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Food and Cider Festival Ambassadors

John Whyte

Sushi with an Armagh twist, a masterclass in Mediterranean cooking and a retox brunch with jazz – it takes a versatile chef to mastermind such a diverse range of foodie events. Just as well John Whyte, head chef at the Armagh City Hotel, has versatility in his DNA.

Voted ‘Hotel Chef of the Year’ at the 2019 Institute of Hospitality John will be putting a local stamp on the sushi masterclass using superb locally grown wasabi (Japanese horseradish used in the paste that accompanies sushi), local fish, such as smoked Lough Neagh eel and pollan, and Northern Irish Dulse (seaweed) mixed with Japanese Nori seaweed. Long Meadow Apple Cider Vinegar will be used with rice wine vinegar to prepare the sushi rice.

On the Saturday Armagh goes Italian as John hosts a three-hour Mediterranean masterclass, making pastas and raviolis and barbecuing marinated steaks. A classic Italian tiramisu will complete the meal; all cooked on barbecues on the balcony and cookery school stations in the adjoining Friary Restaurant.

For John, a long-time member of the Food Heartland, as well as Taste of Ulster, the superb local produce is a cornerstone of all the menus he prepares at the Hotel.  “When I am training the young chefs just out of college I want them to put a face to the people who supply us with this fabulous food,” he says. “The visitors from overseas who stay with us want to taste local culture, not the food they are used to at home, so I try to instil in my chefs how important it is we use our fantastic local produce and how proud they should be of it.”

Long Meadow Cider Company

There are few more beautiful places to be than the famous apple orchards of Armagh as harvest season begins. And if you’re of an artistic bent, nowhere more inspirational either. That is the thinking behind a series of special events at the Long Meadow Cider Company orchards during the festival. These include the Orchard Floral Academies and demonstration, Art in the Orchard and Cidery tours.

One of the Armagh craft cider pioneers, Pat McKeever runs the multi-award winning Long Meadow Cider Company. His father Peter began the family apple business some 60 years ago with his brothers, supplying cider makers with their apples. In 2012, Pat, along with wife Catherine and son Peter decided to use those (largely Bramley) apples to make their own, now highly acclaimed, cider.

Using a traditional process, they pick the apples in September and October, pressing within 48 hours to preserve the flavour. The fermentation, which takes place over the winter months, is completely natural and, apart from a champagne yeast, only apples are used in the whole process.

Long Meadow (the name of their farm) produces six delicious varieties of cider, as well as wonderful still and sparkling apple juice and their increasingly popular apple cider vinegar. Indeed viewing the apple cider vinegar fermenting room has now become a favourite stage of their growing orchard tours.

Tours of the orchards and cider making process are now regular events at Long Meadow, with visitors coming from all over the world to view how the renowned craft ciders of Armagh are created. They also get a chance to sample some of the company’s ciders, which range from mature Oak Aged Cider to the newest, Berry Blast.

John Mathers, Newforge House

You can be certain that any meal at the 5 Star Newforge House, close to the village of Magheralin, will be special. John Mathers, who runs this multi – award winning Georgian country house (in his family for nearly two centuries) with wife Louise, is an award-winning chef with a passion for the finest local produce.

John learned the chef’s art with Roisin Hendron and Simon Dougan at the Yellow Door in Gilford in the 1990s, before he and Louise renovated the beautiful house in which he grew up. Sensitively restored with elegant period furniture and family antiques, its six bedrooms are named after the wives from each generation of the family. Louise makes desserts, as well as delicious traybakes, cakes and biscuits for their afternoon teas. John cooks dinner for residents as well as their famous breakfasts, with freshly baked breads.

The tasting night will begin with an Appletini cocktail or glass of McIvor’s cider in the period splendour of the drawing room. If the weather allows you will have time to wander the ample vegetable gardens and join the chickens on a tour of the orchard.

The 6-course menu itself will be a showcase for the area’s renowned local produce. The meal will reflect the joys of harvest time and the dessert will celebrate the rich local tradition of Armagh Bramley Apple baking.

The cheeseboard will be exclusively Irish, including Dean Wright’s wickedly indulgent Ballylisk cheeses from Portadown. Herbs and vegetables will have made the short journey from John’s garden to the kitchen. He can proudly claim that nearly everything he cooks will come from the gardens or local artisan producers.

