I was too young to understand much about the Irish troubles of the 1990s. Even now I don’t really understand much about it, outside of the bastardised versions of history offered by Hollywood films such as The Devil’s Own. All I know is that there’s a Northern Ireland and a Republic of Ireland, and tourists should take care when referring to either country to ensure you don’t ruffle any feathers!
These days, it’s very easy to travel from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland to Belfast in Northern Ireland. There are regular trains and buses between the two cities, or you could do what we did and hire a car so that you can do a proper day trip to Northern Ireland, visiting amazing sites like the Giants Causeway and the Carrick-A-Rede Rope Bridge as well as Belfast. It only takes two hours to drive from Dublin to Belfast and one hour more to drive north to the rope bridge and causeway – an easy drive for anyone used to driving in Australia!
But first, lunch in Belfast. We were there on a Sunday which was particularly difficult as most shops and restaurants don’t seem to open until about 1pm – perhaps a result of morning church attendance in a Catholic country? Just keep that in mind if you’re ever in Belfast on a Sunday! I had my heart set on going to Avoca Cafe, reputedly one of the best places to have Irish scones in Belfast.
It’s the type of cafe that you could very easily miss if you didn’t know it was there though! The ground floor of Avoca is primarily a lifestyle destination store, not unlike Anthropologie in America. If you walk past all the organic cotton clothes, tealight candles and garden-to-kitchen cookbooks though, you can go up the stairs in the back to their cafe and food hall on the next floor.
The cafe orders purely pre-made food items like pies, quiches, salads, cakes and pastries – nothing is made to order. That’s not a downside though, as there’s a fantastic range to choose from and all of it is house-made rather than sourced from other supplies. To order, you just queue up at the counter before taking your order to one of the many tables scattered throughout the cafe. Be prepared to share your table with other groups, cafeteria-style – there’s not many small tables available.
Scones were what I was after at Avoca – and they had five different varieties to offer! Only one was savoury – this Sundried Tomato Scone served with a pat of butter and spiced tomato chutney on the side. These aren’t the scones you would be used to in England or Australia – these Irish scones are much rougher, crumblier, and are hand-shaped rather than cut out with a scone cutter. This savoury scone was a lovely choice, with a great mix of seeds and nuts throughout and sprinkled on top that provided a fantastic and tasty crunch with every bite – not something you would expect with a traditionally softer scone, but very welcome all the same.
These are two traditional sweet scones served at Avoca – a Plain Scone and a Fruit Scone. Both are served with seeded raspberry jam and butter on the side. Clotted cream is never served here – only the English have cream with their scones! The Irish prefer to use butter on their scones instead. Again, these scones are quite large, rough and crumbly, making it quite difficult to spread the hard butter evenly on the scone. I did like the sugar crust on the plain scone though, as well as how buttery the scone was.
We ordered their other two sweet scones – a more modern blend of a Pear and Almond Scone and a Mixed Berry Scone. K found both too doughy, like a brioche-esque cake rather than a typical scone, and I have to agree with him. These scones were definitely more like a muffin than a scone, which was a bit disappointing.
We finished off our meal with a shared Green Tea – unfortunately the teapot only held enough for one cup of tea, which I felt was a bit stingy given that it cost about 2.50 GBP. At least the scones were relatively cheap, costing between 1.50 GBP and 1.80 GBP each.
Overall, I would say that Avoca’s scones are the perfect large hearty doughy snack for the everyday Irish workingman or woman, rather than a feather-light dainty morsel served at an elegant afternoon tea with finger sandwiches. Adjust your expectations accordingly. Five scones between two people are more than ample – I’d actually just recommend ordering one each as a snack as it’s almost a meal in itself!
Avoca Cafe is located at 41 Arthur Street, Belfast Northern Ireland.