Food town: could Armagh be the next Kinsale?

Ten Northern Ireland chefs come together to transform city

Armagh chefs Sean Farnan and  Gareth Reid. Photograph: Jonathan King

Armagh chefs Sean Farnan and Gareth Reid. Photograph: Jonathan King

 

A group of Northern chefs has banded together to try to transform Armagh into a Northern Ireland gourmet hub just like Kinsale in Co Cork,

Ten chefs based in Armagh and neighbouring towns are attempting to put their well-known individualistic and temperamental natures aside in the interests of fine-dining, better business and improved tourism.

The idea is the brainchild of Sean Farnan whose light-bulb moment was when he travelled to Kinsale two years ago to participate in its seafood chowder competition. He didn’t win but headed home determined to make Armagh the Kinsale of the North.

He is explaining his plan and vision in the 4 Vicars restaurant in Armagh City which is run by his friend, chef Gareth Reid and his Polish wife, Kasia. It’s located in a sturdy old Georgian building beside St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral.

Such an interview, as is proper, is conducted over a bowl of borscht - beetroot soup with homemade porcini dumplings - confit of goose and, as this is the Orchard County, Armagh apple, cinnamon and almond tart, and a little glass of Malbec on the side.

Other items on the lunch menu include Kilkeel brill and mussels, Barnhill cider, spinach, and boiled potatoes, and Kilkeel crab on toast with mustard, chives cucumber, leaves and homemade chips.

Both award-winning chefs are aged 36 and curiously Farnan is also married to an eastern European, Ramuna from Lithuania. The pair of them own The Moody Boar, based in another architecturally interesting location, the Palace Demesne, also in Armagh City.

As an aside and between tasty mouthfuls, Farnan says that he proposed to Ramuna out on a boat on a lake in Lithuania. He learned some Lithuanian so he first could ask permission of her father. “He hadn’t a clue what I was talking about.” But it all worked out, Ramuna said, “Taip” - that’s yes in Lithuanian.

The 4 Vicars recently was named at Georgina Campbell’s “casual dining restaurant of the year, 2017” while The Moody Boar is recommended in a number of guides including the Michelin and Georgina guides.

The project, which has the support of Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council and Tourism Northern Ireland, is to create a “hospitality forum” similar to Kinsale’s “Good Food Circle” of ten restaurants. Here Farnan is the enthusiastic one, Reid the more cautious. But both believe it can work.

Farnan studied in Belfast and worked in Ranelagh in Pronto before setting up the successful Priory House restaurant in Benburb in Co Tyrone. It was put on the epicurean map after a visit by Gary and Danielle Lineker for their Northern Exposure TV series.

“It was probably one of the best things that ever happened to us, because all of a sudden we were getting people from Dublin, Belfast, Omagh, Monaghan travelling distances to come to our restaurant, and better still coming back,” said Farnan.

That posed the problem of whether to stay in Benburb or move. A bad winter in 2010-11 when customers couldn’t get to their restaurant prompted the relocation to more populous Armagh and the creation of The Moody Boar.

He says he was “absolutely blown over” by Kinsale and the quality of its fine dining and more importantly by the welcome he received there and how the restaurateurs’ policy, like the Three Musketeers, was all for one and one for all.

Reid did chemistry at Queen’s University in Belfast but didn’t finish his degree. He worked for a while for Belfast celebrity chef Paul Rankin and also studied in Darina Allen’s Ballymaloe cookery school in Cork. “If you get a grounding from the guys in Ballymaloe it stays with you for ever,” he says.

Through the Open University he is part-time also finally completing his chemistry degree: “Food is all chemistry, if a less precise form of chemistry. You are constantly mixing and measuring and adding and heating and cooling. It is exactly the same thing.”

Where possible they buy local produce, so as well as home-produced meat and vegetables you will find fare such as Lough Neagh eels, Comber potatoes, local beers and ciders and variations of the good old Armagh apple tart.

Reid isn’t taken with the current emphasis on cookery competitions and over-elaborate presentation. “It’s about flavour,” he says.

“Kids coming out of college are not focused on that. They are focused on making food look pretty, they are focused on competitions, and running around in a big panic as well. Food, it has to be controlled and flavour-based. Once you put that up you are flying.”

Farnan reckons the top Irish restaurant at the moment is the Michelin-star Ox in Belfast while Reid says that the Mint restaurant run by Dylan McGrath, which was also Michelin-star and closed in 2009, was the best Irish restaurant he ever experienced.

They both say that this project isn’t about Michelin stars but first about developing a variety of top-class restaurants in the general Armagh area that will achieve and maintain high standards. The hospitality forum is supported by Armagh, Banbridge and Craigavon Council so the project applies to restaurants within the confines of the council area. Other restaurants on board include The Yellow Door in Portadown, Groucho’s On The Square in Richill, the Uluru bar and grill in Armagh and the Armagh City Hotel.

The initiative also is about educating local palates. Farnan says when he opened The Moody Boar there were regular requests for off-menu stuffed mushrooms, onion rings and potatoes and/or chips with everything.

“But I’d say, ‘How about onion puree instead of onion rings? Give it a go: put it on the side on a wee dish’. And I’d say 80 per cent of people are happy to try new things, and when they come back they will keep trying the new things.”

They agree that chefs can be introverted, competitive and volatile but Farnan is sure the idea of Armagh and neighbouring towns as a Kinsale-type hospitality centre can and will work: “How are we going to develop if we are not talking together as a group? Chefs are always going to be very individualistic but together you are stronger, you can shout louder and you get further...I am very excited about this.”

Reid also is fully on board while conscious that Rome like Kinsale wasn’t built in a day: “There is no silver bullet here. Armagh needs to pull up its socks. But this is another step on the way. It isn’t yet a foodie destination, but it will happen.”