In Search of Scampi in Portavogie

The Portavogie Seafood Festival was our 3rd preferred outing for the day, where our first choice was a National Trust tour of the Causeway Coast, and my personal least preferred the Traction Engine festival in Greyabbey. Because my nephew’s big into Traction Engines. But I was otherwise happy enough when the weather became too miserable for causeway coast scenery, and the Traction Engine Festival was rained off with waterlogged fields. But, come rain or shine, the show will always go on at the Portavogie Seafood Festival. And we are off in search for some Portavogie Prawns.

The Portavogie Seafood Festival

The Portavogie Seafood Festival is an annual event taking place in the small village fishing port of Portavogie in County Down, Northern Ireland. An event sold as a “superb family day out set in harbour surroundings, with splendid seafood produce, children’s entertainment and much more”. Although many of the attendees appeared to be there solely to gawk at Jean-Christophe Novelli who was the celebrity guest chef in 2019. I’m guessing few celebrity faces pass through these parts of the Ards Peninsula. And I guess some may have also been interested in his cooking demos, as this obviously what the Portavogie Seafood Festival is all about. It is to celebrate seafood and the traditional fishing culture in this small village of Portavogie.

Portavogie Harbour

The event takes place on Portavogie Harbour where we find all sorts of kiosks and workshops set up to share local seafood cooked and prepared in all kind of ways. From traditional Northern Irish seafood dishes to less-local interpretations like Spanish paella. This includes a free oyster-eating competition, open to joining throughout the day, where participants are tasked to eat 12 oysters in the quickest time, to win a fancy meal at a local restaurant. But the main produce of this quaint fishing village is otherwise Portavogie Prawns, commonly prepared as Portavogie Scampi, a local battered seafood dish famous on menus throughout Northern Ireland. So today we are there to track Portavogie Prawns and Portavogie Scampi to its source. Although it is surprising that only one kiosk sells Portavogie Scampi, and unsurprisingly the queues are 5x longer than any other.

Portavogie Prawns?

So we queued at the “Simply Scampi” van for some “fresh locally landed langoustine tails” coated with a “light and crispy batter” before shallow frying. And they are seriously good, served hot and gooey straight from the fryer, with a pinch of salt, and a squeeze of lemon. Or maybe some freshly made tartare sauce on the side. But Fanfan was insistent that we were not actually eating prawn, and while I set out to school her in local Northern Irish cuisine, I ended up looking rather silly to find that Scampi is in fact langoustine, belonging to the lobster family. Rather than being of the shrimp or prawn family. But I’m fairly sure the terms are interchangeable through many of the chip shops in Northern Ireland.

Family-Friendly Fun

There is of course more to draw in crowds on the day, with plenty of kids stuff, as well as events like a strongman pulling a trawler, and a trials bike obstacle thing. There’s also a mini funfair, live music, and just a whole load of street entertainment. However we missed most of these events given they are all hosted outside, and in the rain, where we instead remained sheltered in the large indoor venue on Portavogie Harbour. Here we found plenty of seating areas to take our grub, as well as random workshops and exhibits sharing Portavogie’s other local traditions and cultures. Like pottery, rope making, and a fish tank where you can pick-up the squids and lobsters, and just get up close to the local seafood before they go into the fryer.

The Long Way Home

The rain was too much at times so we made an early dash for the car between showers. And to not waste the day, we decided to follow the long route home, where instead of driving back along the Peninsula, we continued to Portaferry where there is a ferry crossing the Lough to the opposite side at Strangford. So we ended up doing a full circle of the Peninsula, returning on the opposite side through Ards, with stops at various tourist spots along the way. Making a decent day out in the end. But this ferry crossing (Strangford to Portaferry) would otherwise be the easier route for those travelling to Portavogie from the northwest of the country. And is a worthwhile, scenic detour for others. 

Travel to Portavogie

The local council runs free buses from Newtownards to Portavogie for the annual Portavogie Seafood Festival. And this now includes free shuttles from the centre of Bangor since the merging of the two councils. The buses run from just before midday (the Portavogie Seafood Festival starts at 12:00) and with free returns as well from Portavogie Harbour to Newtownards and Bangor later through the day. Alternatively, there are always the local bus routes.

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