Our little group is walking behind a long-dead chef. He drowned, apparently: you can tell by the crab and seaweed dangling around his neck and the lobster jammed in his toque. As we wander through the streets of Belfast, smiling locals wave hello: it seems that Barney, our expired guide, is a familiar sight.
It’s a food tour, the kind of thing that normally brings me out in hives. But this one, called Belfast Bred and organised by the Kabosh theatre company, is terrific, informative fun, accessible to everyone, foodie or non-foodie. And it helpfully crosses off half-a-dozen places I’d earmarked as culinary highlights: pubs like The John Hewitt where a devoted crowd of artists, musicians and, um, trade unionists enjoy butch dishes like beef, leek and Hilden Ale pie, or their famous seafood chowder. This handsome, frill-free alehouse is owned by The Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre – serving booze and good food seems to me to be a totally enlightened way to raise funds.
Or Sawers, a deliciously looney-tunes emporium bristling with provisions, some conventional – jams and chilli sauces, some less so – crocodile, green curryflavoured crickets, chocolate-covered ants. Apparently, we’re told, if you eat too much camel it makes you hyper. I’m in Sawers, get me out of here?
I like the pared-down, blackboard and tiles chic of the Mourne Seafood Bar so much that we go back and eat whisper-light fried squid and Dundrum Bay oysters. So what if on our merry way we get heckled by a few local, erm, imbibers? It all adds to the atmosphere. We wind up in the city’s magnificent St George’s Market: this bustling Victorian landmark alone would make the tour worthwhile.
Belfast is emerging from the culinary doldrums like a carb-obsessed butterfly – oh, yes, all that stuff you hear about the Irish passion for bread and potatoes is entirely true and I love them for it. Typical of the renaissance is our hotel, The Fitzwilliam, with its funky-retro angles – geometric carpets, sixties-style sofas, cool lampshades – and bedrooms in the coolest colour schemes, fragranced with scented candles. The hotel’s restaurant, Menu, is overseen by local celebrity chef Kevin Thornton; it’s a see-and-be-seen joint, bristling with diners in best going-out garb. Our waitress, Fidelma, is a star, nonchalantly recommending the likes of mi-cuit (half- or semi-cooked) Glenarm salmon, or a splendidly kitsch and perfectly executed beef Wellington.
More show-offy fabulousness comes with superb cocktails at the grand, Corinthian-columned Merchant Hotel. This is the kind of ‘wow’ place that would come with a massive dose of attitude in any other major city, but here comes with sweetness and warmth, despite the seething hordes of the city’s fashionable.
It’s down several notches on the frenetic scale (if you discount a kamikaze taxi driver) to Lizzie’s Kitchen in Lizzie Kennedy’s serene house in the rolling countryside just outside town. Lizzie – a cordon bleu cook responsible for Northern Ireland’s first ever cookery school – makes everything seem really simple: Irish soda and wheaten breads, kiss-light lemon and almond biscuits, an exquisite jam made from local raspberries ready in minutes. We come away toting an Enid Blytonworthy picnic that doesn’t last the night.
Of the city’s haute hotspots, the one I love the most is James Street South, from Great British Menu favourite Niall McKenna (a really, really lovely chap). The handsome building, a former linen mill, is bursting at the seams with appreciative locals; I love that even sober-looking businessmen are tucking into the vino at lunchtime: this is my kind of city. The food is astonishingly good: inventive without being tricksy – loin of pork with chicory, black pudding and foie gras jus; or smoky line-caught mackerel with black olive crumb, basil aïoli and heritage tomato jelly. Yes, there are chips, but these are the crispest, fluffiest and most potato-ey chips I’ve eaten. There’s ice-cream made from lavender and local delicacy yellowman (basically honeycomb, like the inside of a Crunchie). But what’s even more astonishing is that our lunch costs £16.50 for three courses. It’s the sort of thing that makes London-dwellers like me gasp. There are even petit fours, for Pete’s sake. How does Niall do it?
It would be criminal to leave the city without sampling the legendary Ulster Fry. Café Conor, sandwiched between the Ulster Museum and the Botanic Gardens, may be a bit on the posh side for fry purists (it’s a former artist’s studio), but the fry – oh, my. Soda bread and potato bread, free-range egg, bacon, fat meaty sausages, black pudding…
Is this the best breakfast I’ve ever had? It’s close. Despite being a lethal caloriebomb, it’s almost entirely greaseless; I post a snap of it on Twitter and get the most responses ever – mostly moans of unabashed lust. I’d come back to Belfast for this alone – as if I’d need an excuse.
The article 'Postcard from Belfast' was published in partnership with BBC Olive magazine.