Mcmeekins by c heaney

Helping the peace with Piece


Piece wants to present the new face of Northern Ireland: youthful, fun and creative. The photo by Christopher Heaney is of Patrick and Tom McMeekin of Downpatrick, Co. Down.

By Jenny Holland
letters@irishecho.com

Some of my fondest memories are of the comfort of Belfast food. On visits from New York, where I lived, I remember going to sleep at night relishing the prospect of breakfast delivered from the bread van, a sweet sticky coconut bun with jam at the centre, and a pot of strong sweet tea made for me by my father. My granny’s stew, which seemed to be constantly bubbling on the stove, was served with crusty white baps generously slathered with creamy butter.

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That was the 1980s, and normal life in Northern Ireland was circumscribed by men with guns. Food was a respite, but it was not the story.

That story has changed radically. Twenty years after the peace process took root, Northern Ireland food culture – a phrase that would have raised eyebrows in the past – is having a moment.

The reality now is that there is a small but energetic market in food production, service and tourism that is not being addressed in the wider story about Northern Ireland. The growers, makers, cooks and vendors here in Northern Ireland realize their worth, as do some of the top chefs in bigger, more prestigious markets like London or Dublin, but their story is not being told in a comprehensive way. The quality here is worthy of greater attention.

This is both a market opportunity and a journalistic one. Piece aims to promote both. Howard Hastings, whose family owns landmark Northern Irish hotels like the Europa in Belfast and the Slieve Donard in Newcastle, Co. Down, said “We are underselling what we are good at.”

The consensus on the ground here is that it is time for a new story. Piece hopes to provide it, in the form of an online magazine that will promote a new Northern Ireland to the rest of the world; a place where small scale agriculture, vibrant cultural events and beautiful natural landscapes provide visitors and residents with truly memorable experiences.

In keeping with the do-it-yourself maker attitude we find among diverse walks of life here, we are fundraising for Piece through crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. The response has been positive and has ranged from £5 contributions from budding local photographers to £1,500 from donors who see Piece as an exciting and viable business opportunity. We have until May 2 to hit our target of £7,500. (https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/707208858/piece-ni)

Piece will tell the story of Northern Ireland and the three Republic of Ireland counties that made up the original Ulster, Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan. This is not a decision made to promote a nationalist or republican agenda, because Piece wants to transcend the old narratives of unity, be they with the Republic or the United Kingdom. The decision to base our coverage on a 9 county Ulster stems from a simple market calculation: including them allows us to tell more stories about the good people who work and live and make, regardless of which side of the border they reside. That is emblematic of the Piece mission.

Of course, Irish and British food have been the butt of jokes for many a year. But an interesting case study is that of Scandinavia, which had no food culture to speak of. By scaling back to basics, promoting ingredients found in the landscape, created one of the most prestigious food movements in the world, led by Rene Redzepi of Noma.

In Northern Ireland we are starting from a far stronger position. Methods of animal rearing that are considered boutique or highly special elsewhere, such as grass fed beef, are just the norm here. Before “farm to table” became trendy in Brooklyn, it was simply a way of life in Broughshane, Co. Antrim.

Of course divisions still exist. Sometimes those divisions dominate. The community tensions that simmer below the surface cannot be wished away, but unless we start telling a different story, one that binds us together over the universal bonds of food and hospitality, how will we ever truly move forward?