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Monday, 24 November 2014

Bangers and Bacon's Chef's Table at Guerrilla Eats: Street Food Gets Classy

OK, look - I'll keep this brief, as it's essentially me talking about sausages again and I can already hear some of you sighing at the prospect of more of my porcine wittering. I do think I get special dispensation with this one though, as this is no ordinary sausage post - this is the amazing Bangers and Bacon five course Chef's Table feast at Guerrilla Eats, on for four Saturdays only and therefore pretty much the hottest ticket in town.

It seems remarkable that no-one had thought of taking the concept of the Chef's Table - where diners sit alongside the kitchen so they can watch the chef(s) prepare and serve their food - out of the fancy restaurant and into the street food arena before now. It's an idea that makes perfect sense and was even better in practice when it debuted last Saturday night in a drafty Ancoats warehouse, where six of us sat at a proper table with a proper tablecloth and with proper crockery and proper cutlery and had the following:

- Pig, Pickle and Pate Platter. So, the first of five dishes, billed as "slightly smaller than courses" - and a clear indication that, with each board serving two people, Bangers and Bacon have a fairly generous definition of portion size. They bought a couple of new smokers recently and frankly can't leave their new toys alone, hence this generous platter of smoked meats, pate and - best of all - bacon jam. This was quite simply the best bacon jam I've ever had - it had all the flavour you'd expect from the purveyors of the best bacon in Britain, but with a looser, meatier texture than many I've tried. They should take it as a compliment that I left with the half jar we couldn't eat in my handbag.

- "Spaghetti", Pumpkin and Smoked Bacon Chowder. A more sensible portion size this time - a dinky little glass of beautifully smoky, creamy soup that went down a treat. Personally, I would have left out the little chunks of pumpkin "spaghetti"; otherwise, I would happily have this every day (or at least until every single button had popped off my trousers).

- Trio of Snags Du Jour. As the good folks at Bangers and Bacon are also Team Bobby's Bangers, a sausage course was no surprise. What was surprising was the daintiness and finesse of the whole thing - Richard trained at some of Greater Manchester's best restaurants and his fancy-dan background was clear to see in his exuberantly cheffy piping of three different types of mash. The garlic mash came with an equally garlicky Toulouse sausage; the sun-dried tomato mash with a lovely fennelly Italian; the plain mash with my all-time favourite banger (the Christmas one with the bacon, sprouts and chestnut); and the whole lot was served with a punchy red wine jus. Lovely.

- It Mush Pea Love. A pared down version of my favourite Bangers and Bacon dish: fresh, minty peas (I'll overlook the fact that this token healthy element was clearly at least half butter and cream), mixed with bacon and topped with beetroot crisps, served on a crouton. I'm not too proud to admit I ate the leftover mushy peas out the pan; as I already had a half-eaten jar of bacon jam in my bag by this point, pretensions to decorum seemed pretty futile.

- Treacle Bacon and Chocolate Brownie. I wasn't sure whether I would like this - and it turned out to be the highlight of the night. A gorgeously sticky chocolate brownie containing chewy chunks of sweet bacon and served with a fruit coulis and a marscarpone cream, this would have been worthy of any posh restaurant - and once again, the presentation was beautiful (until I mauled it).

The Chef's Table has three more Saturdays to run and is selling out very quickly, despite the fact that they've now put on two sittings to accommodate demand. Future menus will vary slightly, but the price remains at £15 a head - frankly ridiculous for five exquisite courses, so I suggest you handle their tips jar with generosity. And before accusations of blogger bias start up, yes James, Heather and Richard are my friends, but we paid for our places and I wouldn't have written this had I not genuinely loved it. Add the fact that Guerrilla Eats run a pretty well-stocked bar and that the DJ was playing Stone Roses and New Order, and I'm not sure it could be bettered. Keep an eye on their twitter feed @bangersandbacon for links to ticket sales - and be quick about it if you want to bag a seat at the best bargain of the year.

