Caught Red Handed
The first time I ever visited Northern Ireland was in 1996. I had come down the Mull of Kintyre by bus, and caught the now defunct ferry from Cambelltown to Ballycastle on the Antrim Coast. England were playing Colombia in the World Cup, which was showing live in the ferry’s bar, but the scenery on the voyage was so (insert visual superlative here) that I couldn’t settle to watch the game, but spent my time on deck watching as the boat slipped between the Mull of Kintyre and Sanda Island, and out into the open sea. I watched the as lighthouses flashed their warnings from Northern Ireland, watched as we passed the low end of the L that is Rathlin Island, and marvelled as the ferry manoevered into Ballycastle‘s tiny ro/ro quay. I’ve always loved islands, so I hoped one day that I could visit both Sanda and Rathlin one day.
A few weeks ago, I got my chance to visit one of them at least. Rathlin lies six miles or so off the North Antrim coast (best known for the Giant’s Causeway and Bushmills whiskey). There are 96 people who live on Rathlin, and a meausarable percentage of them are first class seafood chefs. Of course, there is nothing much to do on islands, so on arrival we took a walk towards one of the lighthouses, before heading back to The Manor House, where seafood does not come fresher. The restaurants own fishing boat is moored in the tiny harbour. On checking in, the co-owner asked us if we wanted to order lobster for dinner, because if they did, could they have a bit of notice, as they kept the lobsters alive in a cage in the sea? My Companion gave notice…
I had a superb crab bisque, followed by plaice stuffed with more Rathlin crab; my Companion’s lobster was everything you might imagine, and her starter was the freshest possible mackerel with crispy skin. The next day we accidentally went on holiday to the RSPB site at the high end of the island; on the return trip we got off a few stops early to watch seals kipping in the bay, and walked round to Emma’s Chip Ahoy, an old chip van which sells quite astoundingly fresh fish, often caught by Emma herself from her Dad’s boat.
Well and good. Seafood cookery in Northern Ireland is alive and kicking. A few days later we drove down the Ards peninsula to the fishing village of Portavogie, to The Quays Restaurant, which is right beside the fishing harbour. Although the chef at The Quays comes up with innovative fish dishes, really there is only one thing you can have, which is battered haddock, chips and minted mushy peas. They are the best fish and chips I’ve ever had; and I’ve been to The Magpie in Whitby, where you have to queue round the corner to get in. At The Quays, there are no queues, just fabulous fish and chips and a (insert new visual superlative here) view over the beach, which is covered in scallop shells.
But, you see, this is Northern Ireland. As you drive into Portavogie, the first thing you notice are the curbstones painted red white and blue; the Unionist flags flying from flag poles mounted on all of the houses; the loyalist murals, and the Red Hand of Ulster painted on the road, with the inevitable motto, ‘No Surrender.’ If you’re a Catholic wanting to taste the finest fish and chips anywhere on Earth, you’re going to think twice before coming to Portavogie of a Friday night. Here, even fish can be sectarian.