The Gathering Rooms, 4 Vicars Hill, Armagh. Tel: 028 3752 5900
Armagh has seen it all. Queen Macha hacked her way through here 2,500 years ago to build Navan Fort, St Patrick was given a bit of ground by local chieftains for his first church in Ireland, Brian Boru who defeated the Vikings is buried here and the enlightened Archbishop Robinson has left a Georgian architectural legacy matched only by Dublin.
More to the point, excavations near Navan Fort show ancient remnants of apples predating the arrival of the orchard planters from Somerset in the 17th century which give Armagh its Bramley distinction. The Bramley is to Armagh what the Tower Bridge is to London. It defines Armagh as the orchard county of Ireland. When I was growing up in Armagh, apples were all around to be plogged and we played in Murphy’s infinite orchards in Drumcairn while they blossomed in spring and summer, then ripened for the autumn.
And as Armagh Banbridge Craigavon Borough Council prepares its bid for UK City of Culture 2025, apples will feature among the district’s growing reputation for excellent food and drink.
Food and drink are the most fundamental connection we can make with a place because it involves the consumption of flavour and fun and interacting with people who bring it to you.
ABC has done well to up its game in an increasingly competitive world of artisanal producers. The Armagh Food Heartland initiative has led to the Cider Festival which takes place early autumn. It has also helped the district develop a viable foodie identity where Ballylisk, Burren Balsamics, Hannan Meats, Yellow Door, MacIvors and Armagh Cider Company are soon to be joined by Lurgan man and serial entrepreneur Patrick McAliskey’s latest contribution to the economy, the Spadetown brewery.
The city itself has some decent restaurants including Uluru and Embers and one of the best bars in the north, Red Ned’s. But a real jewel known only to the locals is The Gathering Rooms. Housed in the oldest street in Armagh, Vicar’s Hill, this social enterprise operated by the charity Appleby and which employs people over 16 with autism, has been turning out some excellent and uniquely local dishes ever since they took on the lease four years ago.
My mother and I went along last week for lunch. She goes regularly with her Wednesday Club friends. None of them are easy customers so for them to praise the Gathering Rooms is a very big deal.
The big attraction here is the all-day breakfasts one of which features potato apple bread, poached eggs and streaky bacon. They do the avocado and sourdough thing for the beards and cool mums but that potato apple bread is unparalleled.
I’ve had potato and soda breads when bits of apple are added to the dough but the potato bread here is split and filled with a freshly made apple compote. It has the distinctive Bramley tang and acidity which plays beautifully against the salty, crunchy bacon. The soft poached egg yolks clash a bit with the apple in an uncomfortable confrontation of mellow textures but it works for me.
There are omelettes, French toast, full sodas and fries but there is little visually more enticing than a sharing platter of pancakes where a tower of eight buttermilk pancakes, bacon, berries, bananas, Nutella, syrup and cream appear like an edible fairground. The pancakes are light and fluffy. If they weren’t, this dish would feed at least four or five people, not the two or three the menu suggests.
The Gathering Rooms are charming, relaxingly quiet and housed in ancient, thick-walled history. You will feel very comfortable and possibly a little philosophical, particularly when you look directly across the street to the cathedral and Brian Boru’s grave. And I can’t think of anywhere else which celebrates the apple so uniquely.
Armagh Breakfast 5.50
Full soda 4.95
Coffees x 2 4.50