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Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Wine Tasting 2016: Embarrassingly Clanky Bags on the Tram Time!

There are all sorts of things clamouring for our attention at any given time. Restaurants come and go; pop-ups spring up everywhere you look; street food continues to flourish; and every week seems to see the launch of at least one new bar in the city centre. So any event that keeps people coming back year after year is something to be applauded, particularly if it permits one to sample hundreds of wines in the rarefied atmosphere of Manchester Town Hall; indeed, I can think of few things besides the Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Tasting that would see me boarding a tram at 11am on a Sunday morning and heading off in search of a nice glass of red.

Three Wine Men is, for me, one of the best days of the year. Hosted every year by Tim Atkin, Olly Smith and Oz Clarke, it would be easy to be cynical about the branding - you're invited, for example, to take a test to see with which of the three you most share your wine tastes, complete with a sticker to wear (terrifyingly, if you end up liking the same wines as Olly this means liking "wines as exuberant as riding a unicorn by the horn all the way to the gates of Guzzle City", a trip I'd be keen to avoid, even to the extent of paying an Uber surge). Too much cynicism would rather miss the point though - this is simply a happy, joyous affair where, in exchange for £27.50, you get to merrily weave your way round the Town Hall, sampling lovely wines at will and getting to talk to some of the small producers and stockists who often don't get much of a look-in.

One such company is Alpine Wines (pictured below), who are just lovely and from whom I end up buying every year - this year, the lovely Grüner Veltliner "Mitanaund" from Elisabeth Hausgnost. In fact, for me the Reislings and the Grüners were the stars of this year's show, with some excellent examples at GK Wine House (as personally recommended by Olly Smith who - as usual - asked after my mother, whom he met for about three minutes about three years ago).

I shall also remember 2016 as the year I was finally converted to Sherry, a drink of which I have always been a little suspicious. Whilst I can't claim to have liked all of the Sherries on show at the Sherry Wines stall (Tio Pepe Fino still has too much of a whiff of old ladies in bed jackets about it for me), I did enjoy most of them, particularly the Manzanillas and the Oloroso. In fact, I did so well and was SO brave that I was allowed my badge for achieving the Sherry Challenge despite some rather undignified retching of the Tio Pepe into the spittoon.

I avoided most of the big name stalls simply in the interests of time - the whole point of Three Wine Men is to try wine you perhaps wouldn't come across on the high street. That said, who could resist a chat with the lovely Dave Marsland (aka Drinks Enthusiast), on hand to represent Warner Edwards Gin (try the rhubarb one - it's wondrous) and seen below in one of his typically unassuming, camera-shy poses. I also very much liked the wines chosen to represent the International Wine Challenge, an annual award that recognises outstanding wines regardless of their cost - some of the 2016 medal winners on show included the lovely Greyfriars Vineyard Blanc de Blancs 2013 (I'm a sucker for an English sparkler) and a very good Tempranillo from Asda that comes in at under six quid.

All too soon, our time was up - three hours fly by here, and we had to make way for the good folk thirstily arriving for the next session. The only rogue note of the day? The three wine men were being filmed for a TV show, and as I was standing in the wrong place at the wrong time there is a worrying chance I'll soon be on a TV screen near you, swaying slightly and pretending to listen to Oz Clarke as he talks to me about something. Still, potential public humiliation aside, I'm already looking forward to the next one.

- Find out more about Three Wine Men here on their website. I was given complimentary tickets to the event, but spent approximately three million pounds on wine and would happily go (and have been) as a paying customer.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Hip Hop Chip Shop Bring Fish-Based Joy to the Northern Quarter

If there's one meal capable of bringing both great joy and inconsolable sorrow, it's surely fish and chips. Good fish and chips is a wondrous thing indeed - properly crispy batter concealing soft, flaky fish; big fat chips with fluffy middles and a few scrappy bits at the bottom of the tray; more salt and vinegar than any normal person would ever want. In short, it is a thing of great beauty. Unfortunately, standards vary, and too many chippies serve up greasy, soggy fish with anaemic, under-cooked chips...I'm almost weeping at the thought of such travesty. Still, if the purchasing of fish and chips is a gamble, all the more reason to rejoice that purveyors of fine fishy wares The Hip Hop Chip Shop have taken over the kitchens at Kosmonaut in the Northern Quarter for the foreseeable future.

