AFTER such a difficult year and a bit, I, for one, am long overdue a good holiday … but unfortunately that is not an option for many of us just now.
Rather than being a negative, however, this has actually given us an opportunity to explore and experience the wonders that are on offer on our own doorstep – especially with the glorious weather we have had recently.
I had the great privilege of being invited to enjoy a wonderful day out recently to celebrate the launch of the Lough Neagh Artisans recipe book.
This book comprises of 22 recipes made using local artisan produce from around Lough Neagh, put together by Bronagh Duffin of Bakehouse NI.
I made my way to The Bakehouse, which is just outside Bellaghy, and received a warm welcome from Bronagh, a theatre nurse by profession, who has pursued her passion for cooking and baking to set up the most amazing ‘bakehouse’ behind her beautiful home.
It is spacious, very well equipped and exquisitely decorated to create a warm and welcoming atmosphere. I had no idea what was in store, but I loved the place from the off!
After being introduced to Bronagh’s assistant for the morning, Joanne Morgan (a former teacher who also has pursued her own interests, becoming a Nurture Teacher, Reiki Master teacher and now offering Havening via thebraingeek.co.uk) and my companions for the day, food bloggers Hama Davidson O’Reilly (aka Indian Blondee) and Lynne Crowther (aka Eating Ideas) and enjoying a great cup of coffee and one of Bronagh’s fabulous scones, Bronagh set each of us up at a bench with bowls and ingredients in front of us… We were baking Lemon Drizzle cakes!
Despite my Food Science background and having been Quality Control manager and Operations manager in a bakery for some years, I haven’t baked anything for a long time – too many carbs – but due to the setting and the company, I was quite excited by the prospect.
I followed Bronagh’s guidance and mixed the ingredients together, placed the mixture into the prepared baking tin and put it into the oven. While it was baking, we embarked on the next step of our adventure – foraging for elderflowers.
I am fascinated by foraging, but I must admit I am scared of picking something poisonous. We followed Bronagh a short distance down the road, where she showed us elder trees in full bloom. We gathered some of the creamy-coloured flowers before returning to the bakehouse.
Bronagh proceeded to tell us how to make elderflower cordial, with water, sugar and lemons, which was remarkably straightforward.
She then instructed us on how to make the ‘drizzle’ for our Lemon Drizzle cakes, which was a mixture of icing sugar, water, freshly squeezed lemon juice and some elderflower cordial.
By that point, the cakes were ready to come out of the oven and we were able to drizzle them and decorate with sugar.
Bronagh and Joanne very kindly packed up our cakes and the elderflower cordial for us to take home and also gave us each a goody bag with a copy of the recipe book and a few treats from other Lough Neagh artisans.
Bronagh offers a variety of cooking classes, including Mexican, Indian, Italian and Middle Eastern, as well as afternoon teas, cake decorating and foraging, such as ‘digging for gin’.
She has set up a wonderful website at www.bakehouseni.com, where she shares her passion for food and gives details on the courses available.
Reluctantly, I left Bronagh’s bakehouse and followed my companions to our next stop – Lough Neagh.
We parked beside the Lock Keeper’s Cottage, Toome, where we met up with Eimear Kearney of Lough Neagh Tours. A short walk brought us to a quay, where we were introduced to husband and wife team Gary McErlain and Anne-Marie McStocker – Lough Neagh fishermen who have diversified into running boat tours on the lough.
After donning life jackets we boarded the tour boat and set off along Toome Canal towards the lough itself.
Anne-Marie, who is also a secondary school English teacher, explained that they started off tours around the edge of the lough, then decided to do tours on the water as well.
They bought the tour boat as a shell, just over two years ago, and Gary set about building it into what they required. It was ready last April, but then Covid hit…
Gary then gave us an overview of the fishing on the 154 square miles that is Lough Neagh, which is for eels and pollan. Lough Neagh eels are not farmed, they are a wild resource and there is a very limited market for them locally. In fact, 90 per cent of eels are exported, mainly to the Netherlands and Germany – some also went to London, but interestingly, that has stopped due to Brexit!
The life cycle of the eels is quite incredible, magical might even be a better word, as when they reach a certain age they travel 3,000 miles to the Bermuda Triangle to spawn. Eels may be ancient creatures, but they are very modern in that they decide what gender to be!
Once spawned, the young eels then make another epic journey, across all those miles to get to Lough Neagh.
Pollan is unique to Ireland and has a special European food designation – ‘PDO’ (protected designation of origin) 2018.
Pollan are a legacy of the last Ice Age and can cope with colder climates than other fish.
One thing I found very interesting is that Lough Neagh fish are 30 per cent higher in Omega 3 oils than other fish, due to the Lough Neagh flies. The flies have an oil sack, which the fish eat and it enhances their own natural oil levels.
Gary is a seventh generation fisherman and explained how important fishing history and culture is around the lough.
The future is worrying, as the younger generation don’t want to do the late nights and early mornings required. I do hope the next generation see the value of the Lough Neagh fishing industry and don’t allow it to be lost.
I thoroughly enjoyed our educational boat tour on what was a lovely sunny afternoon. It highlighted the beauty of the surroundings right here on our doorstep and that there are lots of adventures we can have while supporting local people. It has also made me curious about both eel and pollan, neither of which I have ever tasted…
Gary and Anne-Marie are starting a new tour, which incorporates the poetry of well-known local wordsmith, Seamus Heaney.
n More information on Lough Neagh Stories boat tours can be found at www.loughneaghsstories.com