Restaurant review: Traybake capital of world serves up delicious delights
Head to Whitehead for a little slice of heaven right there on a plate
When Northern Ireland scooped the world's best food destination at the World Travel Market in London a year ago, I thought, at last, the humble Ulster traybake will have its moment in the sun. The traybake is the backbone of the north's baking reputation so it must have played a role in securing Northern Ireland the overall title of world's best.
The more I dived into the world of home bakeries, the quicker I discovered that, like fish and chip shops, it is a minefield. If I tell you that the best chip shop in Belfast is John Long's, it will take all of two-and-a-half seconds for someone to tell me that I'm wrong and that the holy grail is in fact Spence's on the Beersbridge Road.
As far as traybakes go, the decline in numbers of home bakeries means the competition is conversely increasing. But where are the good ones? Answer: Whitehead.
Mid and East Antrim Borough Council (along with other local authorities) have embraced the latest tourism campaign, Taste the Island, and taken bold and daring action by claiming that Whitehead is Traybake Central.
So confident are the council and the bakers of Whitehead, they asked me a couple of weeks ago to judge the Taste the Island Traybake Central competition, a hotly contested concours fought out among seven bake houses, cafes and restaurants. There was one winner, The Bank House, who presented a fabulously moist, dark and rich brownie christened the Banker's Bake. But so impressive were the other six, I felt obliged to share them with you. Here they are:
The Edwardian Tearoom at Whitehead Railway Museum: the period charm of the station is captured beautifully in the elegant little tearoom where traybakes dominate. The Station Master's Surprise was a bonbon of chocolate and orange, dense, textured and intensely flavoured. Excellent with an espresso.
Carmel's Confectionery: This old school sweetie shop is double blessed. It has a proper counter with a till and masses of big sweet jars stacked all the way up to the ceiling on the back wall. The traybake presented here was an excellent sponge with spinach (yes!) to give it a natural colour which I'll never forget. Eye-catching and great flavour.
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The Whistlestop: who said Whitehead wasn't for the hipsters? The Whistlestop, close to the town's current railway station is modern with all the hip references, muted colours and cool interior. The traybake was innovative and featured a jammy dodger embedded in a polenta-like slice. Wonderful.
Coastal Coffee: the former video rental shop whose owners realised they were selling more food and drink than hiring videos made a snap decision to go all-out with a food offer. Now Coastal Coffee does proper lunches and a very impressive traybake, the Coastal Curiosity. This was a close runner-up with its dulse caramel brining a homey twist to salted caramel, or what the Americans call salted taffy.
The Old Tea House: the wonderfully eccentric Victorian exterior with its mega-tall windows and frontage created a traybake called the Signal Box Sensation featuring green and red glace cherries. Rich like a flapjack and dense as a fifteen, this was memorable.
The Bentra Grill: At the top of the town on the verges of the golf course, the Bentra is a much loved institution. The kitchen created an exciting and very sticky bake whose orangey goo will make it a big hit at Halloween.
The Bank House: winning the competition with its Banker's Bake, the creation is a marvel. Bank House owner Sinead Moane and her partner spent some days perfecting it so let's hope it has become a regular fixture.
Whitehead residents will have noticed that the town's main commercial bakery, McKee's, is not mentioned. In truth, McKee's did not compete and understandably so because as a full-on bakery it would have thrown the competition out of kilter. I did visit, however, and came away addicted to the jalapeno soda bread. Just saying.
Until we are challenged, Whitehead now claims and retains the title of traybake capital of the north.
If you have any sense, and a bit of time this weekend, I recommend a trip, preferably by train. You won't be disappointed.
Traybake range bill: £2-£4
TRAYBAKES: FROM TEAROOMS to cafes Whitehead, Co Antrim
The Whistle Stop
The Bentra Grill
The Old Tea House
The Edwardian Tearoom
Winner: The Bank House