The new venue feels like a good fit for Hip Hop, who have been seeking a new home since the end of The Kitchens project at Spinningfields - Kosmonaut has decent beers, loads of space and always has a good atmosphere, plus it's right in the middle of the NQ rather than tucked away at the bottom of town. The new menu features Hip Hip favourites (the Battered Halloumi Fingers are on as a side and a main, and Feastie Boys - battered fish biters, chips, minty mushy peas, tartare sauce - and the splendid Shell L Cool J Burger - Louisiana spiced crabcake, battered smoky bacon, spicy ‘slaw, brioche bun, chips - are on the mains) as well as some new dishes, the standout of which is the DJ Kool Jerk - jerk batter fish, battered plantain and scotch bonnet pickled pepper. The Chilli Batter Onion Rings remain superlative, and the Minty Mushy Peas are still, for me, the best in Manchester; we also very much liked the Pea Fritters and have both become a bit obsessed with the Curry Sauce and the Black Sunday Gravy (which takes between three and several hundred days to make, depending on who you speak to).

In fact, we liked it all. We like the Hip Hop Chip Shop, we like the beer at Kosmonaut, we like the music (NWA + DJ Kool Jerk = v.g.), and we like the menu, which has a decent range of veggie and meat dishes as well as the obvious fish ones, and just shows what a permanent kitchen can do for you. Yes, it's all a bit deep-fried, but there's still far more range here than you'd get at most chippies, and anyway, there's wholesome booze to wash it all down with. The dishes you see here were part of a preview tasting and thus some of the dishes are not full size (and the crabcake is completely stark naked, apart from its 'slaw) - Hip Hop are not shy with portion size so you'll often get a bit more than seen here. And if fish and chips is more of a takeaway thing for you, they'll soon be on Deliveroo, thus rendering movement from the sofa completely unnecessary.

- You can find Hip Hop Chip Shop at Kosmonaut 4-9pm Mon-Thurs and 12-10pm Fri-Sun (full menu here); the van will also be taking up residence at Trinity Leeds for the next six weeks. This was a preview event with complimentary food but they had my cash off me plenty of times at The Kitchens and will continue to do so now.

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Christmas Made Easy: Giving the Gift of GIN this Festive Season

Much as I adore it, I do try to avoid mentioning the C-word - Christmas - until the end of November or so. It really isn't easy. The Boots Christmas catalogue has been in store so long I've had ample time to select which Soap & Glory gift set I require this year (the twisty-tin with ladies on, just in case you've got a spare item in your 3-for-2 basket). A colleague admitted this week to having had Christmas pudding for his tea on Monday. There is a box of biscuits in the staffroom, which makes no direct mention of Christmas but which bears a drawing in which several of the biscuits are sporting festive hats. All this, and we've not even had Halloween yet.

And to be honest, the presents are the least interesting bit of Christmas once you're a grown-up with a house full of tat and very little room to put any more (twisty-lady-tin excepted, obviously); this means it's hard to come up with a meaningful answer when people ask you what you want. Well, no longer, thanks to a PR email I received a couple of weeks ago: had I thought of gin as the perfect Christmas gift? Astonishingly, I hadn't - but it makes perfect sense. If there's nothing you really need, the whole point of a present is for it to be a treat that makes you happy: and if that isn't the very definition of gin, I really don't know what is (bourbon or rum maybe, but that's for a different post).

Thus a happy quartet of four mini gins arrived through the post, along with the promise that there would be one here for every palate. Obviously I immediately broke up the little family by opening and drinking them - purely in the interests of providing the following Christmas gift guide, of course.

BLOOM Gin. This comes in a beautiful bottle and has a slightly floral flavour that explains why it is so beloved of Manchester cocktail bars. BLOOM is distilled by one of the world's few female Master Gin Distillers, Joanne Moore, who is celebrating her 10th Anniversary as Master Distiller this year. This, along with the three main botanicals that go into BLOOM Gin - the flowers of chamomile and honeysuckle and the citrus fruit pomelo - perhaps explains why this is suggested as being a perfect gift for a woman. I'm not sure about this as I think most people would enjoy this gin, but as long as that woman is me I don't really mind.

Available from: Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Harvey Nichols and Ocado. RRP £24.00 for 70cl. ABV: 40%.

Opihr Oriental Spiced Gin. This is billed as a unique and different style of London Dry Gin made using exotic botanicals, herbs and spices; it also comes in the most beautiful bottle. I'd had this once in a cocktail and decided I didn't like it, but it turns out it must have been the cocktail I didn't like - this makes a very fine gin and tonic indeed and I am converted. My boyfriend has favoured this gin for some time, but warns that the attractive tassel that decorates the bottle can be used as a rope by cunning dinosaurs with a taste for Opihr.

