County Down Ireland food tour: Where to sample a traditional Irish meal

Take four genuine Irish potatoes. Peel then mash them with one tablespoon of melted butter. Add a pinch of salt and four tablespoons of soda flour. Pummel them into fat, circular cakes.

Then cook over a flame on a griddle that dates back at least three generations.

Ruth Hanna is showing us how to make a traditional Irish potato bread, usually served as part of a full Irish breakfast.

Tracey Jeffrey, our Northern Irish culinary guide, has brought us here to Hanna's Close, a cluster of thatched houses – a clachan in Irish – to sample a traditional Irish meal.

The houses were first settled in 1640 and we're having lunch in "Peggy's cottage". Peggy lived here for all but the last few years of her life in the later part of the 20th century, with no running water, no inside loo. She survived through her needlework and the vegetable gardens and fruit trees on the property.

Her cottage is barely changed, except for the inside loo and "new" kitchen added in the 1997 restoration.

Ruth's friend, Lily Annett, has already served us lunch on the wooden table in the main room. The home-made soda bread and succulent butter is a meal in itself and is somehow made even tastier when Lily says she can name the cow it came from.

But there was more to come. Before we finish we are presented with "Thursday soup" ("whatever's left in the pantry – in this case, potatoes, lovage, and sorrel"), followed by freshly caught haddock purchased that morning from Kilkeen harbour, one of Ireland's best fishing ports just 10 minutes' drive away.

After a desert of rhubarb crumble made from fresh rhubarb from the garden and rhubarb ice-cream made with local Clandebouy yoghurt, Hanna challenges our Australian/New Zealand party to a "great Irish fry-off".

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Next Jeffrey takes our group, comprising three female vegetarians and me, to Castlescreen Farm, which is celebrated for its Dexter cattle. The farm's motto is "wee cows, big beef" and we see why as soon as we arrive. The Dexter are the dwarf-looking ones that come with natural marbling.

Owner Damien Tumelty and his wife Jackie introduce us to his prize bull, Charlie, who was named the Dexter champion at the largest agricultural show in Ireland in 2015.

Don't tell Charlie, but he's half the size of a "normal" bull. His latest progeny is just a week old and protected by his dutiful mother. "Our cattle is 100 per cent grass-fed," Tumelty says, to a resounding chorus of "aah!" from my vegetarian colleagues.

Then he leads us to the steaks, burgers and sausages that come from cattle he's prepared earlier.

His "vegetable rolls" aren't vegetarian, he warns us, but "my Dexters are … they only eat grass".

Jeffrey launched her business as a hands-on cooking session, making different Irish breads at her 18th-century thatched home on the shores of Strangford Lough (the largest inland sea in the British Isles).

It's still one of her most requested activities, but she soon realised that Northern Ireland – and County Down in particular – has some of the best natural produce and ingredients in northern Europe. So NI Food Tours was born.

Now, Jeffery's list of foodie experiences includes an oyster and mussel farm, a cider operation that makes brews for Fortnum and Masons, a whiskey/gin/rum distillery and a chocolate factory.

Also on our agenda is a visit to the home of Harnett's Oils at Waringstown, a former flax farm that used to supply Belfast's linen industry. Today Jane Harnett has pioneered the switch to oilseeds: rape, linseed, hemp and sunflower.

"Our fields are worthy of a Van Gogh painting when the crops are in flower," Harnett says. Their oils, cold-pressed and bottled on site, have won multiple awards and are used by leading Irish restaurants. So dip your soda bread into the four rape seed oils (basil, hot chilli and garlic, lemon and thyme or orange and rosemary) before deciding which one to take home. Each one, Harnett insists, is full of Omega goodness.

But back to that Irish potato bread.

You'll need to knead the potato dough into a flat, frying pan-shaped pancake. Then divide it into four quarters and fry it in a little butter over an open hearth (as Peggy would have done), or a moderately heated gas flame.

Guess what? It's vegetarian – and delicious.

TRIP NOTES

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Cathay Pacific and Tourism Ireland.

MORE

ireland.com

FLY

Cathay Pacific flies from Australia to Dublin four times a week, via Hong Kong. See cathaypacific.com County Down is a two-hour car journey from Dublin airport.

STAY

There are 10 traditional cottages for rent at Hanna's Close. See mournecountrycottages.com

TOUR

NI Food Tours. See NIFoodtours.com

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