Traditional Northern Irish cuisine can finally be showcased to the increasing number of tourists. Tom Vaughan visits a chef in Derry who's tapping into the rich resources of the island
Ask Raymond Moran, head chef at the Beech Hill Country House Hotel, what he thinks of his location near Londonderry in Northern Ireland and he can't help beaming. "Most people don't know how lucky they are to be on this island," he says. "It's unbelievable what's on our doorstep."
After joining Beech Hill as head chef in 2005, following a stint as head chef at the Ramada Da Vinci's hotel in Londonderry and a spot of travelling in Australia, Moran set about returning as much of his menu as possible to produce sourced in Ireland. The task, though, proved easier said than done. "The produce is there but you have to go looking for it," he says.
The lack of restaurants in Northern Ireland during the Troubles meant most produce left the country for the Continent. And now, 10 years after the peace process, suppliers are quite happy to carry on that trend rather than delivering to a local restaurant, even if, as in the case of an organic chicken supplier Moran contacted, they drive straight past the restaurant's door.
The hotel has, for the past 20 years, flown the flag for Irish hospitality, and can count Bill and Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and Ted Kennedy among its guests in recent times. As a result, the menu at the restaurant is designed to showcase Ireland's excellent produce.
The choice in the 80-seat Beech Hill restaurant is large, to cater for the hotel's wide demographic of clientele from British and American tourists to locals. When I visited in February, there were three game options, three meat, five seafood and three vegetarian.
A popular starter is grilled handmade haunch of Finnebrogue estate venison and thyme sausage, which is made by a local butcher, with roast garlic and pistachio - giving the dish a "nuttiness that takes it back where it came from", says Moran - champ, sauté wild woodland mushrooms from a forager in Donnegal, Guinness onions and thyme jus (£6.95).
A risotto of Malin Head crabmeat, Mulroy Bay mussels, garden peas and scallions, with seared hand-dived scallops, caught off the coast of Port Valorge, wrapped in Irish cured bacon (£10) is testament to the bountiful seafood around the Irish coast, and also to Moran's dedication to locally sourced produce - he took three months to source an Irish bacon.
Among the main courses, only the Gressingham duck isn't sourced in Ireland. Cooked slowly to cater for the Irish penchant for well-done meat, after being seared in wild flower honey and crushed peppercorn, it's served with fondant potato and cinnamon jus (£18.95).
The caramelised belly of rare-breed pork, wild flower honey-roasted carrots, champ potatoes with an Armagh orchard apple and parsnip sauce (£16.95) is just shy of being too sweet, while the roasted Irish Sea monkfish with a polenta and curry crust, celeriac purée, seared hand-dived scallops and vanilla bean froth (£17.95) and pan-fried dry-aged Castlerock fillet of beef, shallot purée, sauté wild woodland mushrooms and Black Forest ham with glazed béarnaise and cracked peppercorn sauce (£21.95) prove very popular with the local clientele, whose average spend is around the £35 mark.
The dessert selection makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel and features some long-forgotten classics. Individual baked Alaska (£5.95), with thin, marshmallowy meringue surrounding chocolate ice-cream, is too homely to be found at the fine-dining end of restaurants, but in this case that's no fault. Warm dark chocolate fondant with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice-cream (£5.95) and sticky toffee pudding with toffee sauce and freshly churned fig ice-cream (£5.95) are also perennial favourites.
A lot of the menu is based in old-fashioned cooking because that's what the local population want, says Moran, but he still tries to push them in a more contemporary direction. "I try to do different things with the potatoes, but most of the time you have to do what people want," he says. "Slowly, though, I'd like to educate them. I'm putting out new ideas the whole time. It's just a case of suck it and see."
Also on the menu
• Timbale of North Coast Irish seafood wrapped in wild Lough Foyle oak-smoked salmon with a smoked lemon and chive crème fraîche and boiled quail egg, Jameson whiskey and mustard dressing, £7.95
• Tartlet of spinach, house-smoked Ballylucas chicken with sauté wild woodland mushrooms, shallot purée and glazed béarnaise sauce, £5.95
• Salad of mixed garden leaves, spiced port-poached pear, roasted walnuts, warm crumbled Cashel Blue cheese with clementine and cranberry dressing, £5.95
• Pan-fried Irish salmon with Malin Head lobster, mashed potatoes, confit of cabbage and bacon with smoked lemon and Malin Head crab butter sauce, £16.95
• Armagh orchard apple and pecan pie with double vanilla egg custard and vanilla ice-cream, £5.95
• Trio of chocolate marquise with orange marmalade ice-cream, £5.95
Beech Hill Country House Hotel, 32 Ardmore Road, Londonderry, Northern Ireland BT47 3QP
Tel: 028 7134 9279, www.beech-hill.com