Available from: Tesco, Morrison's, Waitrose, Ocado, Booths and seven regional Harvey Nichols stores nationwide and 31Dover.com. RRP: £23.00 for 70cl. ABV 40%.

Thomas Dakin Gin. I'd had this one before as well, courtesy of Manchester legend Alix Walker, and been impressed - it comes in a sexy apothecary-style bottle and is nice and savoury thanks to botanicals including horseradish and English coriander (which explains why it's so perfect in a Bloody Mary). And, it's named after the forefather of English gin, which makes it educational too.

Available from: Waitrose and Harvey Nichols, Booths, Ocado.com, 31Dover.com, GinFoundry.com. RRP: £29.00 for 70cl. ABV: 42%.

Greenall's. This one has a freshness thanks to its rounded juniper notes and mature citrus flavours, but was for me the least interesting of the four. That said, I would much prefer this to the Gordon's (particularly as they are similarly priced) that my mum uses for our lunchtime gin and tonic on Christmas Day, so she may well find that Santa pops a bottle of this in her stocking this year. Even better, it comes in a gift box that looks like a green phone box, so Santa may as well bring me one as well while he's at it.

Available at Waitrose, Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury's and Master of Malt. RRP: £15.00 for 70cl. ABV: 37.5%.

In short, I've made Christmas easy for you - you're welcome. And if you can't decide which one to buy me, may I helpfully draw your attention to the fact my birthday is in November - once again, you're welcome.

- the gin samples were sent to me for review purposes (thanks to MPR Communications, who also provided some of the photos you see here - the professional ones and those without dinosaurs), but as I think this post makes clear, this will end up costing me dearly in the gin aisle from now on.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Your Buddy Mary - the Socially Acceptable Face of Breakfast Booze

I have always been partial to a Bloody Mary, partly because of its most excellent components (tomato juice, horseradish, Tabasco), and partly because it's entirely acceptable at any time of day, thereby sanctioning the consumption of alcohol at breakfast if so desired. Fortunately, many others share this view, and one such - Simon Burgess - has brought a range of Bloody Mary-themed events and pop-ups to Manchester (and not before time, in my opinion - no idea why no-one has thought to do this before).

A couple of weeks ago I got to attend the dry run (an inappropriate name if ever there was) of Simon's new baby: twenty or so of Manchester's food bloggers drinking their way through the full range of Your Buddy Mary's tomato-based repertoire. Simon's plan is to offer three different options, all of which I wish to do immediately:

1. #TheBuddyClub. This is the pop-up version, a 90-minute session coming soon to bars near you in Manchester and London - the first is a Halloween special at The Liquor Store on Sunday 30th October. Here you'll first be served up a selection of Taster Marys - we got to try loads of these and they were all excellent, especially the Red Snapper (properly blow-your-head-off levels of heat) and the tequila-based Bloody Maria - before the 'Club Mary' takes care of any hangover hungers. Finally, you'll get to make your own little bottle of #MyBuddyMary to take away - I loved this part of the press event, and went faintly feral in my application of spices, horseradish, Jalapeno Stoli and pickle juice in the creation of my own masterpiece. These events strike me as good value at £20, particularly as most Manchester bars/restaurants will relieve you of the best part of a tenner for just one Bloody Mary.

2. #BuddysBoozyBargeBonanza. Whilst the idea of combining booze, people and large stretches of water may seem a foolhardy one, I'm a big fan of a booze barge, and I think this one looks really good - little wonder, really, as Simon is a paid-up member of The Liquorists, who certainly know how to pack a boat with genial folk and ply them with alcohol. The 3-hour round trip goes from Castlefield to Media City, accompanied by live acoustic music, an arrival Mimosa and midday beer, a selection of Bloody Marys and - best of all - a #TheresSomethingAboutMary. I actually emitted an undignified cry of joy when this arrived at the press launch - an outstanding, Cajun-spiced, Bloody Mary sporting what I consider to be a superlative array of garnishes. As with the other events, you also get to make your own drink to take home, so you may wish to consult the pictures below to see what perfection you are aspiring to. At an introductory price of £35 this is crazy value, and I am very much hoping to be aboard the next barge on Sunday 3rd December.

