Apparently this is International Belfast Month, what with the pubs getting a shoutout in the NYT magazine and the restaurant scene enjoying a good tongue bath over to the Independent. But, as usual, my consort and I got there too soon. And it was a very different experience.
This was way back in a rare break in the Troubles, in 1996. We were in London on one of Bob’s corporate boondoggles, photographing banksters on their bonus trip (I think the Ubs met Maggie Thatcher that year), and while he was working, hard, I had lunch with a restaurant critic someone connected me with who insisted we had to make a pilgrimage to the most underrated food city in the UK. “It has a Michelin one-star restaurant!” My mom was born in Belfast, and I’d always been curious, and we’d added a week to the end of our trip for some excursion. So why the hell not?
A couple of days later we were eating little tea sandwiches and orange cake on British Midlands. In that pre-Google era I have no idea how I found our B&B, but I’m pretty sure we reserved via fax and I’m absolutely certain it was like checking into a home for unwed mothers. Monastic would have been an understatement, but it was all of 49 pounds a night. And I remember when we went out to explore that first afternoon we were passed by an armored car with soldiers with rifles hanging off and even under it. Lovely welcome.
Judging by the chicken scratches in my notebook from that trip, we had a bacon and onion tart with gravy(?) and salad at a pub nearby and a Sicilian pizza with olives and anchovies at Villa Italia that night. Apparently we were staying in the comfort zone of the hotel. Or: Wherever you travel you will eat pizza.
My notes and Quicken don’t document this, but I also remember we had quite an experience at the famous Crown Liquor Saloon, with its gaslights and private enclosed booths. I wish I had realized my cranium would eventually become a sieve, because there was a very amusing interaction with a local guy who wound up showing us all the contents of his wallet. Did we buy him a beer? Or six? I know I drank white wine. Probably Jacob’s Creek. Because it was Northern Ireland.
Our B&Breakfast next day was the same as it would be for the rest of the week moving farmhouse to farmhouse as we explored: porridge, eggs, bacon, sausage and grilled tomatoes. My notes don’t show it, but there had to be wheaten bread, too, which was outstanding. (Those were the days when everyone said you could eat well in Britain if you ate breakfast three times a day.)
After that we should not have had room for our reason for going: Lunch at Roscoff, in a sunlit dining room with casually perfect service. This was 1996, remember, and I had duck ravioli with scallions and mushrooms and seared hake with Asian coleslaw and crispy wontons and lemon cheesecake tart with sweet Irish strawberries. Bob cleaned his plate of scallops with lobster spring rolls then was in ecstasy over char-grilled eel with pimentos and salsa verde, followed by pot au caramel with cassis and fruit. I bought both cookbooks the owners, Paul and Jeanne Rankin, had done for the BBC because even then chefs had to have teevee platforms. And I got my 26 pounds’ worth: About once a year I’ll still make the superb warm pasta salad with smoked salmon, lettuce, chives and dill.
Writing this, and reading all the new coverage that never mentions the place, I wondered what happened; apparently the end was not pretty.
Mostly what I remember from that trip was setting out for the graveyard to see if we could find where the grandmother I never met might be buried. Instead we watched boys playing soccer under the eye of more military, in huge ugly watchtowers. And then we decided to go look for Van Morrison’s birthplace. (Two-for-two fail.)
Overall, things may have radically improved, but I’d have to echo James Boswell’s reaction to the Giant’s Causeway: Worth seeing. Not worth traveling to see.
After days of having our bags checked everywhere we went, then after the most invasive security checks at the airport, I also remember boarding that British Midlands flight back to London feeling very grateful to be an American, living in the land of the free, home of the brave. Thanks to the Panchito-enabled Bushwhacking, we are all Belfast now.