“Irish country house cooking should be about great produce, simply cooked. It is part of our DNA here that we not only source the best ingredients from local suppliers but make the most of our own resources here. We have our own chickens, for instance, and the guests love to feed them and know where their eggs come from.”

Fiona Chapman
The Red Bus Company

It promises to be a magical day and one which will expand your culinary skill sets in the most exciting ways! The Red Bus Company’s Fiona Chapman’s masterclass on Cooking with Fire takes place in her garden in the beautiful setting of Gosford Forest Park, not far from Armagh City.

As well as the visual theatre of the fire pit this is a great opportunity to learn various methods of outdoor cooking, make the most of the wonderful local produce and enjoy the unbeatable taste of barbecued meats.

Having the best meats is just part of the story; one of the most important skills to be learned on the day is how to cook the perfect steak. The day is not just for carnivores though, you will also learn how to clay bake fish in the fire pit and make various rubs and sauces.

A central part of the masterclass will be On the Hoof, the Red Bus Company’s famous wood-fired smoker. This is a Second World War army water tank Fiona’s son Rory has converted into a meat smoker, the first of its kind in Ireland. Used in many of the events they host, a range of meats are slowly cooked (up to 14 hours) over native timbers, such as applewood, to create the tenderest result.

An accomplished baker, inspired by her grandmother’s recipes, Fiona is a member of the Chef’s Forum of the Food Heartland. “While our Red Bus, a 1965 London Routemaster, known as Ruby may have been restored and refitted to offer a unique and moveable space for creative events what will never change is the quality of the local produce we serve.”

Joyce Brownless – Blackwell House, Scarva

It took Joyce and Steve Brownless two years to make Blackwell House a multi award-winning guesthouse (the latest is Guesthouse of the Year 2019 in the Georgina Campbell Awards). It is set in idyllic countryside not far from the historic village of Scarva.

Restoring a beautiful but somewhat down at heels country house into one of Northern Ireland’s most luxurious and hospitable guesthouses takes dedication and passion.

That commitment to excellence extends to every facet of their business like the wonderful breakfasts including delights like wheaten bread made with Bramley apples and cider from the Armagh Cider Company.

You will get a feel for the Blackwell House ethos at both The Cook & The Gardener event, hosted at Crannagael House and at the Kitchen Cookery School hosted at Blackwell House, where Joyce, a renowned cook, will be sharing her favourite dinner party menu with participants. After tea and coffee with their famous shortbread, Joyce will take guests on a tour of the vegetable gardens and greenhouse to choose ingredients for the meal.

Joyce says, “We welcome people from all over the world, from Russia to Japan and the US. They all tell us they can’t get this quality of produce at home.”

Crannagael House and The Yellow Door

Armagh, the ‘Orchard County’, is world renowned as the home of the finest Bramley apples and, in recent years, superb craft ciders. But where did it all begin? Four exciting events during the festival will take you to the birth of the legend; Georgian Crannagael House, three miles outside Loughgall.

Back in 1884, Henry Joseph Nicholson from Crannagael House bought 60 Bramley seedling trees to plant here. He bought them from Henry Merryweather in Nottingham, the man who developed the Bramley. The ideal conditions encouraged the planting of other local orchards and the rest is history.

Henry’s great grandson John Nicholson and wife Jane have turned the family house into a much sought after self-catering guesthouse, still with extensive Armagh Bramley apple orchards.

Pairing up for Food and Cider Festival, Simon Dougan and his multi-award winning team bring Wine V Cider to the venue on Friday night. While Alex Graffard from Henri Champlaiu in Burgundy will pair local ciders and fine wines with the food, Simon will create five courses of (not so) small plates, all featuring wonderful local produce. You judge what drink works best with each course.

The following night, Simon will be cooking for the Bramley Apple Banquet, a five course culinary epic, again accompanied by fine wines and local ciders and again enjoyed in luxury tepees.

Brought up in the Armagh countryside, the baking tradition he inherited from his grandmothers is now reflected in the many breads for which the Yellow Door Deli in Portadown is famous. Just last year they picked up three prizes in the World Bread Awards.

