The Belfast of Van's childhood is remote from the trendy middle class European city that Belfast is today. Back then it was a working class town where the joys of childhood are best remembered in the comfort foods of the day that no longer seem popular with the new sophisticated Belfastians. To a young Van Belfast seemed to be a city of bakeries and chip shops. It seemed practically every meal, including the famous Ulster Fry, combines bread in some shape or form. And, of course a visit to a chipper was an ever-present excursion.
One of Belfast's most famous baking products is the world famous crusty Belfast Bap. Perfect filled with anything, mainly fried goods, this humble bread roll has an illustrious past. Invented by master baker, cross community pioneer and philanthropist Barney Hughes in the 1840s, it is credited with feeding the city during the Famine and ensuring it wasn’t as badly affected as many other parts of Ireland, paving the way for it to become one of the great industrial centres of the Empire, famed especially for shipbuilding, including the Titanic. Maybe its influence is a little exaggerated here, but it still had it's place in Belfast social history.
The Belfast bap is still baked daily back in Northern Ireland, forming the basis of many a meal. There’s few things that don’t taste better stuffed into a buttery Belfast bap. In fact, a crisp sandwich isn’t a crisp sandwich unless it’s Tayto Cheese & Onion on a proper burnt brown topped bap. But the ultimate Belfast meal is that stalwart of every chippie, the Pastie Bap.
Nothing like its pastry-cased Cornish cousin, the Belfast pastie is a patty of sausage meat and potato dipped in batter, deep fried til golden and then either slipped between side of a buttered bap and anointed with your choice of sauce, or served as a pastie supper with chips. Designed to use up the leftover chips from the day before, they have become a delicacy in their own right. They are the perfect food to fortify you on a cold, damp Belfast day.
Pasties are packed with flavour and not at all bland. They were probably the most spiced thing available in Northern Ireland for years and you want them tasty. Put about a teaspoon of black pepper and freshly ground nutmeg in. Then a half teaspoon of ground cloves, allspice, cinnamon, cayenne, ground coriander seed, ground ginger and white pepper are added and everything gets well mixed. You don’t need to bind the mixture with anything. The fat in the sausage meat holds it all together. Then with your hands, form into patties and flatten out. Put them on a plate and pop it in the freezer for 15 minutes or so to make them easier to dip in the batter.
Your batter is simple. Use self raising flour and sparkling water to make a batter with a light dropping texture. Don’t rest it as you want the bubbles to keep it airy. Then dip your pasty into the batter, covering it completely and shaking off any excess. Carefully slip into a pan of hot oil and deep fry for about 2 minutes or until the batter is golden, puffed up and lovely and crispy. Drain onto kitchen towel and slip between an opened buttered bap. Sauce is optional. The result is steaming hot, crispy, chewy, savoury and the right side of stodgy. It's easy to see why Van Morrison mentioned them in song.
A Sense of Wonder by Van Morrison
Wee Alfie at the Castle Picture house on the Castlereagh Road.
Whistling on the corner next door where
He kept Johnny McBride’s horse.
O Solo Mio by McGimpsey
And the man who played the saw
Outside the city hall.
Pastie suppers down at Davey’s chipper
Gravy rings, wagon wheels, barmbracks, snowballs.
In Van's neighbourhood of East Belfast the McIlwain brothers ran a series of chip shops selling pastie suppers and the like on the Beersbridge Road, first on the corner of Greenville Road, and then at the corner of Clara Avenue.
David McIlwain - Davey's chipper was my Dad's, it was actually on the Beersbridge Road, the second shop from the corner of Greenville Road. My Dad also owned the other shop around the corner from Clara Avenue, both were on the Beersbridge Road, this one was run by his sister "Wee Annie".
My Dad's shop was a favourite meeting place for many who later became famous such as Billy Bingham and Danny Blanchflower (international soccer players), Rev. Ian Paisley often arguing theology with my dad & his brother who were both lay evangelists & gospel musicians, and, of course, Van Morrison. My Dad is now dead, he immigrated to Australia in 1961, my Mum is still alive & knew Van Morrison's Mum quite well.
My dad, David, and his brother James were gospel evangelists, known as The McIlwain brothers. David was "Davey". My Dad started the shop near Clara Avenue, then it was taken over by his brother James, they all lived in rooms above the shop until I was born in 1943. My Dad then bought the shop down the road (the one which Van went to) - it hadn't been a chip shop before my dad got it, he had the chip fryers imported from England, they were apparently very impressive for the time. He had his name Davey's embedded in the front door step in terrazzo, it was still there when I went back to Belfast in 1975, but the shop was a Chinese takeaway (named Always Welcome) then.