In Belfast, a Celebration of Art, Community and Pizza

In Belfast, a Celebration of Art, Community and Pizza

In October, on the second floor of a former spinning mill in east Belfast, the visual artist and author Oliver Jeffers, 46, hosted a candlelit dinner for a group of Irish and Northern Irish artists and friends. The Portview Trade Centre, as the building is called, stopped producing textiles in the 1970s and is now home to 54 artists’ studios and creative businesses, including Jeffers’s, and his neighbors made up a large portion of the guests and the organizers. The occasion was a personal one — the launch of his 20th book, “Begin Again” — but he also wanted to celebrate his wider creative community. Accordingly, the evening combined tributes to both Belfast, where the artist has a home in the Holywood area, and Brooklyn, where he lived until recently and still has a studio.

Jeffers is perhaps best known for his philosophical, understated children’s books, including “The Book Eating Boy” (2006) and “The Heart and the Bottle” (2010). And true to his style, “Begin Again” is curious, warm and quietly profound. “Not for kids, but not not for kids,” Jeffers says, the book is a vibrantly illustrated exploration of the climate crisis that attempts to lay out a hopeful future for humanity. “It offers an idea of slowing down, of using what’s near us — of starting over,” says Jeffers, “with the realization that we cannot do anything until we start to act with a sense of unity, to tell ourselves new stories that are defined by what we want.”

While guests gathered for drinks, the sun could be seen setting over the city; on the north side of the building, hills rolled down toward the sea. The food too — a collaboration between the local bistro Noble, known for its unpretentious ingredient-led dishes, and Flout, an American-style pizzeria on the ground floor of Portview — was unmistakably rooted in Belfast. Despite a limited power supply and a lack of running water in the room, dishes were assembled and cooked in situ using three portable pizza ovens and a small stove. The table was lit with clusters of white candles and, after the sun finally went down, said Jeffers, it glowed with “the warmth of a hearth at home.”

The attendees: Jeffers celebrated with his wife and business manager, Suzanne Jeffers, and a group of Irish and Northern Irish artists, including the actress Caitriona Balfe, 44; the portrait artist Colin Davidson, 55; the electronic musician and composer David Holmes, 54; the husband-and-wife film director duo Glenn Leyburn, 54, and Lisa Barros Da’Sa, 49; and the writers Glenn Patterson, 61, and Jan Carson, 43. “Everybody at this dinner,” said Jeffers, “was interested in the power of narrative, the impact of what they do and how it makes other people feel.”

The table: Guests sat at two long tables — pushed together to create a more intimate arrangement — in the middle of the otherwise nearly empty 10,000-square-foot room. The events stylist Rachel Worthington McQueen, 30, sourced an Irish linen tablecloth in the same navy hue as the book cover’s background. Mismatched dishes in traditional Blue Willow patterns (originally bought from secondhand websites for Worthington McQueen’s wedding two years ago) held squat candles, and food was served on simple white plates brought over from Noble. Seasonal blooms — including deep burgundy dahlias and pale pink spray roses — echoed the rich palette of the book and were provided by the local, sustainable flower farm Sow Grateful. Each display was tied with bright pink twine, sourced by Suzanne Jeffers to match the exact Pantone color (number 812U) of the book’s title.

The food: To start, Noble’s co-founder and head chef, Pearson Morris, 34, served crab and lobster from nearby Bangor Bay dressed with homemade mayonnaise and his Bloody Mary tomatoes (heritage tomatoes steeped overnight in a mix of vodka, celery and Tabasco sauce) on Flout’s blackened focaccia. “I bake things so you think they’re burned — that’s flavor for me,” said the pizzeria’s founder, Peter Thompson, 45. Next was a take on the classic New Haven-style clam pie made with steamed Galway Bay mussels, alongside which Morris served pan-fried wild halibut with a fish head sauce. Then came Flout’s Detroit-style pepperoni pizza and a salad featuring locally grown baby gem lettuces. Dessert was Noble’s chocolate delice — jaconde sponge cake topped with salted caramel, dark chocolate parfait and a chocolate mirror glaze — accompanied by a salted caramel ice cream with Flout’s sourdough chocolate cookies tumbled through.

The drinks: Noble’s front-of-house manager and co-founder, Saul McConnell, 38, oversaw the drinks, which ranged from a vibrant Blanc de Meunier champagne for arriving guests to an amber passito-style Liastos wine from Lyrarakis, Crete, for the dessert course. The Boundary Brewing Company, Belfast’s first tap room and one of Jeffers’s neighbors in the building, provided an alternative aperitif: a full-bodied English bitter called A Certain Romance, a favorite of Jeffers’s studio team.

The conversation: Many artists talked shop, swapping notes on the production problems they encounter in their respective industries, and conversation also turned to global events. “There’s always been a comparison between the conflict in Northern Ireland and the conflict in Israel-Palestine,” said Jeffers. “We talked about the divisive rhetoric that’s going on right now.”

The music: Jeffers enlisted the Irish producer and D.J. Marion Hawkes, who runs the record store Sound Advice in Portview, to create a playlist, which ranged from classic folk to contemporary electronic tracks.

The recipe for Noble’s mayonnaise: It’s hard to beat fresh, homemade mayonnaise, says Morris, and it’s a quick, thoughtful addition to a dinner at home. But despite its few ingredients, it’s deceptively difficult to make. He recommends starting with equal parts white wine vinegar and egg yolk (approximately 2 teaspoons of vinegar to two yolks), which prevents the eggs from splitting as you very gradually beat in 250 ml of oil, then season with 5 grams of sugar and 5 grams of salt. Morris likes to use extra-virgin rapeseed oil for its neutral flavor, and an electric mixer for ease.

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