Posted on Tuesday 9 October 2018 by Ulster Business

Pic Elaine Hill

With Ireland’s greatest restaurant and a burgeoning food and drinks scene, John Mulgrew asks has NI firmly forged its place as a foodie tourism hotspot?

When you boast the island’s top restaurant and a return to holding Michelin stars, then there’s probably something to talk about regarding Northern Ireland’s food scene.

And while it’s not all fine-dining and foraging, through the success of everything from cheesemakers, top-end lower-cost bistros, breweries and markets, it’s clear that the region’s credentials have never been stronger.

“You can see it – the amount of tourists coming in is unreal,” Stephen Toman, co-owner and head chef of the Michelin-starred OX tells Ulster Business.

It was just named the best restaurant in Ireland by Food and Wine Magazine.

“Lately, the proportion of tourists has been about 30%. There were some nights here where we had no one local in the restaurant.”

OX has helped follow on from a gourmand bedrock foundation of former Belfast stalwarts like Paul Rankin and Nick Price, and existing icons such as Michael Deane and Niall McKenna.

As this magazine goes to print, the latest Michelin stars will be announced – and there are a couple of spots which have already been tipped for glory by some in the industry.

“The tourist business is absolutely crucial. This town sort of closes in the summer, but tourists are staying in the city centre not worried about a commute.”

Niall McKenna has just re-opened James Street. What was once two adjacent restaurants has now become one, and sits just behind a chunk of Michael Deane’s empire.

“To me the tourism boon is the key for us, as it is with most restaurants,” he says.

“Every city has been doing it for years. But we are only starting and it’s still very early days.

“Paul Rankin with Roscoff, Ramore in Portrush, Wine and Brine in Moira, chefs like Stevie Toman and Gareth McCaughey at Muddlers Club.

“But it still has a very long way to go, and there has to be joined up thinking between the bars and hotels.”

Belfast gets the attention, but eating well isn’t confined to the city and is increasingly spilling out everywhere.

In Moira, Chris McGowan’s Wine and Brine is proving to be one of the leading lights of the food scene, and former Deanes Eipic head chef Danni Barry – who was just named best chef in Ulster – had moved her talents to Clenaghans restaurant in Aghalee, while the Parson’s Nose in Hillsborough has Danny Millar behind the stove.

Of course, while there are food and drink brands which have long attracted tourists to these shores – and nothing has had a grasp on the tourist market quite like stalwarts such as Guinness and Bushmills whiskey – many independents are thriving.

In the last two years, a host of cheesemakers, bakers, butchers and charcuterie producers have set up shop here – expanding both in business, and Northern Ireland’s indigenous palate.

There’s Mike’s Fancy Cheese Co, from Newtownards – producer of award-winning blue cheese Young Buck – along with Dart Mountain and Leggygowan Farm, while Dungannon’s Ispini and Limavady-based Corndale Farm have won numerous awards for their cured meats and sausages, while it’s also becoming hard to miss stalwarts such as Abernethy Butter, produced in Dromore,

Not requiring much of an introduction, Peter Hannan has almost single-handedly changed how many restaurants here, and across the globe, view meat. He’s been dry-aging Glenarm beef in his salt chambers for the last few years.

Since then, he’s gone on to supply the majority of Northern Ireland’s best restaurants, as well as selling into Fortnum & Mason in London, supplying Mark Hix’s spots, and top-ends eateries across the globe.

Guinness still carriers serious weight when it comes to attracting visitors to these shores, but there are now more than 30 independent breweries here.

That includes Mourne Mountains, Boundary, Farmageddon and Bullhouse, while even smaller producers are now emerging.

And regional markets are also increasingly playing their part in attracting both those in the neighbouring areas, and tourists, to try some of the best NI produce available.

While OX, Deanes and James Street may, among others, attract tourists from across the globe – thanks in part to a strong Googleable repertoire – there are other pockets of gastronomic and zymurgist ingenuity which draw their own crowds.

The ABV Fest draws hundreds to the Carlisle Memorial Church in north Belfast each year. The event, which is organised by Michael and Rosie Kerr, distiller Darren Nugent and drinks distributor Felicia Matheson, brings the best of Irish brewers together with UK, Belgian, Scandinavian and US producers – offering everything from a 3% session ale to huge US-brewed bourbon maple syrup barrel-aged chocolate coffee stout. A mouthful in more ways than one.

Across the city on the same weekend at the start of September, Focal Festival drew both music lovers, food producers, brewers and distillers to Crescent Park in the south of the city.

Tourism NI’s own Northern Year of Food and Drink was so successful, its coverage spilled well into 2017.

“Northern Ireland Year of Food and Drink in 2016 was highly successful in boosting our reputation as a food destination, inspiring trade and positioning food and drink experiences at the heart of the tourism experience,” Tourism NI, chief executive, John McGrillen, said.

“It strengthened our appeal and reputation for quality and uniqueness and, on the back of that initiative, Northern Ireland is now increasingly viewed as a food destination by visitors. The year also acted as a catalyst for the launch of inspirational food and drink experiences which has helped to drive an increase in international visitors.

“Food tourism is big business, often one of the highest categories of visitor spend alongside accommodation, and we continue to recognise this in our work alongside industry to diversify and strengthen our food and drink offering.”

According to Niall McKenna, his other city centre spot Hadskis could see anywhere between 25-30% walk-ins – many of which are tourists.

But, like every other industry, any major development or re-examination of the food landscape here is essentially on ice amid political deadlock.

“We spend more than £500,000 on local meat, dairy, fish and everything else, and that is going directly into our economy. We are on the front line, and we feel it. They need to get back in to government – business needs it.”

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