simply one of the tastiest fish around. Apart from a few restaurants you rarely see them on menus. Instead they’re exported to Switzerland and other parts of Europe. They have a limited season so should be celebrated here. If the Italians or French had pollan they’d have a national day of festivities for them! Imagine if chefs here replaced Thai noodles with pollan cooked in butter with fresh baked soda on the side?

Leona Kane from Broighter Gold rapeseed oil has just launched a version of her already beautifully golden oil with added 24 carat gold flecks. I have a bottle and I’m going to anoint the first pollan I cook this year as an act of deference to two great products from here – one that’s been around for five years, the other around for thousands.

My first recipe this week is for pollan and mealie crushie. Mealie crushie is a traditional dish where oats were fried in bacon fat. Pollan and oats are great together and the addition of scallion and parsley freshens the whole thing up. Ask your fishmonger to source you the pollan or substitute herring.

The other recipe is for a creamy onion soup with garlic – ideal to warm the cockles of your heart on a rough day and made with local vegetables.