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Thursday, 21 September 2017

Bolton Food and Drink Festival 2017, including the Aidan Byrne Pop-Up Dinner and an Introduction to Carrs Pasties

Today's weekly(ish) phone call to my mum soon turned, as usual, to the subject of food. She'd been reading a James Martin magazine column about Bolton Food and Drink Festival, in which he sang the praises of a foodie extravaganza that is increasingly well-regarded and to which, until a couple of weeks ago, I had somehow never been. Part of this is no doubt sheer laziness on my part - driving to Bolton from South Manchester is easy enough, but if you want a drink you're looking at several different forms of public transport and a pretty early curfew.

Finally though, I've been, thanks to overnight accommodation courtesy of some lovely Bolton friends and an invite to the Aidan Byrne "Made in Bolton" pop-up restaurant. Byrne was until very recently at the helm at Manchester House, a restaurant for which I have a lot of time, although he has now moved to a consultancy position within Living Ventures. A great chance, then, to try his delicate food in the relaxed environs of a giant tent pitched in the middle of Bolton, offering three courses from a set menu that I had trouble choosing from because I wanted it all.

In the end, the relaxed environs didn't prove particularly relaxing. I imagine it's tricky turning a multipurpose temporary marquee into a glamorous restaurant for one night only, but the efforts were perhaps a little wide of the mark - table cloths and proper crockery, yes, but strange disco lighting and curiously dancey music that set a rather uncertain atmosphere. Some of the others at our shared table felt the venue looked a little like a tacky wedding disco, although I think this was a bit harsh. And anyway, we were here for the food. For starters, we both had the shellfish bisque, grilled Sicilian red prawns and saffron mayonnaise. This was superlative, with a strong, punchy flavour that spoke of a fish stock many hours in the making, and served with two fat prawns, a generous crouton and a healthy blob of excellent mayo. This was a great start, although one wonders why such beautifully presented food was served up under such strange lighting. I've deliberately not fiddled with the photos, so you can see how everything actually looked on the night as it pulsed through a variety of pastel colours.

For my main, I was lured in by the meaty delights of the braised beef cheek, choucroute, Wagyu fillet tartar, sweet miso hollandaise and beef Secretto ham, although I should in truth have gone for the red pepper-crusted cod loin with aubergine caviar and mussels which my date had ordered. Everything on my plate was, individually, lovely, but the overall effect was just too meaty, meaning that none of the elements stood out and I found myself longing for a bit of greenery just to break up the wall-to-wall beef. And yes, that's a terrible photo, but when you put a brown dish under purple lights I'm afraid that's what it looks like. The fish dish was lovely though, and perfectly balanced in a way the meat dish wasn't, with the comforting blandness of the cod pepped up by the saltiness of the mussel sauce and the sweetness of the red pepper crust. He won again on the next course - I chose the selection of regional cheese and biscuits in preference to dessert, whilst he had the chocolate mille feuille with hazelnuts and violets. The cheese course was generous but a bit generic and quite variable in quality, with a lacklustre Brie letting the plate down. Meanwhile, the mille feuille was a thing of great beauty and delicacy, shot through with flavours of parma violet that prevented the chocolate from being too rich, and snarfed in a millisecond by a man who claims not to like puddings.

Service was also a little variable, with a huge fleet of young people on hand - some of them excellent but some rather guilty of whipping plates away before people had finished. Byrne said himself on Twitter later that night that he wasn't happy with how the night had gone, but we enjoyed most of it very much, and certainly wouldn't be put off eating at one of his restaurants again. In any case, we were also by this point quite merry from the selection of brilliant Aldi wines available at ludicrously cheap prices.

The next day we explored the festival itself, with the friends who had kindly put us up the night before. It's an impressive affair, with far more stalls than I had imagined (more than 200 traders attended) as well as two music stages, an Aldi wine tent and loads of chef demos (including the aforementioned James Martin, making his ninth consecutive appearance). More than 300,000 people attended over the four days of the festival, but because the stalls are spread out over Bolton town centre, things don't feel too claustrophobic or busy, and you can kid yourself you're walking off the seven lunches you've consumed. I'm pleased to say I enjoyed my first ever Carrs pasty so much I had two (the new cheese and jalapeno one is an absolute winner), and I was equally delighted to track down Paul from Fatjax Chutney and stock up on some essential pickle provisions.

