Booze, glorious booze! Our local drinks industry is currently experiencing something of a renaissance. With the rise in local craft beers, small batch whiskey distillers and a burgeoning gin scene, it’s safe to say we’re becoming connoisseurs of all things alcoholic. One tipple that has so far eluded our producers is wine, largely due to our inclement climate.

Despite two amazing Italian wine trips under my belt, I never really appreciated the difference between a fine claret and a rustic vin de table, until I met the other half of DowntheHatchNI. Now we love nothing more than a good glass of Malbec to wind down on a Friday night after a busy week so, when the folks at Gap Wines invited us along to Belfast Castle for a wine tasting evening, I jumped at the chance!

In case you’re not familiar with Gap Wines, take a look at their site or better still, pay them a visit (they have sites on the Antrim Road in Belfast and Carrickfergus). 

Belfast Castle was the perfect venue for a tasting. The weather was kind to us and standing on the sun-soaked terrace, overlooking Belfast Lough and the castle’s beautifully manicured gardens, a class of Santa Rita Sauvignon Blanc in hand, we could easily have imagined being at an elegant French chateau or Tuscan villa.

Our host for the evening was Chilean wine producer Oscar Salas, who expertly guided us through Santa Rita 120’s new range of wines.

He began the evening by sharing a little of the company’s history. Originating from Chile, the range was named in honour of the 120 patriot soldiers who, in 1814 during the war for Chile’s independence, found refuge in Santa Rita’s hacienda after the battle of Rancagua. The cellars where they were hidden are still used for maturation of Santa Rita’s wines to this day. Match that, Jacob’s Creek!

Oscar’s passion to produce great quality wine was clear throughout the evening as he chatted enthusiastically about the production of each wine.

As something of a wine novice it was great to get a chat with Oscar about what makes a fine wine. For a video of our conversation, click here.

The dining portion of the event consisted of a two-course meal, which was the only disappointing aspect of a thoroughly enjoyable evening. The salad leaves were tired, wilted and watery and the thick sauce on the chicken supreme was rather gloopy. For such an exquisite location it is a shame the food did not match that high standard – though the meal was only a secondary concern – the Santa Rita wine was the undoubted focus of the evening.

In all we tried six of their wines including: Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Chardonnay. Each was thoroughly enjoyable, which was a surprise, as I’m very much a red wine girl.

My friend Maria (my companion for the evening) and I agreed our favourite was the medium-bodied fruity Cabernet Franc – native of the Loire region, but here made from Chilean grapes. The chardonnay was our pick of the whites (and has a quid off at the moment at Gap Wines).

We really enjoyed our evening and the opportunity to sample an array of Chilean wines. It’s not difficult to see why Santa Rita is the top seller from Santiago to San Pedro.

The new packaging of the white wine range also impressed us, as it cleverly included a plastic ice bucket to chill your wine when out of those beach BBQ’s on a summer evening.

Check out our video on Twitter

If reading this has whetted your appetite for a cultured night of wine tasting, as well plenty of craic, the next wine event organized by Gap Wines is in aid of NI Hospice on Friday 23rd June 2017 at Ormeau Golf Club (£12pp).

For more information go to  http://www.gapwines.com/events

As home of an official Royal residence, Hillsborough is truly a village fit for a king or queen.

Close to Belfast and full of beautiful Georgian architecture, gorgeous country walks and high-end boutiques (including my personal favourite, Candy Plum) it’s a charming place to spend the day.

The village also boasts some great places to eat or drink, whether it’s breakfast at Humble Pie, lunch at the Owl & Pussycat, cocktails at The Vintage Rooms or dinner at the Hillside, the Plough or the Parsons Nose – the village is teeming with options to satisfy any taste.

Last year we visited the newly-expanded Plough and were impressed by the vision of co-owner and chef Derek Henderson, who has left no stone unturned, seeking inspiration from all round the world to create the kind of exceptional experience needed to draw discerning diners away from Belfast.

