Journal reporter Ian Cullen was in his element as he got a real taste of Derry this week
My mouth welled at the prospect of a tasting tour of Derry - especially given the promise there wouldn’t be a cheesy chicken fillet nor a tobacco onion in sight.
Mouth watering it certainly turned out to be. The five hour-long gourmet adventure obliterated the often spouted myth that Derry dining is dominated by the old staple of the ‘curry half and half’, and the‘cheesy chicken with tobacco onions and garlics’.
The experience of sampling a little rabbit and even a bit of scallop roe cracker among other culinary delights cemented my belief that the city’s collective taste buds can be altogether more cosmopolitan. The gastro-tour confirmed to me that Derry truly is a foodie’s paradise - if you know where to look that is,
The afternoon of indulgence kicked off with the launch of the Legenderry Food Guide at the Craft Village and took in some of the city’s gourmet hotspots with the menu’s offering everything from freshly shot and skinned rabbit to sumptuous parsnip and walnut cake served with homemade lemonade.
Following a selection of fabulous hors d’oeuvres at Cafe Del Mondo while Codetta choir Alto Helen O’Hare wowed the gathering with an impromptu performance, it was on to the coach de cuisine to be laid and lifted at each of the chosen venues. Still trying to cling onto the wonderful flavour of the beef fillet slices topped with horseradish sauce from the Cafe Del Mondo, I was slightly surprised to hear that our next taster was freshly shot the previous evening when I took my place at our table in the Beech Hill Hotel.
“We’re having rabbit today folks,” said head chef Barry O’Neill, who quickly confirmed that the animal’s loin, kidney and liver were all as local as the rhubarb, beetroot and herbs freshly plucked from the hotel garden. “I know a few boys up the road who shot it last night for us - that’s how fresh it is,” he said. Rabbit is not something found on many Derry menus but with culinary magicians like Ardmore native Barry around it’s certainly something to cheer about. The rabbit’s liver was a particular treat and I’m sure one enjoyed many times in the long past amid the grandeur of the old Skipton House.
No gastro-tour of Derry would be complete without a visit to the home of celebrity chef Ian Orr of Great British Menu fame. At Brown’s Restaurant and Champagne Lounge we were treated to a dish which included exquisite Donegal Prime Fish pan seared scallops, roe cracker and an egg poached in Broighter Gold rapeseed oil from Limavady. Chef Craig Glasgow explained that it was the scallop dish the restaurant’s head chef served up on the TV show and it was easy to taste why. Simply superb.
Next stop was relative newcomer The Sooty Olive on Spencer Road where my taste buds were tantalised with the flavour of the restaurant’s ‘Asian squid’ dish served with a memorable satay dip. The peanut and chilli mix complimented the spicy seafood dish perfectly. As a starter dish the tomato and roasted red pepper soup was very tasty and must also get the thumbs up. The Sooty Olive will no doubt be a big hit with local foodies as it’s under the expert guidance of head chef Sean Harrigan. Great venue and food, super coffee by the way.
An authentic taste of Italy in Derry city centre was served up by Claudio and Maureen Antonucci on our next stop. Before tasting the selection on the main dish, I quickly discovered the home made focaccia was to die for. I savoured every mouthful of the tasters provided - the spinach and ricotta homemade cappellacci with butternut squash, butter, sage and walnuts; the beef pieces marinated for 24 hours in red onion, grain mustard and extra virgin olive oil, not to mention the aubergine, tomato, mozzarella and basil bake. The visit to La Sosta was like escaping to Italy, with expertly crafted cuisine to match. Truly Bellissimo. Maureen even kindly agreed to teach me how to make proper Italian Tiramisu - something you’ll find difficult to source in the city.
I was forced to tether my sweet-tooth craving by declining a generous offer of a Tiramisu tasting session as I was assured by tour co-ordinator, Derry City Council Tourism Officer Mary Blake, that stomach room would be required for the next stop. She wasn’t fibbing. A short walk up Carlisle Road and a veritable feast of cake and tray bakes awaited at Primrose Cafe. Owner Melanie Breslin greeted our group with freshly crafted homemade lemonade and a large selection of her very own baking creations. A particularly well dressed victoria sponge, strawberry and white chocolate scones bursting with lashings of fresh cream, and a caramel square with a macaroon twist were on offer. My Particular favourites were the parsnip and walnut cake and the banana and chocolate cake which simply had to be tasted to be believed. Melanie admits she’s had a “life-long love affair with baking” and the flavours of the exquisite cake display certainly didn’t belie that fact. This cosy little establishment with a marquee to the rear is well worth a visit on any given day, whether for a little indulgence or a just lunch break.