Two things I always look out for when travelling are food markets and food tours. I’m a great believer in getting to know a culture through its food, and the guys at Belfast-based Taste and Tour clearly agree with me, as I found out recently on their Belfast Food Tour.
Known traditionally for its hearty fare and pints of the black stuff, in recent years Belfast has developed a more sophisticated palate without losing sight of its origins. Last year saw Northern Ireland celebrate the year of food and drink, establishing itself as a strong contender on the world food scene. This spot on the food map is thanks to the passion of its people, from its farmers to its chefs to people like Caroline Wilson and Phil Ervine, the founding directors of Taste and Tour, who enjoy nothing better than introducing people to the food and drink they love.
I met up with Phil on a chilly winter’s morning at St George’s Market to find out more about the Belfast Food Tour.
Seaweed, green tea and treacle bread at St George’s Market
Located on May Street, close to the River Lagan and the Waterfront Hall, St George’s Market is the last surviving Victorian covered market in Belfast dating back to 1890. The site itself has been home to a market much longer than that though, with one being held here once a week since 1604.
We visited on a Friday and there were plenty of edible delights to satisfy my taste buds, even though this isn’t the day that the market specialises in food. I’m told that on a Saturday or Sunday you’ll find even more delicious foods on offer.
Phil’s favourite fish stall is ‘Something Fishy’, with their award winning oysters and neat rows of bags of something new to me, dulse. This seaweed, as I found out, has a very distinctive taste, and I couldn’t decide whether I liked it or hated it. It’s collected in Newcastle County Down and should be served with plenty of butter, which we were sadly lacking. I concluded that dulse is an acquired taste.
As we wandered through the stalls, we sampled wonderful teas and admired geographically protected potatoes, tucked into freshly prepared humous and pesto and nibbled on moreish breads, including a treacle bread which was particularly good. You could really taste the treacle, yet it wasn’t too sweet. Champ soda bread was another hit. And if you’ve not come across champ before, it’s a mix of mashed potato with shallots or spring onions and, in this case, bacon too.
It wasn’t long before I could see just how much Phil loves his work with the Belfast Food Tour. His passion for food is infectious. “I love meeting new people and introducing them to my Belfast,” he explained, “I take people to the places where I would take my friends to taste my city.”
With yet more that I wanted to try and explore (was that Guinness Cheese I spotted over there?), it was soon time to move on. But I’m so glad we did, as what awaited was a serving of chocoholic heaven.
Gourmet chocolate at CoCouture
Walk down the stairs into this basement shop on Chichester Street, open the door and inhale. An invisible wall of chocolate will smack you in the face as you enter the world of one of the finest chocolatiers I’ve ever met. The Belfast Food Tour would be worth it just for this.
Deidre was once a high-powered business woman who, like so many of us, sought happiness in chocolate.
Unlike most of us though, she turned her passion into a thriving business. As she told us all about chocolate, how it is made, how it should be tasted, what to look out for, she was an absolute joy to watch and listen to, as her passion for chocolate shone out. One tip that I’ll be following from now on thanks to this Belfast Food Tour is to check the label of chocolates before buying them. The shorter the ingredients list, the better the taste and the better it is for you.
We talked chocolate. We tasted chocolate. We drank chocolate. And it was good. So good in fact that I brought, not one but two bags of hot chocolate home with me, as well as a couple of bars of exquisite Madagascar chocolate. For any chocoholic, a visit to Belfast would not be complete without popping by CoCouture.
No frills, no jam jars or hipster cocktails, just great local craft beer …and gin
On the next stop of our Belfast Food Tour, we popped in to Phil’s favourite pub in the Cathedral Quarter for the second of three gin tastings that I would have that week. And I was delighted to see that the local Jawbox gin was once again on the menu. Gerry White, the man behind Jawbox, is as enthusiastic about his gin and as dedicated to bringing you nothing but the best, as Deidre is about her chocolate.
Even if you are not a gin fan, I urge you to try it, with Fever Tree ginger ale rather than tonic. It’s my new favourite drink, a bottle of which I also brought home with me from Ireland. Worryingly, a preliminary search has not found a local supplier, but I live in hope that I’ll track one down, otherwise I’ll be hopping on a plane back to Belfast.
Sadly we had to skip Phil’s favourite coffee shop, as we’d lingered too long over chocolate and gin, and our lunch was ready (you certainly won’t go hungry on this Belfast Food Tour).
Lunch at Coppi
Coppi, in Saint Anne’s Square, serves ‘Contemporary Italian cooking showcasing the best local produce’. The decor is a mix of rustic and industrial stripped-back chic, the atmosphere laid-back and friendly. Rather than choose from the menu, Phil had picked out all his favourite dishes for us to share and, as someone who loves to try a little bit of everything, this was perfect for me.
Feta fritters with truffle honey. Goat meatballs with Marsala and hazelnut sauce. Duck Ragu with Porcini mushroom ravioli, parmesan and truffle…
We ate our fill. And sampled a number of local beers and ciders too. Then came dessert.
Coppi Tiramisu. Chocolate and Salted Caramel Torta. Pear and Almond Tartlet…
We ate more than we should have, but we were happy.
I’ve been on many food tours around the world, and this has to be one of my favourites. It gives you the chance to not only taste great food and drink, but also to get to know some of the passionate people behind Belfast’s wonderful food and drink scene.
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