In this installment of her Eat Ireland column, Deputy Editor Jocelyn Doyle heads “up north” to discover why an Armagh apple a day is a real treat.
In 1809, a girl named Mary Ann Brailsford planted some apple pips in her garden in Nottinghamshire, some years before a Matthew Bramley bought her cottage. In 1856, a local nurseryman, Henry Merryweather, asked Bramley’s permission to cultivate cuttings from the tree, and Bramley agreed on the rather self-serving condition that the apples be named after him. Almost 30 years later, a Mr. Nicholson of Crannagael House in Loughgall bought 60 Bramley seedlings from Merryweather and introduced them to County Armagh. The story of Armagh Bramleys took root at Crannagael and has grown stronger ever since, so it’s only fitting that our apple-inspired whirlwind tour of the county begins on the same soil.
Crannagael House is a Georgian beauty nestled amongst woodlands, orchards and colourful greenhouses, still owned by the same Nicholson family who brought Ireland the Bramley. During the Armagh Food and Cider Festival, visitors were given an exclusive opportunity to dine in these orchards on a night filled with food, cider and music. When we arrive, a teepee stands on the lawn, a glimpse of the fire crackling within offering a welcome respite from the damp grey day. The inside of the tent is ringed with local producers eager to show off their foods, and we have time to wander around and meet all of them in between being gently plied with a selection of local breakfast treats. Everything we sample is full of flavour, from the range of exceptional Burren Balsamics to the family-run, high-quality Hartnett’s Oils, but it’s the apple juices and ciders that cause the most excitement amongst the group.
I’ve never been a cider drinker, having long been deterred by a market saturated with sickly-sweet, characterless options. As craft beers have exploded in popularity, bringing a range of new, interesting options into the limelight and pushing bland lagers to one side, I’ve been keeping an eye out for the same effect in Irish ciders. It’s no surprise that Armagh is ahead of the game, with a history of apple growing stretching back to at least the 12th century and still known as Ireland’s Orchard County. Thanks to a unique microclimate, Armagh Bramley apples are distinctive from any others and noticeably more tart than those grown in the UK. In fact, they’re so special that they’ve earned PGI status within the EU, meaning that no other apples may legally be labelled as Armagh Bramleys.
We sample several locally made apple products, including MacIvors Ciders, family-made for over 150 years; pure, refreshing juices from McCann in Loughgall; and the impressive range from Long Meadow. This is where I really begin to understand the versatility of cider. Think of the enormous variety contained within the word “wine,” and consider that the cider-making process is exactly the same — other than substituting apples for grapes — and it becomes clear that cider can be almost anything you want it to be. Within the Long Meadow catalogue, there’s the Blossom Burst (mellow and sweet), Mulled Cider (infused with natural spices) and the inspired Oak Aged Cider, taking its cue from the wine world and gaining an incredible depth of flavour as a result — not to mention both still and sparkling juices and unfiltered apple cider vinegar. For me, the star of the show is their brand spanking new Rhubarb and Honey Cider, which is immediately in danger of becoming my go-to late summer beverage.
We head to Armagh Cider Company to learn more about the cider-making process. Here, owners Philip and Helen Troughton are out to prove that cider is for everyone, with several lines of ciders ranging from crisp and bone-dry to sweeter and fruit-flavoured versions. With everything “from blossom to bottle” coming together on one premises, it’s wonderful to see this business go from strength to strength.
Next, we head for the award-winning Moody Boar, situated in the stunning grounds of The Palace Demesne. This family-run restaurant has a strong focus on fresh homemade food, with much of the produce coming straight from the gardens. The motto of the Moody Boar is “love food,” and Head Chef Sean Farnan makes this easy. He shows us to the beautiful Greenhouse, where the Festival hosted a wine, cider, tapas and chocolate evening under the stars. Sean and his team assemble a modern spin on a traditional apple dessert right before our eyes: a cloud of foamed custard, a toasted biscuit base, a fat round of sweet Armagh Bramley and a drizzle of blackberry coulis. With mugs of freshly-brewed coffee, it’s the perfect afternoon pick-me-up.
Buzzing on a food high, we hit Armagh City for a spot of history, taking in the wonderfully weird angels and gargoyles hiding in plain sight around the city centre on our way to St. Patrick’s Church of Ireland Cathedral. The Cathedral is located on a hill from which the name of the city derives — Ard Macha, referring to a legendary pre-Christian tribal princess — and houses the burial place of Brian Boru. I’m just beginning to plan my own history-themed weekend in Armagh when we’re whisked into the Armagh Robinson Library and my nerdy soul is set alight. I adore books just as much as I do cheese — a lofty benchmark — and I’m in awe of this, the oldest library in Ulster, stacked floor to ceiling with ancient, leatherbound books waiting to be opened, inhaled and loved.
Before I can move in permanently, we’re coaxed out of the library for dinner in 4Vicars restaurant, located a few doors down in a row of terraced houses once reserved for the widows of local clergymen. We’re treated to a fine feast of local foods, including Lough Neagh pollan — a unique, local fish I’ve never before come across — delectable, juicy Tynedale kid goat meatballs; meaty Kilkeel hake with Connemara air-dried pork; and a plum and almond tart made with ripe plums from the Crannagael gardens, bringing us full circle. I’m told that, during the Festival, guests could avail of a harvest supper in 4Vicars after a lamplit concert in the Library, and I can think of few evenings more romantic.
With so much to see and do (and, most importantly, so much to eat and drink), Armagh is certainly the apple of Ireland’s eye. It won’t be long before I’m back.