January 2010 Reflection

So the second most often question I am asked, after the quality of the pubs in Belfast, is about the food in Ireland. Usually my questioner has already assumed that the food is terrible, I’m barely subsisting on scaly potatoes and leeks and I can’t wait to get back to America where the horn of plenty overflows with our supreme diversity of crops. And almost always they are surprised, shocked even, to discover that the food, in Belfast at least, is great in terms of both market produce and quality restaurants.

I’ll begin with market produce. I have an admission to make . . .I am a foodie. What is a foodie you might ask? Well Wikipedia (oh I’m feeling scholarly today) gives the following description.

Foodies= Amateurs who simply love food for consumption, study, preparation, and news. Foodies want to learn everything about food, both the best and the ordinary, and about the science, industry, and personalities surrounding food. For this reason, foodies are sometimes viewed as obsessively interested in all things culinary.

I love and, yes, live for good quality food, carefully and lovingly cultivated and crafted into great meals. I try to eat as close to the earth as possible, which means I am always searching for the best farmers market I can find. This is also the first year in a long while that I haven’t had my own garden, so I am depending entirely on the market, which, in Belfast, is no loss at all. Belfast’s St. George’s market provides an abundance of everything from local root crops and fish catches to stalls filled with exotic spices and seaweed. Though not everything is local and organic, it is all reasonably priced and very fresh. For less than 20 pounds I can buy and abundance of food (and even drink!) for the week as well as snag a fabulous seafood chowder lunch and desert crepe for the way home. Some lazy Saturdays I stretch my market visit to a whole half-day, two meal experience. I start with juice, coffee and waffles, wander through the crafts for a while listening to whatever this week’s live band happens to be, then I grab lunch followed something terrible for me like a snicker milk shake. And I always buy more groceries for the week than I can carry. My favorite weekly purchase is almost always from the fishmongers that line the stalls along the back of the market. This week it was fresh mussels, last week was whiting. The vendors, like most Irish, are friendly and helpful with any questions I have about their products and even welcome my probing questions about water quality and harvesting methods. So no, my market produce shopping is not suffering at all.

But I must admit there are a few things I do miss from the states when I am cooking. Namely things that I always took advantage of like canned pumpkin, apple butter, a variety of cream cheeses and so on. There are even things that am SO embarrassed to admit but I miss none-the-less, like peanut butter. There is a big difference between American peanut butter and peanut butter over here. Our peanut butter is smooth and creamy but here, even ‘creamy’ peanut butter is grainy, sandy tasting almost. What’s missing? High-fructose corn-syrup. My mother would be so ashamed after all the trouble she has spent keeping me off the gooey stuff but I had to bring back copious amounts of JIF. King Corn and I have a very complicated relationship, but I’ll give him this one, peanut butter needs him.

As a foodie I take cooking very seriously. I don’t worry too much about getting things perfect, but I do love to play with new produce and flavors. I especially love cooking with and for people. When I first got to Belfast I started cooking with my English housemate Ben. Sometimes we would cook together and other times one of us would cook and one of us would consume. But after a few weeks I noticed Ben was a glowing example of everyone at home’s assumptions about food in Ireland. Ben is perfectly happy with potatoes and tuna and almost never seasons his food. One day, after a week of fresh, complicated meals, Ben wanted to reciprocate for the cooking I had been doing. His meal choice, Heinz tomato soup. My jaw hit the table. For a girl who has been known to spend 4 hours making her own pasta sauce I was a little stunned. But for Ben it was just as delicious and satisfying as the 2 hour meal I had prepared the night before. This however is not typical of what one would find in Belfast restaurants.

As for restaurants, well just around our neighborhood, off Botanic Avenue, there is a bounty of ethnic cuisine. Around the corner is CafĂ© Renoir, famous for their 5gbp wood-fired pizza special. Beside it sets the new French Village who serves a great Panini and a decent attempt at pancakes, though I haven’t found a great American pancake place yet. Adam and I may have to open a Cracker Barrel-like establishment to feed our need for buttermilk pancakes and chicken and dumplings. On the opposite corner is Boojums, our Chipotle approximation as well as Clements, my favorite coffee house. The whole of Belfast has a lot to offer to the hungry traveler. Adam and I should get VIP seating for the amount of time we spend in Nando’s, a Portuguese-Mozambique chain famous for their Peri-Peri chicken, and Ravenous, a great local sandwich shop. Throughout the city you can also find great meal deals where you can get 2 or 3 courses plus a bottle of wine for two people for about 20gbp. Fabulous.

So if you find yourself traveling to Northern Ireland don’t worry about subsisting on potatoes and parsnips, there is a bounty of food options waiting for you!

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