Experience Enniskillen’s eating extravaganza
I devour food programmes almost as much as I devour good food. So when I met Glen Wheeler at his restaurant in Enniskillen, I knew immediately that this was someone I’d seen before; I just couldn’t place this smiling, welcoming face that looked so much younger than its years when he lowered his mask.
Hearing from him that he’d spent 14 years working with Nevin Maguire, I simply decided to forget about torturing my brain cells and instead ask if I could possibly have seen him on TV, maybe on one of celebrity chef Maguire’s many programmes.
It turned out I had actually remembered him from The Great British Menu, another food related programme that I watch with relish.
Tasting his food, it came as no surprise to me that he’d been selected to feature on such a popular show that’s shown UK-wide. The culinary creations he laid in front of Diane and me were sensational.
We’d come to his restaurant - 28 Darling Street - as part of a tour of the Enniskillen Taste Experience organised by Mark Edwards, whose passion for his local town and what it can offer has led him to double up as a bar manager and a tour guide - and an entertaining and informative one at that.
My wife and I had met Mark outside Enniskillen Castle, and he took us inside to start the tour there, at the Castle Cafe, where we chatted to Fay who was behind the counter. Fay and the team at the cafe - known as The Platter Women - have developed a great idea - takeaway picnic platters for people to take with them including when hiring out the nearby boats.
The castle, which is the town’s oldest building, was also the headquarters of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, which Diane showed particular interest in, as her grandfather fought at - and survived - the Somme.
In the museum there is the famous Bog Butter. How it came to be in the bog is anyone’s guess, but whoever buried the butter never returned to claim it, and it lay perfectly undisturbed until 1980 when Jack Shannon and his sons went out to cut turf in the bog at Carrownagiltagh, near Tempo. They had no idea what they’d unearthed, though their dog, Barney, showed a great interest in what they’d found, described by Jack as being like “a ferocious big football”.
Deciding to trust Barney’s nose, they loaded the butter into a wheelbarrow and took it home where it immediately aroused great interest, so Jack passed it onto the museum.
Carbon dating studies at Queen’s University placed the butter as having been in the bog since between 1050 AD and 1150 AD.
From there we dandered along the seafront, with Mark pointing out several points of historical interest and regaling us with fascinating tales of culinary exploits in times gone by. One sight that is common at this time of year was missing, he said - the Lovely Leitrim barge, which visits in summer and at Halloween. Mark described it as being the equivalent of a pop-up restaurant on the water. Its absence is believed to be due to the coronavirus pandemic, but hopes are high that it will soon return.
We then made our way towards the centre of Enniskillen, and found ourselves at the Food Bowl which offers healthy meals and has become very popular with people in training. From there, we walked up an entry but before we came to a dead end, we met Joe The Baker, who served us from a hatch with tasty sourdough sandwiches filled with Doherty’s back bacon.
Joe Kelly’s artisan bread is so popular that, even though we arrived at 11.30am, he had sold out. As we ate our sandwiches several people came along the alley to ask if he had anything left, only to leave disappointed but seemingly not surprised. While his sourdough creations can be obtained at a number of select stores, his pastries can be bought only at the hatch in the alley.
Joe explained that he often finds people have been queuing for half an hour before he opens, to make sure they get their hands on his artisan breads. The people in the queues observe social distancing.
“It’s a lovely, social feel,” says the baker.
Coincidentally, it was only a few weeks before lockdown was imposed that he began to bag his bread. And that made a huge difference to sales. His online shop now reaches far beyond Enniskillen, and he has customers from as far afield as Australia buying bread for relatives at home to collect. The internet shop goes online on Sunday evenings and the orders pile in.
From there we made our way to the Firehouse, where we met Gavin Cassidy. On route there we passed through The Diamond, where Mark pointed out Pat’s Bar and the area where people who have enjoyed a night in the pubs often end up - buying the wares from The Muck Truck, a mobile eatery favoured by many in the late (or early) hours of the day.
The Firehouse aims to “bring a whole new style of dining to the town” and boasts a stone baked pizza oven and an exciting new charcoal ‘big Bertha’ oven, which Mark believes is one of only two on the island of Ireland. The oven creates a flavour that only chargrilling can impart to your favourite cut of steak, chicken or fish, and the heat is controlled by means of raising or lowering the rack on which the meat is cooked. There is also a Napoleon pizza oven.
The open plan kitchen is also a unique selling point and will keep you occupied as you watch your meal being freshly prepared as you enjoy a glass of your favourite tipple.
Like Joe Kelly, Gavin believes that the Enniskillen Taste Experience tour is an excellent vehicle to help bring people to the town, so that the local traders can then showcase their wares.
While comfortably seated in The Firehouse, we were served slow cooked pork belly and a pizza to let our taste buds give their verdict on the standard of food on offer.
Pork is such an easy meat to over-cook that I often dread being asked for an on-the-spot opinion in case it’s dry, but this dish was succulent - tender, moist and delicious. The secret of that, explained Gavin, was in the overnight preparation.
As for the pizza, it was sensationally good. Not having been to Italy, I’ve often heard it said that proper Italian food involves freshness and simplicity, and that pizza there bears little resemblance to pizza found in our outlets. The proof of this was in the eating of the pizza Gavin served up. It comprised only a sourdough base that was made on the premises, rocket leaves, Parmesan cheese and melted butter. And yet it was as good as any pizza I’ve ever eaten.
Emphasising the family-run ethos that underpins so much of what we’ve been learning about Enniskillen, we discovered that Gavin’s brother, Nicky runs the Westville hotel, which is described as “a sophisticated, yet understated, boutique destination - offering everything to the contemporary, discerning guest, including a terrace restaurant”.