Not to be outdone, Ronan and Jennie Sweeney, owners of The Poacher’s Pocket and Balloo House in Lisbane, have invested half a million pounds on turning The Parson’s Nose into an bright, airy, classy, family-orientated venue. With rich leather dining booths, stone flooring mirroring that of Hillsborough castle, wood burning stoves and eye-catching artwork, local interior architect Paul Haffey has managed to create a light and airy space without losing the sense of warmth the original pub had.

Not only has the pub undergone some major design changes, so too has the food offering.

Chef Danny Millar and his team have constructed a new menu centered around the recently installed wood fired oven.

 

It has been a growing trend of late for restaurants and gastropubs and even keen home-cooks to have a traditional pizza oven, however it was the first time I had ever witnessed a whole cote de boeuf and veggies being cooked in one. I’m not sure if it was the novelty of the oven or the chef’s technique or both but everything seemed to taste that bit better, smokier and full of flavour.

The menu for the night included Parsons super salad with wood roasted vegetables; sourdough pizzas topped with cubes of potatoes (sounds odd, tastes great!); cote de boeuf with asparagus and a rhubarb and custard tart to finish. While I enjoyed everything that passed my lips, the super salad was surprisingly my favourite course of the evening. The combination of zingy pickled veg and stone roasted cauliflower was fresh, packed full of flavour and oh so healthy. Dining out can be a real challenge for the calorie conscious and having something like this on the menu is a real Godsend.

I was a little apprehensive when I saw potato and pizza in the same sentence (carb on carb!), but the salty guanciale, the gooey mozzarella and tender chunks of spud were a winning combo. As with many trends, in the wrong hands a pizza oven can be little more than a gimmick. I’ve had a few dried-out, flavourless bases, including one that was basically a cheesy chapati, but the Parson’s Nose pizza menu has clearly been the product of a purist.

All the pizza bases were made with 72 hour proved sourdough, full of lactobacillus bacteria meaning it’s easier to digest, especially for those with sensitivity to gluten.

The final two courses of the evening were also delicious, albeit making for a big old feed for a pint sized girl like me! The Glenarm cote de boeuf was cooked to perfection and served with the creamiest bearnaise sauce. I (almost) felt guilty as I devoured every morsel, knowing it’s Robert’s favourite and he couldn’t be there to try it – he really did miss out!

The custard tart with fresh rhubarb was sweet, not too eggy with a pleasant nuttiness from the pastry. It didn’t last long on my plate.

By the end of our night at The Parsons Nose, I was royally stuffed. I was also thoroughly impressed. The standard of service, the ingredients and flawless execution means it’s one of my new favourites and a definite contender for crowning jewel of Hillsborough. It was also a pleasure meeting chef Danny Millar, who was very welcoming and great company – the king of craic. His food wasn’t bad either! Long may he reign.

 

Here’s a short video showcasing the evening: https://vimeo.com/211419176

 

While our evening was complementary, the prices on the menu are reasonable and range from £9 for a plain pizza to £26 for a sirloin steak. If you really want to dine like a king, the cote de beouf (nearly two pounds of prime beef) is priced a £56 and good value at that!

 

 

Derry, Londonderry or Stroke City, as Gerry Anderson termed it – whenever you think of the maiden city,  all sorts of associations spring to mind – the walls, Guildhall, the peace bridge…Nadine Coyle (?!).

One thing you might not immediately think of is great food. However, since the inception of the now annual LegenDerry Food Festival, recently crowned ‘Best NI Food Event’, foodies have been  flocking to experience what Northern Ireland’s second city has to offer.

In March, we, along with some other local food and lifestyle bloggers were invited to Browns Restaurant to experience the best of the north west and to see what we had been missing.

For the last eight years chef Ian Orr and business partner Marcus Roulston have established Browns as something of fine dining institution,  nationally recognised by food critics and restaurant associations alike as not only one of the best restaurants in the region, but on the island of Ireland. Bedecked in awards, Browns has also been included in the prestigious Blue Book.

Our trip was a sort of whistle-stop tour of the Browns empire. As ardent champions of local produce, we knew we were guaranteed lots of food sourced from the area, but would it live up to the Browns name?

