ON HIS return to Northern Ireland after 1,574 days in captivity, the first thing Brian Keenan asked his mother was to put the pan on. Homecoming in the province was ever thus: the sacramental Ulster fry of rashers and sausages, the potato-cake fadge and farls, the tomato and the egg. As it sizzles, you are back in the belly of the family.

Such devotion to hearth and home is equalled by a love of plainness worthy of any Amish. Yet even simple taste has its eccentric side: 'The people (of the province) don't take too well on the foreign food,' says George McCartney, a master butcher from Moira, Co Down.

When his customers take themselves off to foreign parts, they carry a huge, vacuum-packed selection of Mr McCartney's sausages, blood puddings, cooked ham and perfectly hung beef.

If this sounds like dour insularity, do not be fooled. Mr McCartney's customers know that when you find the good foods of Northern Ireland, you find peerless ones. Mr McCartney is only one of the province's butchers, such as David Burns and Jackie Wysner, who regularly takes top prizes in the London shows. When home cooking turns professional, it often retains a homely spirit - for example, when Norah Brown opens the dining room of her guesthouse, Grange Lodge, Co Tyrone, as a restaurant at weekends. Diners will find cheddar pears with a damson sauce or apple potato cake with stewed bramleys.

In Adelboden Lodge, Co Down, Margaret Waterworth achieves the same old-fashioned alchemy. She offers lamb's liver with bacon and onions; lamb cutlets with a Cumberland sauce; a high tea of roast chicken and bacon, or a farmhouse grill, with cups and saucers on the table: food as near to cuisine's cutting edge as Comber is to California.

Still, paradoxically, the plainness-loving, puritanical North has a ribald side that extends to the table - even the breakfast table, where porridge may be laced with Bushmills. The following, rather raunchy, verse comes from Co Antrim, known for two unusual foods: dulse, the dark salty seaweed they like to chew, and yellow-man, a vile, sticky concoction of pure honeycomb. The singer, celebrating the 'Oul Lammas Fair in Ballycastle, remembers Mary Ann:

But the scene that haunts my memory is kissing Mary Ann,

Her pouting lips all sticky from eating yellow-man.

Of course, when writing of Irish food, one must write about the potato. Delicately flavoured, floury potatoes from the fields of Comber do constant service in northern kitchens, not least in a dish called champ. This may include any number of flavourings, from peas, nettles and chives to (as the Irish and Americans call spring onions) scallions.

Modern recipes for champ abound, all owing a debt to the great lady of Northern Irish cookery, Florence Irwin. Reading the imitators is not necessary. Her book, The Cookin' Woman: Irish Country Recipes and Others, originally published in 1949, is now available from the Belfast publisher Blackstaff for pounds 5.95. Here are two of her recipes.

Scallion champ

Serves 4

Ingredients: 6 spring onions

1 1/2 lb (750g) floury potatoes

1/2 pt (300ml) milk

salt and pepper

2-3tbs butter, and to serve

Preparation: Peel, quarter and simmer potatoes in salted water until tender. Drain, reserve. Finely chop spring onions. Heat milk and butter in small pan. Add onions, infuse for five minutes. Mash potatoes, then stir in milk mixture. Season and serve with a spoonful of butter.

Potato Apple Cake

Serves 4

Preparation: 1lb (500g)

cooked potatoes

4oz (125g) flour

1/2 tsp salt

1oz (60g) butter, melted

pinch of ground ginger


1lb (500g) apples, cored,

peeled and sliced

butter and sugar, to serve

Ingredients: Potato cake is best made while the potatoes are hot. Peel and mash potatoes on a board. Over the potatoes, scatter salt and melted butter, and knead in enough flour to make a pliable paste.

Roll out into four farls (that is, into a round and cut into four triangular pieces). On two of these, pile slices of raw apple. Place the other two on top and 'nip' around the edges to seal. In olden days, when stoves in farmhouses were rare, these were baked on the griddle till brown on both sides. They may also be baked in the oven. When the cake is brown, the apples are usually cooked.

The success of potato apple cake depends entirely on the serving. When cooked, each cake is slit round the side and the top turned back. The apples are then almost covered with thin slices of butter and well sweetened with sugar, as no sugar was used in the cooking. The top is replaced and all is put in the oven, till the butter and sugar are melted to form a delicious sauce.

McCartney's Family Butcher, 56-58 Main Street, Moira, Co Down (0846 611422).

David Burns, 112 Abbey Street, Bangor, Co Down (0247 270073).

Wysner Meats, 18 Ann Street, Ballycastle, Co Antrim (02657 62372).

Grange Lodge, Grange Road, Dungannon, Co Tyrone (08687 84212).

Adelboden Lodge, Donaghadee Road, Groomsport, Co Down (0247 464288).

John McKenna is co-editor of the Andre Simon award-winning 'Bridgestone Irish Food Guide' (Estragon Press, pounds 11.99), available from Books for Cooks, 4 Blenheim Crescent, London W11 (071-221 1992).

(Photograph omitted)