Ryan and I went up to Belfast last month for a short break, just as the Christmas markets were being set up at City Hall. Like most people from the Republic, Ryan hasn’t spent a huge amount of time in the North, so I try to bring him up as often as possible so that he ‘gets’ it too. All my family are from the North, and I’ve always felt at home there – I adore the scenery, the friendliness and how different it feels; how British it is. Belfast itself feels both like somewhere from long, ago yet also very cutting edge, in the same way that Edinburgh or Glasgow do too.
This time around, we stayed in Bangor, which was a new one on me, but it’s a great accommodation option for a Belfast break – it’s 30 minutes from the city by train (with regular services), and it’s on the coast, with stunning views & cosy sea-facing pubs aplenty. We stayed in a beautiful Airbnb overlooking the swan boats in the marina, travelling in & out of the city each day, and enjoyed great food, both there and in the city.
In Belfast, we went to OX to try the tasting menu for lunch. OX recently received its first Michelin star, but has been on my to-do list for years, and it didn’t disappoint. The food was exquisite – seasonal Northern Irish ingredients cooked & presented highly skilfully and the room was beautiful – I loved the warm wood tones, bare walls and the homemade wine cooler, which had had rose hips pressed into the ice. The staff were excellent also – highly professional & attentive; but warm too, and friendly.
While reviewing OX three years ago, long before its Michelin star was a twinkle in anybody’s eyes, Observer restaurant reviewer Jay Rayner noted that OX “…isn’t up itself. Nobody bows. There are no stupid formalities performed because someone was so taught by a scary maître d’ who could not be disobeyed. They want you to eat well with the minimum of fuss. Much of that applies to the food, too. Starters can read on the complex side…but they eat very simply. It’s about top-quality ingredients to which the best things have been done.
It is easy to get carried away, to overstate what is going on here. Is Ox on a par with the very best in Britain? Absolutely not. But, for all the adoring local chatter, it doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be that. Ox simply wants to be best in class and then some. It wants to celebrate the best ingredients on its doorstep, and do it with unstudied professionalism. On those terms it has more than achieved its goals. It does not need to show off. Ox knows it’s the most interesting thing to happen to Belfast in a long while. And the city seems grateful for it.”
Although there were a lot of highlights, my dessert really stood out for me for its perfect simplicity: it was late November in a mouthful of caramelised apple; treacle & oat, served with a subtly cinnamon infused fig leaf ice cream. It had a little bit of crème anglaise with it too, which reminded me quite how much I adore custard; homemade, perfectly made custard; and I decided that I had to try making it again when I got back to Dublin.
Ryan at the bar in The Crown, a beautifully tiled Victorian saloon on Great Victoria St; a fish shop window in Bangor.
Crab claws & the freshest winter veg at St George’s market, which was recently voted the best market of the year by Observer Food Monthly, and with good reason – it has a serious buzz about it, and fantastic food filling its stalls, even at 10am on a Sunday.
Although a totally different proposition, Established Coffee in Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter was almost as striking a food experience for us as OX was. It reminded us of the Fumbally, with lots of young families & interesting-looking individuals filling the tables. The food was exquisite: we both had the ‘cheesy French toast’, which came with crisp quality bacon; tenderised kale & dill pickle hollandaise, followed by an oat waffle with poached pear, maple whipped cream cheese & pecans to follow. The coffee was just as good, and I noticed also how kind & switched on the staff seemed. I would recommend making the trip to Belfast for Sunday brunch here alone.
While in Belfast, I was reminded that there really is nothing as comforting as homemade custard; made with quality ingredients and whisked carefully to stunning, smooth magnificence. It’s the perfect accompaniment to crumble or caramelised apples, but is good with most wintry desserts also.
Made from scratch, it is streets away from the stuff that we all tend to avoid when eating in canteens. It is a simple, timeless luxury, and it is wonderfully easy to make – give it a go this Christmas to surprise & delight everyone at your table.
550ml whole milk
55ml single cream
1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
A few drops of vanilla extract
4 free-range eggs, yolks only
30g caster sugar
2 level tsp cornflour
Bring the milk, cream and vanilla pod to simmering point slowly over a low heat in a medium-sized saucepan. Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla pod and stir into the milk before discarding the rest of the pod. Whisk the yolks, sugar & cornflour together in a bowl until well mixed. Pour the hot milk and cream on to the eggs and sugar, whisking vigorously all the time to prevent lumps from forming. Return the mixture to the saucepan, add the vanilla extract and cook over a low heat, stirring until thickened to your desired consistency. Pour the custard into a jug and serve immediately.