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Northern Ireland's Food Heartland

With award-wining restaurants, gastro pubs and cafés and some of the finest artisan producers on the island of Ireland, plus two of Northern Ireland’s three PGIs (Protected Geographical Indicators) in Bramley apples and Lough Neagh eels, it’s no exaggeration to describe Armagh as the beating heart of Northern Ireland’s burgeoning food scene.

In a delightful Georgian terraced house next to the ancient St Patrick’s (COI) Cathedral, 4 Vicars is located right at the heart of Armagh’s unique heritage. Not only that but from its idyllic garden terrace, diners can enjoy views across the city to the Navan Fort, home to ancient kings and queens of Ulster, Celtic goddesses and the inspirational myths of the Ulster Cycle.

But, for all that, 4 Vicars is not about the past but the future. Its award-winning chef/owner Gareth Reid, who opened the restaurant back in 2014 with wife Kasia, is renowned for his creativity, flair and foresight. A member of the Armagh Food Heartland, he is one of several chefs and many local producers who are developing Armagh into a gourmet food hub to match any on the island of Ireland.

“The most important thing to me is flavour,” Gareth says, “and that means having the best produce to work with. The produce we use is sourced because it’s good, in some cases the very best, not just because it’s local. But the fact it is sourced from nearby also helps. For instance, the young carrots, turnips and salad leaves we get from the Nicholsons, just a few miles away, are so fresh, tender and flavoursome, we barely have any work to do with them.”

A county Armagh man, Gareth has travelled the globe as a chef, absorbing influences from local cuisines as diverse as France and the Bahamas. Nearer home, he has worked in Belfast with Paul Rankin, a pioneer of the city’s food renaissance. Gareth also studied with Darina Allen at her cookery school in Ballymaloe, in east Cork, whose emphasis on sourcing top local produce reflects his own approach.

Gareth was also head chef at the world famous Delphi Lodge. It was at the hotel and restaurant, housed in a remote 1830s building beneath Connemara’s tallest mountain, that he met his wife, Polish born Kasia, who was running the front of house service there.

As a member of the Food Heartland, Gareth regularly meets new local artisan suppliers. His fish and seafood, a major focus of the 4 Vicars menu, is sourced by Hans Cousins, who brings wonderful fresh fish and seafood like scallops directly from Kilkeel, either from his own boats or from other local fishermen.

Gareth also serves unique pollan from Lough Neagh, recently awarded special status as “Protected Designation of Origin (PDO)” by the European Commission.

Fresh salad leaves and vegetables come from John and Jane Nicholson, who grow all kinds of wonderful produce in the beautiful gardens of Crannagael House, where the first Bramley seeds in Armagh were grown.

Vinegars come from local company Burren Balsamics and rapeseed oils from Jane Harnett at Waringstown. Gareth doesn’t even use olive oil anymore. Barnhill Farm provide their wonderful apple juices and, with McIvors Cider Company, their ciders.

“The most important thing to me is flavour,” Gareth says, “and that means having the best produce to work with. The produce we use is sourced because it’s good, in some cases the very best, not just because it’s local. But the fact it is sourced from nearby also helps. For instance, the young carrots, turnips and salad leaves we get from the Nicholsons, just a few miles away, are so fresh, tender and flavoursome, we barely have any work to do with them.”