So whilst this might have been my first Bolton Food and Drink Festival, it certainly won't be my last - roll on next Summer and my second consecutive appearance.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Festive Feasts at The Vegetarian Society Cookery School

Ah, Christmas, the most emotive of all the C-words. Whilst I'm not keen on shops full of Christmas tat and festive music before the start of Autumn, I'm very happy to eat Christmas food at pretty much any time of year; I'm a big fan of wintery food in general, and any occasion that encourages the consumption of sprouts, pre-lunch booze and one's own body weight in cheese gets my vote every time. As a blogger, this all-year-round love of Christmas food is useful, as festive previews tend to be over the summer, and thus it was I found myself a couple of weeks ago at The Vegetarian Society in Altrincham for a Christmas cookery school.

The weather, naturally, was beautiful, and the sunshine streaming in through the French doors meant the Christmas tree set up in the corner of our reception room looked a little forlorn. It's amazing how quickly you can get into the spirit of something though, and as soon as we were in the kitchen with our genial chef Alex, it was surprisingly easy to buy into the whole thing, particularly with the prospect of some mince pies in the offing. There were eight of us on the course, grouped around a central island worktop set with individual stations - it's a lovely kitchen, with plenty of space and several cookers, hobs and sinks so that you don't all end up queuing to wash your hands at the same time. We began with some knife skills and then were straight into the festive baking, working together to make mincemeat before rolling out our own pastry and each making four mince pies. I've always wanted to be the sort of person who makes their own mincemeat and it was really very easy (especially if you make The Lady Sybil do the elbow grease, as seen below). Alex also demonstrated a couple of dishes, but even these were very hands-on, with jobs assigned to anyone making eye contact at the wrong moment.

Over a cup of tea and one of our own mince pies (which were perfect - not too sweet and each the size of a small house), we got to look through a selection of recipes and each choose one to make. This is a great idea, and my favourite part of the whole course - every cookery school I've been to before has given everyone the same thing to make, whereas the idea here is that we each make something different and then all sit down to a real feast of dishes. This could, of course, be a little daunting for the inexperienced cook, and it did take a few minutes to get my head round where everything was (mind you, my mum has lived in her current house for 17 years, and I still can't ever find anything in her kitchen). The recipe I'd chosen - the Stilton and Walnut Cheesecake with Port and Blueberry sauce - was fairly straightforward though, and Alex was on hand to help with any questions and to laugh at me for accidentally setting my Port sauce on fire just the tiniest bit.

The afternoon flew by, and it was soon time for us to proudly carry our dishes through to the serving table and sit down for Christmas dinner. There wasn't a duff dish amongst them, although my favourites were my Stilton tart (due to the presence of a great deal of cheese rather than any skill on my part), the spectacular Chestnut and Butterbean Wellington and the astonishingly good Sumac Carrot Smash. Alex joined us for lunch along with cookery school manager Jonathan and media officer Su, and great company they were too; in fact everyone on the course was lovely, and the atmosphere was festive indeed.

The whole day was brilliant fun, and I actually learned a few things as well as confirming that my love of sprouts remains undiminished. The people at the Vegetarian Society are lovely, and not the least bit preachy to the array of (mostly) carnivores sitting in front of them; instead, they're all about showing that vegetarian food can be just as good (and sometimes better) than its meatier equivalents. I rarely cook meat at home any more, and whilst I shan't be going back to vegetarianism any time soon (last attempted when I was 16, and trying to convince Morrissey I was the girl for him with no idea I was barking up a very wrong tree indeed) I will definitely be making a number of the recipes from the pack - even the Nut Roast looks good. Maybe not until nearer December though...

