Have you ever wondered how our guides maintain their incredible stamina and athletic physiques? Complex carbohydrates are a vital source of energy for tour guides, and the best place to find them – whether you’re a guide or a guest – is in a home bakery, a uniquely Northern Irish institution.
Unlike the big bakeries, such as Barney Hughes’ and Ormo, home bakeries evolved from a real cottage industry – women making breads, buns and traybakes in their own kitchens and then selling them from their front room to generate a bit of extra cash. So they sell the kind of things Irish housewives in the 1950s would have baked for their families. You can expect to find traybakes, buns, soda and potato breads as well as sausage rolls, filled baps, scones and cream buns.
Wherever you’re staying in Belfast you’ll find a home bakery nearby. There are plenty to choose from in the city centre, but some of the very best are in the suburbs. A lot of them don’t have set closing times – they just shut the shop when everything is sold. And a lot of the products are best when they are still warm from the oven, so don’t leave it too late to make your visit.
Home bakeries are generally takeaway only, so your best tactic is to buy a box of goodies in the morning and take it back to wherever you’re staying – or choose stuff you can eat on the go.
Finding the best home bakery
The best way to find a good home bakery is to ask a local. My personal favourites are the Golden Crumb in Ballyhackamore, Knott’s (branches in Newtownards, Holywood and on Belfast’s Lisburn Road) and Roy’s in King’s Square. You can also ask your tour guide for a recommendation – they will have a strong opinion!
What to buy and what to do with it
This is important, as some of the things you can buy in a home bakery can be eaten straight out of the bag, but others need to be cooked. Here’s our quick guide to the best things to order.
You can buy this as a small loaf or farl. When it’s very fresh you can butter it and eat it with cheese, jam or – if you’re feeling fancy – smoked salmon. Otherwise toast it, butter it and eat it plain or put whatever you want on it.
These are meant to be split and either toasted or fried. If you toast them, put plenty of butter on them. A fried soda farl filled with fried eggs, bacon and sausage is one of the greatest things you will ever eat.
Fry until crispy and eat it as part of an Ulster Fry (which must also have eggs, bacon, sausage and fried soda bread. It may also have fried scotch pancakes, black pudding, white pudding, fried tomatoes and mushrooms. It really shouldn’t have baked beans, no matter what anyone tells you).
Either get these from the home bakery while they are still warm or take them home and heat them through at 180oC for 10 minutes, then liberally apply brown or red sauce. If the lady behind the counter says she has no warm ones and offers to heat a cold one up for you, decline politely, as a microwaved sausage roll is no fun at all.
All kinds of scones are great with a bit of butter – plain scones benefit from a bit of jam too. Cherry or sultana scones are lovely, but if you’re lucky enough to see a date and wheaten scone, that’s a real treat. Lots of home bakeries will butter a scone for you to go if you ask them.
Traybakes and buns
There are so many to choose from, but all of them are sweet, sticky and great with a tea or coffee for breakfast on the go. Big favourites are caramel squares, fifteens, German biscuits and macaroons. If you’re not sure which to go for, just point at whatever looks good! If you like the idea of raisins sandwiched between shortbread you can ask for a fruit square, but it’s better known as a fly’s graveyard.
Cream doughnuts (or “jammy joeys”), meringues, fruit tarts, eclairs and vanilla slices or my personal favourite, the cream horn – knock yourself out!
Paris buns and snowballs
A word of warning about these – they are a bit of an acquired taste, made from a peculiarly dense and dry sponge. The Paris bun is totally plain, apart from a sprinkling of tiny sugar pieces, while the snowball is sandwiched with jam and covered in coconut icing. Order at your peril and make sure you have a very large mug of tea on hand to wash them down.
These days Belfast is full of delis selling sourdough loaves, focaccia and Portuguese custard tarts, and it’s really great to have so much choice. But do try to find a good home bakery during your stay here – you’ll be rewarded with an authentic taste of Belfast. And a touch of diabetes.