3. #YourOfficeBuddy. The idea behind this one is pleasing: if you're hungover at work, Your Buddy Mary will pitch up and make everyone a Bloody Mary as well as one to take home, thereby restoring harmony in the workplace. I fear that a college staffroom will never be eligible for such a service, but it's a nice thought.

Further details and event tickets are available on Your Buddy Mary's website. The press event was a free event but for feedback only with no pressure to review - Simon's enthusiasm and knowledge is a fine thing though, and I shall be going to more events as a paying customer (if only for the prospect of shouting ALL ABOARD THE BLOODY MARY BARGE! for a couple of hours).

Monday, 19 September 2016

Provenance Food Hall and Restaurant: Fine Dining in Westhoughton

First things first: despite having quite a lot of friends who live in Bolton, I am woefully ignorant of the merits of this particular town and its environs. Thus I have to trust their judgement (and point the finger of blame squarely their way if this offends anyone) when I say that the news that Westhoughton, some four miles southwest of Bolton, had a more-than-decent restaurant, with an excellent young chef and a menu full of British classics, was not immediately thought to be credible when the invitation to its new menu tasting arrived a few weeks ago. In fact, some went so far as to suggest that "fine dining" and "Westhoughton" were not words that naturally collocate.

And yet it is indeed so; in fact, on the evidence of last week's preview, Provenance is far, far better than even the most open-minded Boltonians of my acquaintance could ever have dreamed. For one thing, it has a most excellent food hall on the ground floor, full of things I would like to eat. Fortunately for my bank balance this had closed for the evening, but I had a quick roam around and made a mental note of essential future purchases (by which I mean, essentially the whole shop). For another thing, the head chef Lewis Gallagher was awarded North West Chef of the Year in 2012 and went on to be runner up in the national competition, as well as winning Lancashire Young Chef of the Year twice in succession. And if that wasn't enough, Provenance have got themselves into the Good Food Guide 2017, after just one year of trading. All of this boded most auspiciously.

We started off with a platter of miniature versions of dishes from the forthcoming Christmas menu: goose rillettes, beetroot gravadlax and black pudding with apple. All of these went down a storm but the black pudding was probably the favourite across the table, certainly going by the evil looks that came my way when it transpired that my date for the evening didn't like black pudding and was in need of someone to eat hers on her behalf. This was followed by an exquisitely velvety pumpkin soup, which was widely decreed a proper taste of Autumn and equally widely devoured despite it being pretty much the hottest day of the year; I particularly liked the contrast between the rich smoothness of the soup and the crunch of the toasted seed topping.

Next up was a big fat scallop, briskly seared and served with some sharp Granny Smith apple and different textures of cauliflower. Rather excitingly, the apple had been vacuum packed and had its juice forced back into it, resulting in joyous, refreshing little bursts of flavour to complement the already varied textures of the cauliflower. The ravioli of truffle and Jerusalem artichoke that followed was initially met with a little suspicion, with some of us worrying the truffle would be overpowering and pretty much all of us wondering where the sauce was. We should, of course, have had greater faith - the pasta, filled with ricotta cheese and lightly drizzled with oil, was more than moist enough on its own, and boasted beautifully subtle notes of its bolshier ingredients (the chef clearly has more self-control than I when faced with a dish calling for either artichokes or truffle).

On to the two larger courses of the tasting menu - monkfish with a chorizo crumb, crisp ham and a lemon sauce, followed by fillet of beef with onions and mushroom - and both an absolute knockout. One of the most impressive aspects of Provenance is its focus on traceability (hence its name), and nowhere is this more visible than in the in-house ageing facilities, responsible for both the beef (which cut with ridiculous ease) and the ham. Another obvious strength is the sauces - the lemon sauce was brilliantly tart and very brave in its full-on citrus flavour, whilst the onion sauce that accompanied the steak was rich and smooth and sweet, and forced me to run my finger over my plate with a complete lack of dignity (although to be fair, the sauce does perhaps not look completely dignified itself).

The dessert course had got us all wondering what a chocolate "mushroom" might be, and visually this didn't disappoint. Chef Gallagher is quite rightly very proud of this dish, which was chosen as the dessert option at the Gala Dinner at the recent Bolton Food and Drink Festival, and whilst this was my least favourite course of the evening (I don't really care for chocolate-flavoured things), the clever combination of textures (think chewy meringue, soft ice cream, crisp chocolate shards etc) was a massive hit at our table. Similarly, the violet macarons that finished the meal weren't really for me - the texture was perfect but the flavour just too Parma Violety - but were wildly popular elsewhere, with one blogger successfully eating three before being captured and dealt with by the authorities.