- The Vegetarian Society Cookery School is at Parkdale, Dunham Rd, Altrincham WA14 4QG. The next Festive Feasts course is on Wednesday 8th November and costs £139, good value for a full-day course where the numbers are kept low. Just beware your friends and family will expect you to replicate the entire feast for them single-handedly, as mine are currently baying for.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Cookery School at Chaophraya Thai, Manchester: No More Friday Night Takeaways

If you cook quite a lot, it's easy to get stuck in a bit of a rut, and to think that you know more than you do. For example, until last weekend, I was confident in the knowledge of at least two things: that I could make a really, really good Thai curry from scratch, and that spring rolls could never, ever be worth the effort of making yourself, and should only ever be purchased from your local takeaway (preferably wearing a hastily-donned coat over the top of your pyjamas).

A few hours at a Chaophraya cooking class last Sunday proved me erroneous in both regards. First things first though: in case you've not been, Chaophraya is an excellent Thai restaurant nestled behind and above Sam's Chop House on Chapel Walks, a stalwart in an area of Manchester where there are frequent restaurant casualties. I've had a couple of really good meals here in the past, so was excited to be let loose in one of their cooking classes, which promised an introduction to Thai ingredients, as well as a demonstration and hands on session and - that magic word - tasting.

There are nine of us on the course, and we are given a welcome glass of fruit punch before being equipped with Chaophraya aprons and chef's hats (as usual, mine is too small, and I have to have help) and sent upstairs where our work stations await. This is a very well-organised (and subsequently calm) affair; some of the restaurant tables have been pushed together and set with boards and other equipment, with a stove set up at one end, and we are split into a five and a four with the luxury of one instructor each.

Our menu for the day is chicken spring rolls followed by Thai green chicken curry, with kluay buad chee - bananas in coconut milk - for pudding. They are happy to cater for dietary needs but we appear to be a bunch of omnivores, although one of our party requests not to have things too spicy. The spring rolls turn out to be brilliant fun to make - we finely chop and stir-fry a selection of vegetables and then are each given a pile of wrappers and shown how to construct the perfect spring roll (with infinite patience, it has to be said). They look mighty impressive and we are all pretty pleased with ourselves when our efforts are whisked away, deep-fried, and returned to us with a pleasingly spicy dipping sauce. We have made around 5,000 of these items and they are delicious; I manage four and watch with some satisfaction as a good half dozen more are packed for each of us to take home. Whilst I can't ever imagine knocking a batch of these up on a Friday night after a week at work, I would definitely make these again for a special occasion, and our smugness at our own cleverness is palpable.

On to the main, and I am, in truth, a little disappointed that it's something I make so frequently at home and already consider myself to be quite good at. HOWEVER. Whilst we have been eating our starter, the workstations have magically cleaned themselves and set themselves with an array of beautifully fresh, healthy ingredients, and the curry we make is, without question, in a different league from any I have ever made before. Maybe it's the freshness of the ingredients; maybe it's the addition of one or two things I tend to leave out because I can't be bothered to go out and find them (fresh lime leaves come to mind); maybe it's because we make the curry paste properly, in a pestle and mortar, rather than lazily throwing all the ingredients into a food processor like I normally do at home. Either way, the curry is amazing, and I feel I have genuinely learned something from making both these courses - about technique for the starter, and about flavours for the main. Our chefs couldn't be more helpful, talking to us about the ingredients and bringing me a little dish of bird's eye chillies and fish sauce with which to augment my curry when I mention I like things slightly spicier.

The dessert is the least exciting of the dishes but is delicious all the same - we chop bananas and simmer them in coconut milk with sugar, salt and sesame seeds. It is simple but effective, although we are all pretty stuffed by now and not everyone can finish the generous helping we are given. At the end of a most enjoyable 2.5 hours, we leave with full stomachs, garlicky fingers, and a bag containing the food that we've made, the recipes, and a bottle of beer to wash it all down with, as well as our authentically be-smeared aprons. Accusations that I then go to meet a friend for a pint at Sam's and he excitedly consumes all the spring rolls in a furtive manner under the table are almost entirely unfounded.