First stop was at Browns in the Town, for canapés and a showcase of the local producers who supply each of their locations. From the array of passionate people we spoke to, it was clear that chef Ian had carefully hand-picked the best possible suppliers, whether for the meat for your main or the butter on your bread roll.

For us, these two local products really stood out at the showcase. The first was the incredible, tender Galloway beef from Gallagher & Sons Butchers in the neighbouring town of Castlefin. According to owner Brendan Gallagher, the cattle graze on heather, rather than grass, which lends to the distinctive, rich flavour of the meat.

The other was Donny Brewer butter (@DonnybrewerB). At first, the hexagonal shape of the pat piqued our interest. Speaking to the owners, we found out that the farm was situated on the same basalt rock as what you see at the Giants Causeway giving the butter its distinct salty flavour.

Among the other excellent producers at the showcase were McKees Fruit, Quiet Man Whiskey, Donegal Prime (who harvest all their produce fresh from the nearby Atlantic) and Tamnagh Foods, producers of the crumbly,tangy, moreish Sperrin Blue cheese – Robert thought he had died and gone to dairy heaven!

Next up was the main event – Browns Restaurant and Champagne Lounge, situated on the other side of the city, up the steeply-banked Bond’s Hill. Despite the whitewashed walls and pale wood floor and fittings, there’s nothing austere about the room. The assorted pictures that adorn the walls and soft, stripy banquette seating make it an inviting place to nestle into.

The night began with, and was punctuated by, live demonstrations and a bit of chat from chef Ian Orr, whose passion for great food and the restaurant trade was infectious.  Ian’s a natural raconteur. Watching him, I found myself channeling my inner 1940’s Hollywood impresario, twirling an imaginary cigar and saying things like ‘the kid’s got it, he’s gonna be a stahhhr’ (inwardly, of course).

Appetites sufficiently whetted, we started with an exquisitely pretty dish, consisting of locally farmed Loughview egg yolk, cooked in a water bath served with an Errigal Bay Scallop and pomegranate. The contrasting colours of yellow, red and white made this dish really eye-catching, belying its subtle flavour.

Next was my favourite dish of the night, Donegal Prime crab with apple jelly. An unusual sounding dish but one that I have been craving of late due to its light but refreshing flavours and texture.

The main was a real treat. It was Ian’s take on ‘born and braised’, chosen in 2016 as Northern Ireland’s signature dish and consisted of slow cooked beef cheek with a variety of beetroot in a sauce made from local ale. It was meltingly soft and devoured by Robert within minutes!

We finished with one of the prettiest desserts I have seen in a long time. Being a lover of all things gold (hint hint Robert!) the rhubarb parfait blended with Long Meadow cider and coated in white chocolate and gold leaf was simply stunning.

Stuffed to the gills with the finest food Derry/Londonderry had to offer, we were then chauffeured to our final stop for a nightcap in Ardtara Country House Hotel.

Located in the Upperlands this beautiful period property was the perfect pit stop before heading homeward bound. We had recently visited Ardtara Country House for afternoon tea and felt instantly like we were already home.

The wonderful Val, as with the rest of the staff, is a real asset to the business, creating such a welcoming environment. While there we were served tea or Quiet Man whiskey along with homemade shortbread dulce de leche bites – delicious!

Our time in the north west really opened our eyes to what an untapped trove of amazing food it is. In fact, we’re already planning our next trip. I hope in future, having read about this one, when someone mentions our second city, you’ll think less about Girls Aloud and more about excellent eateries, peerless producers and the finest food.

http://brownsrestaurant.com/locations/browns-in-town/

http://brownsrestaurant.com/locations/browns-restaurant/

http://brownsrestaurant.com/ardtara-country-house/

As 2016 drew to a close, and with it the Year of Food and Drink, we thought it the perfect time to celebrate our wonderful local producers but also to return the kindness shown to us throughout the year, by doing something to help others.

So, on Tuesday 20th December, we organised a free sampling event at Brewbot-Belfast, in aid of Storehouse  an amazing organisation who do invaluable work addressing food poverty.

For over eight years, Storehouse have partnered with charities and agencies in the city to focus on helping provide people with the basic essentials.