Any downsides? We thought that the prices - which are essentially the prices you would find in central Manchester - might be a little steep for the area, although in my opinion the quality of the food justifies the pricing and in any case, there are plenty of fixed price menus and offers available (I am already eyeing up the Wednesday night Grill Nights). The only other downside was a small, personal sorrow - I live a long way away from Westhoughton, and therefore had to forgo the wine that flowed so generously throughout the evening. This aside (it's hardly the owners' problem that I live elsewhere, particularly as the restaurant is rather romantically located in the premises of the old family toy shop), I can't really fault Provenance. I shall certainly be back - and next time, I'm taking a shopping bag (and a credit card).

- Provenance is at 46-48 Market Street, Westhoughton, Bolton, Lancashire, BL5 3AZ. This was a free event but I have already made plans to go back.

Friday, 2 September 2016

Robert Owen Brown with Inca Pop Ups: Ancoats Coffee Supper Club Sparks Octopus Cravings

Facebook Memories can be a bit of a mixed blessing. Some days it throws up lovely memories, and reminds you of much-loved friends, and splendid nights out; sometimes, the memories are things you might perhaps rather forget, or reminders of quite what a greedy girl you really are. My own account is keen to remind me, for example, that four years ago I was seemingly a regular nuisance at The Mark Addy, where the wonderful Robert Owen Brown would rustle up six courses of unmitigated joy, the odd foray into brains or testes excepted, at his monthly Gourmet Nights; the menus serve as a constant reminder of how much I miss those nights.

Fortunately (well, for me, not so much for the wildlife of Greater Manchester), we can still enjoy Rob's distinctive menus via his semi-regular supper clubs in partnership with Inca Pop Ups, the most recent of these being last week at Ancoats Coffee House. I've been to pop up events at this venue before and it works really well for supper clubs - it's friendly, and has sexy brickwork, and sociable seating, and a generous bring-your-own policy that I applaud most heartily. And, of course, it's always a pleasure to see Rob. Here's what he cooked for us this time (and fear not - there's nary a bollock in sight):

Wild mushroom soup with summer truffle. Rob does a good soup, and this was one of his very best - rich, smooth and earthy, with a proper hit of truffle. Everyone loved this.

Pressed smoked duck, with raspberry vinegar emulsion. Another winner - I love duck in all its forms, but it is a meat that smokes particularly well, and went well with the sweetly tart dressing. And yes, I've now got an image of a duck in a velvet jacket smoking a cigarette in a long holder.

Octopus, heritage tomato, Yorkshire Chorizo with garlic & saffron mayonnaise. Genuinely one of the nicest things I have eaten this year - a really meaty, flavoursome stew completely brought to life with a big dollop of really garlicky aïoli and some nice crisp toast to dip in it. We didn't really share this very nicely on our table, and truth be told we found our portion of one medium and one small bowl between four a bit sparse. If the boys had had pistols, I think they would probably have duelled over the last piece of octopus (which, obviously, I ate - just to alleviate the tension).

Butter-roast free range guinea fowl, with candied honey, lemon & lime. Well, it wasn't guinea fowl but chicken; Rob had apparently been let down by a well-known butcher, although I know better than to comment on this. The meat was lovely - moist flesh (a phrase I don't type that often, thankfully), and the most perfectly crispy skin (again, likewise). The vegetables were beautifully cooked and the light jus brought everything together with exemplary cohesion; we did all feel the mashed potato was a little bland though, and could have stood a little more seasoning.

Classic summer pudding with vanilla ice cream. I wasn't initially that excited about this one, as summer pudding isn't my favourite dessert, and I can take or leave ice cream. I should have known to trust Rob though - the whole dish was stunning both in taste and presentation - and just look at the dinky little ice cream! Look!!

All in all, this was great value at £35 for food of this standard cooked by a chef of such high repute, particularly as taking your own booze keeps the costs down anyway. Do remember to factor in though that Rob will make you buy a copy of his excellent book, even if you already have a copy. You can catch him and Inca Pop Ups again at the Manchester Food and Drink Festival with an Edwardian-themed supper club on Saturday October 8th - more info and tickets here. And as there's cheese soup and lobster on the menu as well as a chance to dress up, you'll very probably see me there.