Food in Northern Ireland is traditionally food that is simply prepared, served with strong tea.
Northern Ireland is blessed with good pastures and grazing land for beef and dairy products. 78% of the land in Northern Ireland is given over to agriculture; most of that pasture for livestock and fields for grain for them.
Approximately 50% of the food consumed in Northern Ireland each year is grown there. Over half of agricultural output, particularly meat and dairy, is exported. 97% of apples grown in Northern Ireland are exported, largely as juice concentrate (Bramley is the most popular apple with growers.) The economy produces enough fish and eggs for local demand. Fruit, vegetables and grains are imported. Most trade is within the United Kingdom; outside the UK, its most important trading partner is southern Ireland (The Republic of Ireland, ROI.)
There are many small farms still in Northern Ireland, though many of the families owning small farms also have work off the farms; on average around 27% of their overall income comes from off the farm sources. Still, farm incomes fell by almost 80% from 1995 to 2000.
Two-thirds of food dollars spent in Northern Ireland are spent eating at home; 1/3 on eating out (as of 2002.) In 2000, each person spent an average of £17.43 a week on food and drink (including alcohol) for consumption at home [Source: Annual Report on Food Expenditure, Consumption and Nutrient Intakes – National Food Survey Northern Ireland 2000, DARD Economics and Statistics Division, Belfast].
Grocery-store chains include Dunne’s, Safeway, SuperValu, Tesco’s, Sainsbury, Iceland, CWS, Marks & Spencers, and Spar. Alcohol is sold in grocery stores and in off-licences. Though some worry that local independent grocers are being replaced by these larger retail chains, the upside is that these stores are offering a wider, more sophisticated range of food to choose from, and with the economy of Northern Ireland recovering from the Troubles, people again have the disposable income to enjoy and try more foods. But as more money is available, there’s less time for older food preparation methods, particularly with woman no longer at home all day in the household. Consequently, there is a growing demand for organic food and ready-meals in supermarkets. Both pubs and restaurants also serve meals.
The Northern Irish are heavier consumers of dairy products, meat, and potatoes than people in the rest of the UK. Their diet is becoming healthier now that people have more disposable income to select their food with.
Food safety is governed by the Food Standards Agency Northern Ireland since 3 April 2000.
New Year’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day (17 March), Good Friday, Easter Monday, May Day, Spring Bank Holiday (last Monday in May), Battle of the Boyne (12 July), Summer or August Bank Holiday (last Monday in August), Christmas Day, Boxing Day.
Breakfasts in Northern Ireland, when people have time for them, are substantial, fried cookups similar to British and North American breakfasts. The most famous combination, known as an Ulster Fry, is now more of a weekend treat owing to the pace of modern life.
An evening meal is called high tea, usually shortened to “tea.” In general, “tea” will include some element of hot food, be accompanied with a variety of breads and often end with a sweet item such as home made cake or tray bake (“squares” in North America) with a cup of tea. An Ulster Fry can be eaten for high tea.
The main livestock are cattle, pigs, sheep and poultry. Sheep are raised in the highland areas where cattle can’t graze.
The pork and beef are considered of very good quality, and Northern Ireland is known for its hams smoked over a peat fire.
Spiced beef is particularly popular at Christmas.
Freshwater fish available include eels, perch, pike, salmon and trout. Seafood includes cod, herring, lobster, mackerel, mussels, oysters, plaice, prawns, and skate. Herring is often coated in oatmeal and fried, as it is in Scotland.
Salmon, trout and eel are farmed commercially.
Northern Ireland has good quality fresh vegetables, though many are brought in from either Ireland or other parts of the UK.
Locally sourced produce includes potatoes, cabbage and red seaweed.
The seaweed is used as a thickener in puddings and jellies. Cabbage is used to make the traditional dish of boiled bacon and cabbage. Turnip is also used widely as an accompaniment to bacon.
Potatoes, called “murphys” or “spuds”, are a staple and grow well in the climate there.
The most important crops are barley, potatoes and oats.
Soft fruit, particularly strawberries and raspberries are popular in season.
Heavy tree-clearing for farming began in the 1600s during the Plantation of Ulster. Most farms were rented from large estate landlords, though by the 1920s most farmers had come to own their own farms outright thanks to changes in the law on land ownership. Starting in the 1700s, small farms supplemented their income by weaving linen from flax.
The Irish potato famine also affected Northern Ireland. During the years 1841 to 1851, the province of Ulster (Northern Ireland) underwent a 15% decrease in population. For more information on the potato famine, see the entry on Irish Food.
Northern Ireland was under the same food rationing during the Second World War as the rest of Britain.
Northern Ireland was a rich area of the United Kingdom, but starting in the 1950s when the linen industry collapsed, and heavy industry went into terminal decline at the same time, it became the poorest region. The economy worsened with the Troubles that began in 1969.
The oldest licenced whiskey distillery in the world is in Bushmills, Northern Ireland, dating from 1608.
BBC. Local food ‘worth boasting about’. BBC News. 7 November 2005. Retrieved August 2006 from http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/northern_ireland/4414496.stm.
Dykes, Paul. An ambitious crusade begins. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Belfast Telegraph. 4 May 2005.
Nifdanews. Belfast, Northern Ireland: Northern Ireland Food and Drink Association. Issues Summer 2000 – Summer 2005 inclusive.
Stopes, Christopher, Charles Couzens, Mark Redman and Sarah Watson. The case for re-localising Northern Ireland’s food economy. Belfast, Northern Ireland. Friends of the Earth. June 2002.