Fifty of our friends, family and followers braved the elements to join us at the micro-brewing mecca and were rewarded with a mouth-watering array of local foods and drinks, provided by our very generous local companies

In exchange, our guests came laden with food donations for Storehouse, which exceeded even our most optimistic expectations. We were quite frankly bowled over by peoples’ generosity.

Brewbot, despite its bare walls, metal columns and stone floor felt like a surprisingly intimate venue – with dim ambient lighting, soft music and a beautiful, enormous, warmed-wooded table that draws you to the centre of the bar.

Cups of fragrant mulled wine awaited our guests on arrival, supplied by Papa’s Minerals.

The banqueting-style table in the heart of the building heaved with all kinds of donated delights. Charcuterie plates from Ispini sat next to an assortment of chutneys and relishes by Deli Muru and Passion Preserved and a selection of olives, tapenades and hummus from Love Olive. David Love Cameron at Helen’s Bay Walled Garden provided crunchy, heritage vegetable crudités and a moreish beetroot hummus.

Cakes and sticky treats were provided by Graham’s Bakery, Deli Muru and The Sweet Spud, unctuous whiskey salted caramel chocolates from Neary Nogs and popcorn from Golden Popcorn satisfied those with a sweet tooth.

With so much incredible local dairy produce, we wanted to showcase some local cheeses, so we sourced three – a blue (Young Buck by Mike’s Fancy Cheeses); an ale-washed semi-hard (Banagher Bold, by Dart Mountain) and an extra mature cheddar (Dale Farm), which were matched with complementary beers – a stout (Galway Bay Stormy Port), an IPA (Kinnegar Scraggy Bay) and a lighter blonde.

For those who didn’t fancy the beer (and plenty who did) Panacea Drinks sent us their delicious, water kefir-based sparkling soft drinks, including a probiotic, non-alcoholic mojito or ‘projito’.

The backdrop to the night was a fantastic acoustic set by Laura McElroy and Jade Irwin, who both gave so generously of their talent and time and wowed us all.  

Great raffle prizes were provided courtesy of Indie Fude, Golf Now and Arthur Hollywood Design.

A huge thanks to everyone who attended and to the suppliers who gave so generously for such a deserving cause. It certainly made us think about hosting another event or two in 2017 – check out our website for details.  

1. Lacada Eldersauer beer 

This is a wonderful, pale, burnished gold-coloured ale from Lacada co-operative brewery in Portrush. As the name implies, it has quite a distinctive elderflower flavour – slightly tart, but with peachy and floral elements.    

http://www.lacadabrewery.com/

2. Kilmegan Real Cider

With so many great local ciders on the market, we could have devoted an entire list to them (and doubtless will, as summer approaches). This award-winner is dry, lightly carbonated and goes really well with pork dishes, or even cheese with crackers and chutney. It’s made entirely from apples, but be careful, it is quite strong (6.8%)!    

http://www.kilmegancider.com

 

3. Boatyard Double Gin

Have you ever seen a more stylish gin bottle? The contents don’t let it down. Quite heavy on the juniper, think Tanqueray, but with a more citrusy flavour, only more refined. Distilled on the banks of Lough Erne, the company’s founder Joe McGirr, who previously worked for whisky distillers Glenmorangie, opted to use the traditional Dutch-style method of exposing the spirit to fresh botanicals twice, hence the name ‘double gin’.  

http://www.boatyarddistillery.com

4. Inish Mac Saint porter

Quite light compared to some porters, which means it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but the Fermanagh-based brewer has made a nutty, cocoa-y, drink that’s great on its own, but goes really well with a hearty, robust stew or a wintery pie filled with big chunks of slow-cooked beef.    

http://www.inishmacsaint.beer/

5. Ruby Blue Vodka

Stuart and Barbara Hughes, based in Lisburn, have managed to produce a potato-based spirit which is really subtle, not harsh like most vodkas, but smooth and buttery in the mouth. It has a slightly herbaceous flavour, which goes very well with their suggested garnish of green apple slices and would be delicious with mint, cucumber and lime in the summer, as a long drink.

http://www.rubybluespirits.com