Restaurant reviewer Minne eats humble pie in Moira
Our restaurant reviewer Joris Minne landed himself in hot water when he dismissed the Co Down town as 'the poor man's Hillsborough'. This week he took his life in his hands and returned for second helpings
How to annoy a Moiranian: write the following words and then stand back. Moira is the poor man's Hillsborough. I wrote this last week in the introduction of a review of Wine & Brine, the latest restaurant to open in the town. Some people took it a bit thick and had a good whine about it on Twitter.
What kind of amateur journalist was I? What factual evidence did I have? Down with this sort of thing, and "Go back home to Armagh where you belong". Yikes.
I didn't have any such evidence, of course, other than hearsay and, sure, that's what everybody I know thinks about the place.
I had always thought that Moira didn't mind this comparison. Belfast people have been saying it for years and the Moiranians I know take this in good humour, pointing to Hillsborough's mildly discomfiting biscuit-tin prettiness and Stepford-like disconnection from the rest of the country, not something they look up to, or which impresses them. No. Moiranians are made of stouter stuff. Not for them the loveliness of Hillsborough, its beautiful royal residence, which was the Queen's official Northern Ireland home and is now looked after by the Royal Parks and Gardens. Nor are they taken by the lake with swans, its pretty, hilly streets with three nice bar/restaurants and not a housing estate in sight.
Moira may be smaller, a little rougher round the edges and contains a community less concerned by chintz and charming looks and is more in tune with grittier, robust village life.
But it is also current holder of Best Kept Small Town award (awarded by the Northern Ireland Amenity Council), has Northern Ireland’s best sausage butchers, McCartney’s, the multi-award winning meat processor, Hannan’s, whose beef, lamb and pork are so good they sell tonnes of it to London’s finest restaurants, and it is home to two excellent pubs, Pretty Mary’s and the Four Trees.
It also has a much longer history than Hillsborough. People have lived in Moira since the time of St Patrick; it witnessed the bloodiest battle ever fought in Ireland and resident Lord Rawdon’s death in the 18th century generated the biggest funeral ever seen in the Western world, with more than 400 carriages in procession. I could go on, but enough to say that Hillsborough with all its tidy gorgeousness, doesn’t match this.
So what exactly is it about Moira that people were so quick to defend its reputation?
Peter Hannan moved to Moira from Kildare 28 years ago and says he had the option of going to Hillsborough. “But such was the welcome and support from people in Moira and particularly George McCartney, who is the town’s unofficial historian as well as master sausage-maker, I wouldn’t consider anywhere else,” says Peter.
Hannan Meats now employs 35 people in a state-of-the-art facility on the edge of Moira, where an industrial estate employs 165 more.
One of Peter Hannan’s business secrets is bringing the best chefs and critics in the world to this facility so they can see for themselves the expertise, the quality and the rarity of the produce.
“We bring people like Mark Hix, Andre de Luca, Charles Campion and Angela Hartnett to Moira all the time. It’s the centre of everything that is food-related. The food culture in and around the town is unparalleled so you can drop that poor man’s comparison right away.”
“There is a solidity in the fabric of Moira, which is largely driven by agriculture and this was also an attraction for me when I first came here. I have received many enticements to move my business elsewhere, but I wouldn’t go anywhere else. They’ll be carrying me on their shoulders when I leave.”
Michael Ferguson, who, with his wife, Olwyn, owns the Fat Gherkin cafe in the middle of Moira, arrived from Belfast 10 years ago and says the sense of community in the town is unlike any he has experienced anywhere else.
His cafe is bustling and tables are in big demand. “Moira is on the rise,” says Michael, “and the fact that my cafe is always busy is a fair indicator that the town is economically, as well as socially, prosperous.”
Michael Ferguson’s other big idea, however, is a Moira-based events company, which would do for the town and the rest of the wider rural Northern Ireland community what Belsonic, T-party and other festivals have done for Belfast and larger cities.
“Brown Lemonade is a company which will arrange festivals at which local food, craft beers and artisan producers will be key participants to support the local bands and musicians we are promoting,” he says.
“It’s about time places like Moira and other towns across Ireland plugged into the wealth of their own regional cultures and that’s what we intend to do, starting here first.”
But one Moiranian is less convinced. Graphic designer and personal trainer Adam McConnell was born and raised in the town and says the poor man’s Hillsborough moniker is not entirely without merit.
“We don’t have a castle, or a queen, and house prices are higher in Hillsborough than here,” the 35-year-old says, simply, before adding: “Mind you, have you been in Hillsborough after 7pm? Quiet as a graveyard. That’s not Moira.”
Life in Moira after work hours just got a boost with the arrival of Wine & Brine, the restaurant whose review I wrote two weeks ago which caused this return trip of atonement. Chef patron Chris McGowan and his wife, Davina are Moira’s most recent blow-ins.
“After years in London, we needed to rebalance our work and life and with young children, village life, good school and proximity to work all a pre-requisite, the town soon became irresistible,” says Chris.
“Moira has delivered on all of these and we are hugely reassured by the support local people have given our restaurant.”
This is significant because Chris McGowan worked with one of the world’s best chefs, Richard Corrigan for more than a decade in London. Chris himself is hugely respected and for him to choose Moira as his base will have added at least £500 to the price of a house in the town.
So much for my ill-regarded quip, then. When I ask the McGowans, Peter Hannan and Michael Ferguson if they have any further reaction to the assertion that Moira is the poor man’s Hillsborough they all agree that the only way that would make any sense is if it was to be measured, pound for pound, by property prices.
When it comes down to it, people really only care about house prices. So, in a last ditch attempt to justify my poor man’s statement, I give you price comparators based on current property prices in Property News: three-bed semi in Hillsborough — average £173,000; same in Moira — average £146,000. Four-bed detached in Hillsborough — average £306,000; four-bed detached in Moira — £224,000.
But prices are creeping upwards in Moira, says Chris McGowan. He is only too aware of this being on the market for a home recently. Local estate agent Robert Wilson says Chris is right.
“Moira is much sought-after now. Just 17 miles from Belfast, close to everywhere that matters in the north, the town is very attractive to young families, businesses and investors,” he says.
I have too many friends in the town to fall out with, so on the basis of peace, goodwill and friendship I withdraw the slur. I will eat humble pie.
From now on, I will pick on other places, like my home town of Armagh, the pauper’s Dublin; or Enniskillen, the boating man’s Omagh; or Londonderry, the posh man’s Strabane.
Which leaves us with one question: what is Hillsborough?
Read Joris’ restaurant review in Weekend magazine every Saturday