- I was invited to the cookery class free of charge but - genuinely - this is one of the best-value cookery classes I've tried, and I would honestly pay the £60 to go again. Full details can be found on the Chaophraya website here.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Foodies Festival at Tatton Park, July 2017: Cheese, Pork Products and Booze in the Cheshire Countryside

By and large, I'm very fond of a food festival. And how could I not be? The premise is a tempting one - interesting producers and suppliers gathered together in one venue (often, pleasingly, a field), ready to talk with enthusiasm about their produce and to proffer samples on cocktail sticks to the hungry potential purchaser. All too often, though, a food festival is a disappointment - too crowded, full of pushy people with sharp elbows out to eat and drink all the samples they can get their hands on without the slightest intention of buying anything, with lots of very samey, very over-priced food outlets demanding £8 for an average burger openly removed from a frozen Tesco box before your very eyes.

Not so Foodies Festival, the biggest food festival in the UK, which pops up at various locations around the country every summer. This weekend it's been at the lovely Tatton Park in Knutsford; we went on Friday, traditionally the quietest day of the three, although still attracting a good crowd and a gratifying number of dogs carrying their own toys and eyeing up cheese counters. Here, in no particular order, are some of the highlights of our wanderings:

1. Cheese. There are few sights more beautiful than a table of cheeses, ideally with someone standing behind it, cheese knife in hand, ready to cut slivers of whatever you fancy. Good selection too, with stalls featuring Great British Cheese, Snowdonia Cheese, Saddleworth Cheese Company and Rostock Dairy. Many of the items you see here now reside in my fridge.

2. Good booze. There was also lots of decent booze to be had, starting with a large glass of Cremant for a fiver and proceeding through a number of stalls with both samples to try and glasses to purchase. We didn't get round to any Pimm's (although we liked their teapot stall, and luckily the rain you see in the clouds above it remained there), but enjoyed the Chardonnay and the Merlot from Dark Horse Wines and the tequila from Cazcabel, particularly the Reposado, which I bitterly regret not buying. We probably spent the most time at the Thomas Dakin stall (my current favourite gin by some distance) and the Feeney's Irish Cream counter (complete with bell to be rung every time anyone mentioned Bailey's), and as I came home with a bottle of each and some cocktail recipe cards, I shall post again soon with the results of my jigging and shaking.

3. Food and beer pairings. We elected not to get tickets for any of the demo tents although - impressively - there were three, offering food, drink and cake demonstrations, and the line-up was a good one (Rosemary Shrager was on when we walked past, and Luis Troyano from GBBO had just finished). We did, however, very much like the mini food and beer pairings from There's a Beer For That. These were quick, entertaining events every half hour, some led by the lovely Melissa Cole ahead of her main gig later that afternoon in the demo tent. Also, I now have a badge that says BEER on it, which I shall wear proudly in the hope that people are subliminally lured in and buy me beer.

4. Assorted pork products. A food festival visit is simply not a success for me if I don't sample a range of pork products and come home with a bulgingly porky handbag. We tried lots of very good pork pies, and ended up spending wildly on sausages (all from Northumbrian Sausage Company, and including pork & black pudding and CHEESE & MARMITE) and excellent bacon from Spoilt Pig.

5. Burger. There were loads of options for lunch, including Peruvian, Mexican and an entire stall dedicated to calamari, but I believe a big fat burger to be de rigeur on such occasions, and had a very good Wild Boar patty from Silverside Grill, washed down with a salted caramel pudding from the Bonne Maman van.

A good day out then, AND I had sausages for breakfast yesterday. There's still time to catch the last day of the show at Tatton Park today, otherwise I highly recommend you track them down the next time they pitch their tent on our shores - full details here.

Monday, 12 June 2017

Manchester Tapas Wars: New Menu at La Vina, Deansgate

I've always been fond of La Vina, that reliable Manchester veteran at the King Street end of Deansgate. I've spent many happy lunchtimes there ordering more and more rounds of tapas in a bid to soak up their excellent white Rioja, and even chose it as a first date venue around this time last year, not least because I was relying on their gin-and-tonics-the-size-of-your-head to allay any last-minute nerves. In what used to be a fairly straight shoot-out between La Vina and Evuna, my money was invariably on the former.

