Food is the real star of the County Down these days

Ryan McAleer embarked on a whirlwind trip of coastal Co Down recently and found the views and, more particularly, the food, spectacular

Chef Paul Cunningham at work in Brunel's restaurant, Newcastle, Co Down
Ryan McAleer

CATHAL McGarvey’s world famous ballad originally named Rosie McCann from the banks of the Bann as the star of county Down. The real star of the Mourne county in 2019 is now arguably its food.

From the restaurants and cafés of Newcastle to the fresh seafood from Kilkeel and fine artisan food crafted and sold around Strangford Lough, Co Down is an embarrassment of food riches.

My first holiday in Newcastle came in 2016, when my wife Clare and I packed a six-month old baby and a two-year-old toddler into the car and headed for the Burrendale Hotel.

Newcastle is what Bundoran could and should be like, and we inevitably fell in love with the place. So it was with much relish we returned last month (sans children) and checked ourselves into the Slieve Donard Hotel with a mission, to eat our way up the eastern coast over the course of two days.

What better place to start than Kilkeel Harbour? Set in the Nautilus Centre, The Mourne Seafood School offers a panoramic view of the north’s largest fishing fleet. On a beautiful autumnal Saturday, the place is quietly majestic.

Inside, Trevor Orr of Annalong’s Harbour Inn uses his years of experience to turn some of the fleet’s freshly caught produce into three incredible dishes, just for us.

In front of us, scallops, crab meat and hake are skillfully crafted into a masterful meal. We’re in awe and there’s a sense of privilege in watching an award-winning chef do his work and then sitting down to eat it.

Trevor is one of a number of local chefs involved in the cookery school, which is headed by chef Roger Moynihan. The school has plenty of awards of its own and now offers patrons the chance to head out to sea in a small boat and cast a line. Whatever is caught is brought back to shore and into the kitchen for the full catch-and-cook experience.

Chef Trevor Orr in Mourne Seafood Cookery School, Kilkeel

None of that was necessary on the evening in question, but Trevor relays his tales of foraging for some of the produce on our plates, from dulse to raspberries. One chef who occasionally joins him on his foraging adventures is Paul Cunningham.

A kindred spirit to Trevor in terms of his passion and creativity in using seasonal local produce, it’s just over two years since Paul opened Brunel’s Restaurant on Newcastle’s Downs Road.

Bustling on a Saturday night, both the atmospheric surroundings and staff are instantly warm and welcoming. The menu reflects the head chef’s passion for Irish produce from Strangford mussels and Baronscourt venison to coley and wild Irish game.

As a Tyrone man, I’m instantly drawn to the venison carpaccio from outside Newtownstewart and I’m curious what Paul Cunningham does with a mallard breast. Both are good choices. The dishes are packed with flavour and texture and by the end of my first evening in the foothills of the Mournes, I feel like an extra on MasterChef.

There are few hotels (or spas) in Ireland that can match the view at dawn from the Slieve Donard. There are probably not many to match the breakfast either. With another day of eating in store, I forego the traditional fry (and Bushmills-infused porridge) and opt to carve off a few chunks of ham to nibble with cheeses and bread. Sunday will be a morning dedicated to bread.

Making soda farls at Tracey's Farmhouse Kitchen, Killinchy

Departing Newcastle with a tinge of regret on such an unusually sunny and fresh October morning, we head north. Until this point, Strangford and much of north Down had remained largely unchartered territories for myself. But heading to a small converted barn in Killinchy, I get to see some of it at its best.

Tracey’s Farmhouse Kitchen offers in some ways a unique tourist and eating experience, but for me, there’s something immediately comforting and familiar in it.

Tracey Jeffery’s home is a bit like Grand Designs meets the Ulster American Folk Park and the first few minutes is spent absorbing and admiring the surroundings.

But there’s bread to be made, and tying the apron together instantly focuses the mind.

Soda bread is easy to make, thankfully. But there’s immense satisfaction in gripping, kneading and shaping the dough. Once it hits the griddle, the smells awaken childhood memories of eating my granny Bridie’s homemade soda bread in Carrickmore.

The Poacher's Pantry, a small deli attached to the Poacher's Pocket in Lisbane

We’re soon on the road again with bags of bread and smiles on our faces. We set the satnav for Lisbane and soon find the Poacher’s Pocket and one of the best Sunday lunches I’ve ever had.

The bellies have been seldom empty since Saturday afternoon and they’re even fuller now. But we still leave with locally crafted beers and produce from Poacher’s Pantry.

Comber is the final destination on this food journey and we uncover something of a rough diamond on Castle Street. Johnny McDowell and Laura Bradley’s independent Deli Indie Fude is wall to wall with artisan Irish produce.

Not simply a deli, Indie Fude is exporting some of the best local produce overseas and boasts an event space for special food events. Recently voted among the UK’s best independent food retailers, it’s easy to see why.

After two days immersed in amazingly crafted Irish produce across Co Down, it all feels like it comes together in Indie Fude.

Full bellies or not, we leave with yet another bag of goods and head back to Tyrone with a treasure trove of produce and memories.

Click here to learn more about ‘Taste The Island’ experiences

Cheese at Indie Fude, Comber

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