How do you like them apples? Armagh festival celebrates its favourite fruit
With more than 40,000 acres of orchards, Armagh is well stocked for its annual food and cider festival
The Armagh Food and Cider Festival celebrates the produce from 40,000 acres of orchards in the county, most of them in one fairly small region south of Armagh city
A is for Armagh, and also for apples. There are an astonishing 40,000 acres of orchards in Co Armagh, most of them in one fairly small region south of the city. The majority of the crop are Bramley cooking apples, and in a day spent touring around the county’s orchards and sampling their associated products, I now know there is a lot more potential to apples than simply ending up in a tart.
In fact, the county has built an entire food and drink festival centred around orchards and cider. Starting today, the Armagh Food and Cider festival will take place over four days, across a number of locations in the county.
One of them will be at Crannagael House near Portadown, which has lovely gardens and an orchard where the first Bramley seedling in Northern Ireland was planted. We turn up on a damp morning, and are welcomed by John and Jane Nicholson in a structure new to me, a “tentipi”. This is essentially a giant tepee, with a fire-pit in the middle, and it’s in these tepees adjacent to orchards that guests will sit down to “A Night in the Orchard” dinner, paired with cider, during two nights of the festival.
One of the ciders on offer will be McIvor’s Plum and Ginger, which is rose in colour, and delivers a fine, peppery bubbly kick. Cider is not a drink I’ve ever been much of a fan of, but this could well be the new Prosecco in my life. The Portadown Yellow Door deli and catering company, who will be catering the dinners, served up some taster canapés, as we huddle over the fire-pit. One was pickled mushrooms served in a hollowed-out hen’s egg, with a teeny spoon to dig it out. I don’t even want to think about how long it took to painstakingly hollow out dozens of eggs, but if they pay this much attention to detail in a canapé, dinner sounds very promising.
From teepees and fire-pits, also on the programme during the festival will be a concert in Armagh’s version of Marsh’s Library, before dinner at the nearby 4Vicars restaurant. The Armagh Robinson Library is in a beautiful 18th century building, founded by Archbishop Robinson, and full of the books and manuscripts he collected. One of their chief treasures is Jonathan Swift’s own 1726 copy of Gulliver’ Travels, with his annotations. Festival guests on two nights will first attend a short concert in this lovely room, before being walked by lamplight to the nearby 4Vicars restaurant for a “Harvest Supper”.
4Vicars owners and chefs, Gareth and Kasia Reid, have been running their restaurant for three years. (You can read Catherine Cleary’s review of 4Vicars here). Their festival menu will focus on local produce, including Lough Neagh pollan, and goat kid meat. Pollan from Portadown’s O’Chatten Smokery, which we are served, is not a fish I was previously acquainted with. It’s unique to Northern Ireland; being a fish that swam from Iceland, up the River Bann and into Lough Neagh. It’s part of the salmon family, and the smoked pollan from O’Chatten’s Smokery is stocked at Fortnum and Mason’s (as is their smoked bacon).
The other unusual local produce that will be on offer during the festival is Tynedale goat kid meat. “Getting people to try it is our biggest challenge,” confesses Ian Wilson, who, with his wife Ann, now runs Tynedale Goat Kid. We try goat kid meatballs in a yoghurt sauce, and the strong, distinctive taste is punchy. It’s high in iron, and low in cholesterol, and Wilson is baffled as to why more Irish people don’t eat it.
Armagh Cider Company is located near Craigavon. Owned by Philip and Helen Troughton, there are 80 acres here of orchards. The apples are under their supervision “from blossom to bottle” as their slogan goes. The on-site production facility is called a “cidery”; which is an actual, real word, akin to “winery” and “brewery”.
We’re given a tour of the small cidery. Philip Troughton tells us that local restaurant, Groucho’s, will be catering a one-off festival dinner for 70 people in the cidery warehouse, where trestle tables will be set up. Groucho’s, which is based in nearby Richhill, will feature slow-cooked pork in a smoker, paired with a range of the specialist ciders they make on the premises. You’d be advised to wrap up warm, because the building is a proper working warehouse: vast ceilings, with a concrete floor.
Along with dinners in orchards and cider warehouses and pre-dinner music in an 18th century library, the Armagh Food and Cider Festival will feature various food tours and trails. On Saturday, there will be a food market with the unfortunately twee name of “Harvest Fayre” in Richhill. There will be more than 30 food and drink stalls.
One of the local producers at Richhill is Janet Harnett of Harnett Oils. She makes rapeseed and hemp oil, some of which are infused with different herbs, such as basil. Also at Richhill will be Susie Hamilton Stubber of Burren Balsamics (she just liked the name, there is no Clare connection). She makes an ambitious range of balsamic vinegars; blackberry and thyme, strawberry and mint, and of course, Bramley apple. I ask if there are any that went particularly well with chips. The short answer is, these artisanal vinegars are meant to be for grander things than chips. So maybe don’t ask that question, if you come across Hamilton Stubber’s stall. But I can personally recommend the Bramley apple balsamic vinegar as an excellent accompaniment for a crisp oven chip.
The Armagh Food and Cider Festival runs from September 21st to 24th. For booking and more information, see armagh.co.uk/foodandcider