Things have changed though in the last couple of years, and Manchester now has a whole raft of very good tapas restaurants, mainly clustered around the Deansgate area and supplemented by the excellent San Juan in Chorlton and newcomer La Cantina in Didsbury and Heaton Moor. And to their credit, La Vina seem to have raised their game accordingly. The new menu is a brave one, moving away from a comfortable, mid-price approach and instead foregrounding more typically Spanish offerings that had my San Sebastián-loving dinner companion raving in approval. And so far, the approach seems to be working, with the restaurant full at 6.30 on a wet Wednesday last week.

The evening does not, in truth, get off to a particularly distinguished start. They seem a little understaffed at first, meaning that the gin and tonics we order take 15 minutes to arrive, they have run out of Jamón ibérico, and the Pan Tumaca (tomato bread) is woefully under-toasted and seems to be lacking any seasoning. Things take a turn for the better with the arrival of the gin and tonics (which are exemplary even if the glasses do seem to have shrunk a little since the heady goldfish bowl days - a Gin Mare with thyme and a fat Gordal olive, and a Brockman's with strawberry and grapefruit zest) and our excellent server Bruno, who whisks away the offending tomato bread and replaces it with a perfectly-toasted, perfectly-seasoned version (you may play spot the difference above, if you wish). We also enjoy a dish of Gordal olives (there was one more than you see here, suggesting I should start being more selective with my choice of plus-ones), some very good Boquerones, confidently and simply presented with olive oil and smoked sea salt, and some moreish Croquetas de Pollo - three fat balls stuffed with chicken and cheese, deep-fried and served with aioli for added goodness. Alongside this we have a bottle of that infamous white Rioja which, at £21 a bottle, is far too drinkable for its (or my) own good.

Next up, the fish dishes - for me, the highlight of the night. The Pulpo is bravely, unmistakably, octopussy - one fat be-suckered tentacle lying brazenly across a bed of piquillo purée and flavoured with garlic, chilli and lemon. Bearing in mind that I once witnessed a girl in Iberica refuse to eat the octopus dish until her boyfriend had cut off all the suckers for her, this seems likely to startle a few diners - this is the best dish of the night though. A close second is the Galician-style fish - red mullet fried with garlic, paprika and sherry vinegar on a bed of potatoes and samphire and topped with crispy fried onions. I had this dish here a couple of weeks ago, and am well on my way to becoming addicted to it - the flavours are bold and the textures a lovely combination of fatty crispness and soft, flaky fish.

For our meat course, we share the Secreto from the Iberico pork section of the menu. My dinner date has talked of little else since the start of the meal, and thankfully it delivers - the marbling of fat keeps it beautifully tender as well as imparting a wonderful flavour, and it is cooked nicely pink as we request. Alongside this we have the Patatas Trufa, another stand-out dish of triple-cooked potatoes with Spanish white truffle oil, rosemary and manchego. The waiter says these are like Marmite, and a real love-it-or-hate-it dish; sadly, we both love Marmite, and do not share these crispy little delights in a particularly dignified manner. I am too full for dessert but am (thankfully) persuaded into a portion of Churros. These are as good as you might expect, served scalding-hot from the fryer, dusted with cinnamon and sugar and accompanied with a warm chocolate dipping sauce that I 100% do not, repeat NOT, drink straight from the cup when no-one is looking.

We had an excellent night at La Vina, which really seems to have stepped up a gear with the new menu. Yes, to my eye it seems that prices have gone up a little, but so has the quality, and they still do a range of excellent deals such as three selected dishes and a drink from the Menu del Dia for an astonishing £9.99 (Monday to Friday until 6pm), and Steak and Seafood nights on a Monday, offering a main, a side and a drink for £15. Every Wednesday there is live music from resident musician Fisko Tuvera between 7 and 9pm; we didn't know about this when we booked, but it added to the already-buzzy atmosphere and went some way to concealing the noise made when one slurps chocolate sauce straight from the dish. We couldn't really have felt more like we were on holiday somewhere warm and seductive by the time we left - so here's a shot of a moody, sexy, rainy Manchester on my way to get the tram just to remind us how lucky we are to have it all here.

- La Vina Manchester is at 105-107 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2BQ. We were invited in to review the new menu and given an allowance towards the cost of our meal, but we enjoyed it so much we lingered over drinks and spent far more.