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Northern Ireland: You’ll never get a better bit of butter

Northern Ireland: You’ll never get a better bit of butter
Image: Donna Dailey
Donna Dailey: From humble beginnings, Northern Ireland’s homegrown producers now count world-class chefs amongst their customers.

At Belfast’s annual Restaurant Week the city centre is hopping. Restaurant tables are happily packed, not only in the capital but across the region from Newcastle to Derry to Enniskillen. While top restaurants in Northern Ireland are stacking up the accolades, it’s the small food producers behind the scenes who are driving its foodie reputation.
 
“The Troubles made Northern Ireland very compact,” said Robert Ditty, owner of Ditty’s Home Bakery  in Castledawson. “Not much was going in or coming out. After peace came, the big supermarkets came in and devalued food, but before then, everything was homegrown.”
 
As a result artisan bakeries like Ditty’s flourished. Ditty joined his father in the family business after a career as a sculptor. Now, flour is his medium and he’s turned bread-making into an art form using traditional methods and recipes.
 
“We have a tradition of baking in Northern Ireland unlike anywhere else,” he says. “Soda bread and potato farls, for example, were always baked on a griddle. It’s quite unique in that it hasn’t disappeared and there’s a demand for traditional breads in the younger generation. Our soda bread is still all kneaded by hand.”
 
Ditty’s bakery was bombed twice during the Troubles, and because expansion wasn’t feasible then, he began making oatcakes for export. His oatcake range, which includes a smoked variety, is now famous and shipped to 20 countries.
 
“No one here was making them, but it’s a very Northern
Northern Ireland: You’ll never get a better bit of butter
Image: Donna Dailey
Irish thing. We grow lots of oats,” Ditty said. “Ours are different from Scottish oatcakes, which are bland. We put a bit of sugar in them, so they have a sweet and savoury taste.”
 
On the outskirts of Limavady, the Kane family has been farming at Broglasco Farm for over a century. In 1896, the Broighter Hoard of Iron Age gold artefacts was found by a ploughman in a field they still farm today.
 
Broighter Gold Rapeseed Oil, named after the ancient treasure, was also discovered by accident some 110 years later in the farmhouse kitchen. Leona Kane was preparing dinner one night when she ran out of cooking oil. Her husband Richard had been pressing their oilseed crop to make biodiesel, so she used some of the unfiltered cold-pressed oil to cook their fillet steaks.
 
“They were the best two steaks I’d cooked since we were married,” Leona said. While the taste and smell caught Leona’s attention, it was the health benefits of using rapeseed oil that excited her. “It has ten times more Omega 3 than olive oil,” she said, “and half the saturated fat. It also cooks to a higher temperature.”
 
Broighter Gold is made only from GM-free oil seed grown on the Kanes’ land. Because of the unique soil type, the flavour is lighter than other rapeseed oils. They do all of their own pressing and bottling on the farm, producing 500 bottles a day including a range of infused oils with basil, lemon, garlic or chili.
 
“If rapeseed oil is liquid gold, this is solid gold,” said Will Abernethy, holding out a roll of his creamy, handmade butter. “We make the most yellow butter in the world in Northern Ireland because of the green grass. We buy our cream from a local farmer who grazes his cows in green fields all summer.”
 
Will and has wife Allison started by doing demonstrations of old-fashioned butter-making equipment at farm shows and selling what they made on the day. After realising there was a demand for it, they turned their hobby into a business four years ago. Now they make around a tonne and a half of butter per month on their farm in County Down – by hand.
 
After churning the cream into butter and washing off the buttermilk, Will pats it out flat on a wooden paddle, then gently rolls it up from one end. Abernethy Butter is sold by the roll, not by the pound. Although it is made in small batches, Will produces 700 rolls a day. Heston Blumenthal and other Michelin star chefs are among his customers.
 
“No one else in Ireland or the UK makes butter this way,” he says. ““Our butter is treated with care and love. That’s what makes it taste so good.”
 
Care and love are also evident at Tynedale Farm, on the side of Divis Mountain in County Antrim. William Haire and Sarah Long started raising goat kids for meat three years ago, when Will discovered that male kids were being killed at birth because they had no value for farmers who were milking goats.
 
“We set out to save these kids,” he said. “It was a waste of a life and a waste of food. People are starving in the world, and here we’re killing animals because no one wanted to do anything with them.”
 
They rear the goats to an ideal weight for butchering, and sell directly to local restaurants. Thanks to open-minded and creative chefs, goat kid meat is more popular than lamb in some of Northern Ireland’s better restaurants.
 
Dozens more of the region’s artisan producers can be found each weekend at Belfast’s St George’s Market, named the UK’s Best Large Indoor Market 2014. As in the city’s restaurants, the atmosphere is buzzing, and there’s no doubt that traditional foods in Northern Ireland are bang on trend.
 
Donna travelled with www.discovernorthernireland.com and www.ireland.com. She stayed at the Europa Hotel in Belfast.
 
Read more from Donna Dailey 
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24 October 2014
By: Donna Dailey
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