Northern Ireland: Taste for renewal

I LIKE oysters but, unlike Colin Shirlow, I couldn't eat 230 of them in three minutes. Mr Shirlow is the winner of last year's World Oyster Eating competition, held for the 16th time in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland.

A local man, Mr Shirlow's efforts were enough to see off extreme eating competitors from some 14 nations, although he was three oysters short of his personal best, a feat he achieved when he first won the title in 2007.

Interestingly, his closest competitor was Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, a professional competitive eater from the United States. Ms Thomas's records include eating 65 boiled eggs in six minutes and 40 seconds, a statistic made all the more remarkable by the fact Ms Thomas, pre-competition, weighs in at an elfin 100lbs. In previous competitions, Ms Thomas has eaten 552 oysters in ten minutes but could only manage 191 against Mr Shirlow.

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The competition was the high point of the picturesque town's International Oyster Festival. Over the preceding days, there had been a tug o' war, a Canadian open boat race on the lake behind Hillsborough Fort and a fashion show in the festival marquee. Appetites for the eating competition had been sharpened by a Soap Box Derby that transformed the downhill slope of Main Street into a race course marked out with hay bales, which double as crash barriers.

If your memories of soap box carts revolve around the simple contraptions favoured by Oor Wullie then the Hillsborough versions were rather more high tech. Fitted out as jet fighters, Roman chariots and the Batmobile, these babies were hitting speeds of 30mph and were serviced by their own teams of engineers. Watching a banana on wheels hurtle down the street was only slightly less surreal than the disco and barbecue held later that night. It is hard to imagine which memory will stick the longest: the sight of the area's burly young farmers pogoing to Erasure's A Little Respect or that of Mr Shirlow making a second trip to the buffet table.

Not that you need a cast iron stomach and the capacity of a bullock to enjoy Northern Ireland's food scene. Hillsborough's oyster eating competition may be a minority taste, but Belfast's restaurants and bars run from cheap and cheerful pub grub to high-end gastronomic hotspots. With the peace process well and truly established, Belfast is not just picking itself up and dusting itself down; the city is booming, not least in terms of fine dining restaurants.

One of the city's top spots is Deanes on Howard Street. The flagship of Michael Deane's mini-empire of four Belfast outlets, it mixes a coolly simple dcor with clever combinations of flavours. A roast belly of saddle back pork came with langoustine, braised white beans and black pudding cut with apple. Delicately presented but roaring with flavour, it is the sort of food that would put a smile on the most stern of Ulster faces. At 17.50 for a two-course lunch, it is also a top-dollar meal at a credit-crunch price.

Blessed with the same strident friendliness as Glasgow, Belfast tends not to do reverential in even its most fantoosh restaurants but The Ginger Bistro still offers a more informal setting than Deanes. Local ingredients feature prominently on the menu but they are often given a globe-trotting spin. This means that pan roast of local lamb rump might come with slow-cooked chilli potatoes and a sweet pepper, haricot and tomato ragu, while roast hake is paired with a green vegetable curry.

Should you be stuck for choice, just ask a neighbouring table for a recommendation. We fell into conversation with a birthday party going on next door and left plied with several slices of birthday cake and enough enthusiastic travel itinerary and pub crawl suggestions to fill several weeks.

Belfast's extremely lively nightlife is not always conducive to a hearty breakfast but no trip to Northern Ireland would really be complete without starting at least one day with an Ulster Fry. England counts the full English as one of their defining dishes, just as, to a lesser extent, does Scotland, but few people tackle the frying pan in the morning with quite as much gusto as the Northern Irish. In Belfast, we stayed in Ten Square, a former linen warehouse in the very centre of town. A swish little hotel, it shows off its boutique character through its low-lit corridors, contemporary art and very fashionable restaurant bar. Chic as it is, Ten Square does the sort of belt-testing breakfast that would make the most unreconstructed farmer's son weep with gratitude before striding out for a day wrangling cattle. I wouldn't bet on it but I suspect that even the doughty Mr Shirlow couldn't eat two of them.

Having polished off the Ulster Fry, St George's Market is a must-see for the food obsessed. The area in which the market is built used to be known as the Seven Smells on account of the gas works, bakery, slaughterhouse, fish market, soap factory, cattle market and Lagan Slob or mud flat, which once identified the area. These days, the characteristic aromas are much more likely to be of tray bakes and organic bacon baps. The market runs every Friday and Saturday morning and is the place to go if you want cooked crab claws, sourdough cobs, a wheel of Ardrahan cheese or a bag of fresh seaweed. Having bought pounds of Gubbeen, Durrus and Cashel Blue cheese, it was only luggage considerations that stopped me bringing home a couple of yards of McWhinney's sausages, though I was sorely tempted by their advertising slogan: over 115 years of sausage devotion.

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Obviously, there is a lot more to Belfast than the pleasures of the nosebag. The city is gearing up for the centenary of the launch of the Titanic in 2012. Built in the city's Harland and Wolff shipyards, locals wryly remark that there was nothing wrong with the ship when they waved it off. In her time, the Titanic was the largest movable, man-made object in the world. Now the Titanic Quarter is the largest waterfront development in Europe, with some 185 acres of former dockyard being converted into homes, shops, hotels and a marina. The Titanic's dry dock and the pump house which served it remain as reminders of Belfast's industrial heritage.

The city's more recent past has proved fertile for a nascent tourist service built around the Troubles. Not everybody will find the idea of touring the Shankhill or Falls roads an attractive prospect, but it's a good way to gain some insight into the background of the events which did much to shape Belfast from 1970 until the Good Friday Agreement.

It would be ridiculous to say that Michael Deane's tuna carpaccio is about to overtake the paramilitary murals as a recognisable symbol of Belfast but it would be equally ludicrous not to recognise the growing air of confidence about the city. Belfast has had a checkered past but has its eye on a vibrant future; one it can head towards with a very happy stomach.


How to get there

• Flybe runs flights to Belfast from Edinburgh. Return prices from 45. (0871 700 2000,


• Rooms at Ten Square, 10 Donegall Square South, Belfast start at 120 (028 9024 1001,

• Rooms at Dunhill Cottage B&B, 47 Carnreagh, Hillsborough, County Down start at 40. (028 9268 3024,


• For further information on Northern Ireland visit

• Scotsman Reader Holidays ( offer alternative breaks to Northern Ireland.