Needless to say the famous Armagh Bramley Apple is a key ingredient in several Yellow Door products. Simon makes various cakes and pastries featuring the Armagh Bramley, and uses them in granitas and sorbets as well as apple purees to accompany their own famous dry cure bacon and sausages from Joe Quail of Banbridge.

Barry Smyth

It promises to be one of the most unique nights of gourmet dining you’ll ever enjoy and top chef Barry Smyth will be at the heart of it.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landing on the moon, the Armagh Planetarium will host a cosmically inspired dinner, along with stylish cocktail and fine wines, served in a style befitting space travel!  Barry doesn’t want to spoil the surprises on the night, but the Michelin starred chef has promised it will be a night food lovers will not forget!

Armagh man Barry first tasted success at Roscoff, the internationally renowned restaurant of Belfast food renaissance pioneer Paul Rankin back in the early 90s. Here he learned the value of using the best local produce. He took that a step further at the restaurant, The Oriel he opened in Gilford in 1999. At the Oriel he commissioned various producers to grow vegetables especially for the restaurant and championed local produce.

The word spread quickly and the small village of Gilford suddenly became an important foodie destination. Awarded the highly coveted Michelin Star in 2004 and 2005, something, which remains one of Northern Ireland’s most remarkable culinary achievements.

“I have always been into flavour, “Barry says, “but when I was younger I was attracted by more complex flavours. As you get older, you develop a taste for simpler flavours and become aware of the power of fresh ingredients.  I love the freedom of exploring flavours with such wonderful produce.”

Armagh Cider Company and Mervyn Steenson, Groucho’s on The Square

The Troughton family have been growing apples in the orchards of 18th century Ballinteggart House since 1898 and Phillip and his wife Helen now have over 80 acres in production, helping to create a much lauded award-winning artisan cider renaissance in the area.

As at last year’s festival the Troughton’s will be launching their new Madden’s Orchard Bramble Cider, made with damson plums from their own orchards. Their cider and apple juice range will be available to purchase at the Sundown and Urban Orchard Markets during the festival.

The Cider Discovery Dinner will be held in the early 17th century Meeting House in the Cider Company’s grounds. Having held many uses over the years, it has now been transformed into a tasting venue.  Each course as created by Mervyn Steenson, head chef at Richhill gastro pub Groucho’s on The Square, will be paired with one of the Armagh Cider Company’s acclaimed ciders. Bill Bradshaw, cider expert will lead the evening and discuss the differences in ciders from around the globe, from England’s West Country to Germany, Spain and beyond.

Mervyn’s devotion to excellence has resulted in a host of awards over the years. Last year Groucho’s was awarded ‘Armagh Pub of the Year’ in the ‘Restaurant Awards’. “My philosophy is that the better the ingredients, the less you need to do with them in the kitchen. Most of the produce we use is sourced from within four or five miles of the restaurant. That includes specialities of the area, like the beautiful smoked Lough Neagh pollan, just as much as the fabulous craft ciders of Armagh.”

Joe Quail, Quails Fine Foods

If you are lucky enough to get tickets for this year’s Beef Baron’s Dinner, you can now be assured your taste buds in are in good company. Quail’s Limousin herd from which they obtain their famous beef, has recently won the Best Large Herd (out of over 500 herds!) in Northern Ireland. All their hindquarter beef is dry-aged in their Himalayan Salt Chamber for a minimum of 28 days to ensure extra tenderness and flavour. Products like their beef cheek, homemade gourmet steak burger, and steak burger, all recent Great Taste winners, benefit from this process.

Matthew Alexander Quail founded the family butchers in Banbridge in 1898. Moving to a 100-acre farm at Tullyear, just east of Banbridge, the family still lives and rears many of the animals there, which provide their meats. Matthew’s son Joe followed in the business and then his son Jim who introduced the high quality, fine boned Limousin cattle that truly made the family name. Jim’s wife Brydlyn decided this wonderful source of food should provide the core of a family deli, passing it on to their son Joe, now the fourth generation operating the business.

Joes says, “We can stand by the provenance and quality of every animal we use. Apart from our own animals, we source only from local farmers we know well. Then it’s down to our team of highly skilled artisans – butchers, deli staff and cooks, many of whom have been with us for decades, who are passionate about their craft.”