Strangford Lough is a beautiful part of the world. It is the largest sea lough in the British isles, covering over 150 square kilometres and boasting over 2,000 species of marine life. 28 of these are unique to Strangford. The lough contains over 100 islands but legend claims that there is one for every day of the year (good luck with counting them!) There are loads of activities to do on the water but for this visit, we focussed on a few highlights around the area.
Part one- check in at Peartree Hill
Our first stop was Peartree Hill B&B where Mr. Eating Ideas and I checked in for the night. Peartree Hill is a 5* B+B set in the Castlereagh hills with stunning views and just a 20 minute drive from Belfast city centre. I must admit to having a certain pre-conceived notion about B+Bs but I couldn’t have been more wrong. The quality of this place was second to none and certainly better than many hotels I have stayed in. The owners, Avril and Ian greeted us warmly and settled us into our room before inviting us for tea and traybakes in the living room. We were joined there by Claire Cromie from Tourism NI, fellow food bloggers, Robert & Lynsey from Down the Hatch and Conor & Lauren from Belfast Food blogger before Ian and Avril cracked open a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the first stay in their third double ensuite room.
Part two- dinner in The Old Schoolhouse Inn
We all jumped into a taxi that delivered us to The Old Schoolhouse Inn. I hadn’t visited for many many years and was delighted to see that the original restaurant has been upgraded and that eight luxury rooms are now available. The Old Schoolhouse is just a stone’s throw from Strangford Lough and yet only a 20 minute drive from Belfast. I was excited to try the menu, created by award-winning chef Will Brown in their Michelin Bib Gourmand, 2 AA Rosette restaurant.
While we perused the menu, Claire ordered a selection of snacks for the table to share. Pork scratchings with juniper, whitebait with sauce, beef tartare and cod with oyster emulsion. A delicious array of tastes and flavours. I have to give a shout out to the pork scratchings which were unlike anything I have ever tasted . They were light and crispy and totally different to the fatty stuff I have been served before.
For starters, I chose the Helen’s Bay onion tart with walnut and cheddar and Mr. Eating Ideas opted for the Foie Gras, chicken liver pate with picalilli and brioche. I loved my tart and in particular the tangy pickled walnuts while the pate was declared to be delicious. Both came served with wheaten bread and brown butter. Our mains were equally well received. I opted for the flat iron beef, mushroom pie, a kind of deconstructed pie with the pastry on the side. Perfect for me as I’m not the biggest lover of pastry. Mr. EI ordered the Mourne Mountain lamb loin, onion and garden beetroot, perfect local fayre! All came served with a selection of Schoolhouse chips, Comber potatoes and Fraser’s farm vegetables. For puddings we opted to share the Millionaire’s shortbread and the house special souffle which was quite simply extraordinary and light as air! At the end of the meal we were delighted when Chef Will and team members joined us to say hello!
Part three- back to Peartree Hill B+B
When we got back to our room, Ian and Avril had laid a little table for our breakfast in the corner of the room. The other two rooms have their breakfast served in the dining area but the Scrabo room includes breakfast served in the room. As we were in a quiet location in the hills, I slept like a baby. I was happy to wake up refreshed and even happier to discover the lovely range of Liz Earle products in the bathroom. I spent longer in the shower than normal just to totally pamper myself with these goodies!
Breakfast arrived in two stages. Avril arrived with 2 hampers, ready to serve us our first stage. Mr. EI stayed traditonal with cornflakes, delivered in a kilner jar with a flask of milk. I chose the Clandeboye Greek yoghurt with mango and passion fruit. Cute little flasks contained our choices of pink grapefruit and clementine juices. Next up, Avril delivered the artisan’s Ulster fry for Mr. EI with Kennedy bacon, sausage, soda bread, potato bread, roasted vine tomatoes, mushrooms and eggs. She also delivered by fabulous choice of crushed avocado, cherry tomatoes and Kennedy bacon on seeded bread. I can honestly say that this was the nicest breakfast I have had in a very long time. I loved it!
As a chicken lover, I made sure to pay a visit to Avril and Ian’s chicks before we said our farewells and hit the road!
Part four- Visiting Mount Stewart
Next we headed to one of my favourite National Trust properties, Mount Stewart, for a sneak peek at the private rooms that will be opened to the public this year following an £8m restoration project. Visiting Mount Stewart always evokes child memories of visiting, with the smell of eucalyptus in the air! It was fascinating to see the before unseen rooms, brought back to life with precisioned detail!
I particularly loved seeing the dining room laid in all its glory and the kitchen with all its ancient equipment. A full book case of cookery books made me realise how much we use google for recipes instead of poring over recipe books.
Part five- Traditional breadmaking
Our next visit was to Tracey Jeffery of NI Food Tours. Tracey lives in an 18th century thatched barn on the shore of Strangford Lough and she invited us to learn some traditional bread making skills with “Fred the bread”. I learnt to make Irish breads with my grandmother and the very process of making her wheaten and treacle breads is very nostalgic for me (you can read about my grandmother’s treacle bread here). Fred taught us how to make traditional potato bread and soda farls on a griddle. I can honestly say that this was my favourite part of the tour and I can’t wait to do it again. Tracey’s welcome could not have been warmer and I find myself a little bit in love with Fred! We made the bread in Tracey’s kitchen and were thrilled to see our creations cooking on the griddle, even if we got a little bit competitive in the process.
Once they were cooked we enjoyed them for lunch served with a choice of Tracey’s chowder or leek & potato soup. A selection of artisan goodies such as Abernethy butter, Kennedy Bacon, Burren balsamics , Brighter gold and Passion Preserved were the perfect accompaniments for the bread. Totally delicious! After a quick snifter of Tracey’s Sloe Gin, we reluctantly said our goodbyes and hit the road.
Part six-A visit to Castle Espie
Our last stop was a visit to Castle Espie where every autumn and winter, hundreds of Brent Geese designed on Strangford Lough. This really is a beautiful spot with Ireland’s largest collection of native and exotic waterbirds, bats and migrant birds. If you want to feed some of the birds by hand, you can buy grain from the shop. I particularly loved the Emperor geese. They are so cheeky and full of character. They ignored the feed in my hand, preferring to chew on my thumb, ring and bracelet!
Castle Espie is owned by The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT), a conservation charity that saves wetlands. Well worth supporting.
If you haven’t been to the Strangford area, it really is worth visiting. Outstanding beauty with plenty to see and do. If you want to find out more- click here
We loved our stay! A huge thank you to Discover Northern Ireland and Jago Communications for the invitation.