It’s obvious all throughout the tour that there is a terrific community spirit among all those involved in trying to develop Enniskillen as a centre of culinary excellence, from the morning breakfast bun to a fine dining experience in the evening. It’s obvious that the talent is there, but how does the island town make outsiders aware?
That is Mark Edwards’ challenge and one he is rising to. Many of the local people on the street seem to know Mark, whose passion for Enniskillen is infectious. Even some tourists stop to chat, and we learn that they had been on one of his tours.
He cracks a few jokes with some locals as he leads us past Blakes of the Hollow bar, which has been owned by the same family for over 100 years and where he works as a manager when not selling the story of Enniskillen’s food offering.
The next chapter in the story was the renovated Buttermarket Craft and Design Courtyard that boasts 17 art and craft units and a coffee shop. We were treated to some delicacies at Rebecca’s Coffee Shop as we continued to gorge on the Enniskillen Taste Experience.
One of the changes that lockdown has brought is that more people are now being seated outdoors and that was evident at a number of premises. It’s a bit of a hobby horse of mine, but I’ve never understood why we don’t more fully embrace the continental terrace style cafe culture, which adds an air of vibrancy to any town.
The atmosphere at the Butter Market was particularly lively and busy. And as we leave Mark invites some people with backpacks to take the seats we’d just vacated.
The next stop on the fascinating tour was Cafe Merlot where we tried some of Stewart’s butcher’s award-winning sausages, chased down by a glass of craft beer, brewed locally of course. Close by, as we walked back towards the castle, we passed a number of other restaurants, including an Indian restaurant and takeaway which weren’t yet open that day, and a Greek restaurant where, despite what we’d already eaten, the smells had me drooling.
And that’s how we came to 28 Darling Street, where Glen Wheeler set up on his own after 14 years working with Nevin Maguire at MacNean’s, which is just across the border at Blacklion.
Before opening his own doors, however, he contacted what he believed to be the top ten restaurants in the world, and then spent time working with the likes of Gordon Ramsey and at Noma in Copenhagen, which is currently rated by many guides as the world’s very best restaurant.
While originally he preferred to work front of house and had no interest in cookery, when invited by Nevin Maguire to work in the kitchen for a weekend, Glen quickly realised he had found his calling.
“After that weekend, I wanted to be Nevin Maguire,” he laughs.
Having started in MacNean’s straight from college, at the age of just 24, he was made head chef, such was the pace of his development, and Glen Wheeler can now stands comfortably alongside Ireland’s best.
28 Darling Street opened in 2018 and was soon building a considerable reputation for itself when the coronavirus pandemic intervened. It was when word of his enterprise spread that he was invited to join the participants on the Great British Menu.
But even as Covid-19 threatened to close the doors, Glen saw a way of getting his message across to another section of potential customers - offering a fine dining, Sunday lunch takeaway service.
“28 Darling Street was going from strength to strength and lining up to be a good year when lockdown happened,” he tells us. “But during the lockdown we operated as a takeaway, a three course Sunday lunch for £20. We were flying.”
Given the standard of cookery skills that went into those takeaways, £20 seems more than reasonable.
The current in-house menu is also extremely reasonably priced as we found out when we were invited to try some of Glen’s dishes.
Along with goat’s cheese starters, duck is Diane’s favourite dish, and she declared that the confit duck leg we were served in 28 Darling Street was the best she’d ever eaten.
It was certainly up there with one of my best eating experiences. I count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve been taken by surprise by eating a meal that’s been elevated well beyond just being very good. This was exceptional.
On his twitter profile, Glen comments: “It’s just food.”
But that is very much an understatement. What he serves up isn’t just food, it’s a culinary taste experience, the likes of which you won’t find in many restaurants.
Our guide Mark said goodbye to us there, as we polished off the desserts.
It had been an interesting day. The previous day I’d have told anyone listening to me that my experiences of Enniskillen all involved getting caught up in traffic jams on my way to some other destination.
Today is a different story. I’d go well out of my way to go to Enniskillen now.
Mark’s Enniskillen Taste Experience tour has given us a sample of what we can expect, and we both have a hunger to go back there.
And 28 Darling Street is now on my bucket list of restaurants that I want to return to, when I finally get round to taking a grand gourmet tour of Ireland.
Covid-19 has turned booking holidays abroad into a gamble, as travellers to more and more foreign destinations have to self-quarantine when they return. And that is providing they manage to get away in the first place.
Due to the pandemic, more people in Northern Ireland are choosing to holiday at home, and support local tourism providers.
Tourism NI has launced a new brand - Embrace A Giant Spirit, which is coming to life through a collection of new and unique experiences showing what great holidays and adventures we can enjoy on our own doorsteps.
This new experience brand will be used by Tourism NI and Tourism Ireland to promote Northern Ireland on the island of Ireland and internationally with the aim of increasing visitor numbers and ensuring economic impact across all regions of NI.
The Enniskillen Taste Experience tour is one of many excellent ideas that are springing up all over Northern Ireland.
Its website urges potential visitors:
“Discover the unique island town of Enniskillen with a guided walking tour, stopping at various locations along the way to sample an indulgent mix of food and drink.
“The Enniskillen Taste Experience will showcase the culinary delights the local businesses have to offer and will provide customers with a substantial and memorable experience.
“Customers will be offered an array of tastes and nibbles along with a few alcoholic beverages, so it’s best to leave the car keys behind.”
Stay local while still getting away from it all...
Tourism NI -
embraceagiantspirit.com for more information on the new brand
Enniskillen Taste Experience - www.