- Guerrilla Eats currently reside at Blossom Street, Manchester M4 5AF.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Opera North's La Traviata at The Lowry: Passion in Paris (via Salford)

Now, whilst I am painfully aware that I am no longer in the first flush of youth, I do still consider myself at least relatively young. I have never been on a cruise; I do not own a tartan shopping trolley; and I do not (yet) say "aaaaaaah" after my first sip of a cup of tea. I do, however, like the opera - something which still prompts some surprise in those who clearly regard opera as the preserve of the posh and the elderly rather than someone who is prone to drinking too much Prosecco and falling over on a night out. The always-magnificent Opera North are on a bit of a mission to prove that a night at the opera is a wonderful thing no matter what your age, and specifically set out to attract a new audience in the spring with La Boheme (a huge success - more than half of the Leeds audiences were new to Opera North). That mission continued this week at Salford's Lowry, with another crowd pleaser set in Paris and perhaps the best-known opera of the lot: Verdi's La Traviata.

As is typically the case with opera, the story is a straightforward one: girl meets boy and sings a beautiful duet with him (in this case, it's a courtesan named Violetta and a handsome young man called Alfredo); circumstances break them up (here, it's Alfredo's father, Giorgio, who convinces Violetta to leave Alfredo as she is besmirching the family name and preventing his daughter's chances of marriage); love wins through (hurray!); then finally a heartbreaking ending (I hope I'm not ruining any surprises when I suggest you take note of the nasty cough Violetta has from Act One). The story isn't the point really - and indeed, its simplicity is a blessed relief for those of us whose Italian is a bit ropey and who would rather not bother reading all the subtitles that pop up on the screens in front the stage. The brevity of the plot leaves you free to listen to the beauty of the music - and La Traviata is packed full of familiar tunes that pretty much everybody will know, most notably perhaps "The Drinking Song" (which someone was rude enough to point out on Twitter that I was bound to know).

Being Opera North, the staging is slick and modern and clever, from the lengthy trip round Violetta's lungs at the beginning to the breathtaking night sky that provides the backdrop to a glorious party near the end. The cast are as good as we have come to expect from Opera North, with Hye-Youn Lee particularly charismatic as Violetta and putting in an extraordinarily powerful vocal performance that I failed utterly to reproduce in the car on the way home. The only thing I didn't like about the whole production was the fact that there were two intervals. This broke the performance up too much for my liking, although to be fair there is no obvious halfway break due to the second of the three acts having two scenes. Still, it did provide double the amount of opportunities for the consumption of wine, so it's a very minor quibble.

Next time Opera North are back in Manchester it will be with something a bit more cheery - Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Keep an eye on their website for further details - and don't forget to leave your shopping trolley at the back...

- photos taken from the Opera North website - photo credit: Richard H Smith.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Grandad's Sausages: Putting the Bang into National Sausage Week

Right - no sniggering at the back, but it's National Sausage Week, and the excitement generated on Twitter about this simple fact is the type of thing that makes Britain great: even normally high-functioning highbrow folk have been enjoying a meaty innuendo or two in celebration of banger week. My love of sausages is well-documented - I was the first graduate of the Bobby's Bangers Sausage School, and often man the Good Ship Sausage on their behalf at Levenshulme Market, where appreciative crowds jostle to admire my meat-handling skills - but whilst a good banger is a thing of utter joy, a bad one is a sorrow indeed. As Nigel Slater once said, there's no joy in a dry sausage - nor in a limp, flaccid one or a nasty flabby fatty one (those last words are, perhaps obviously, mine rather than Nigel's). I was forced to buy supermarket sausages the other week (mentioning no names *whispers* Debbie and Andrew's) and they were terrible - so much fat came out of them, they set the grill on fire and I had to be quite extraordinarily brave to avert a major catastrophe.

So when Grandad's Sausages asked if I'd like to try their sausages, I said yes (obviously), but not without some trepidation - although to be fair, any company with the slogan "putting a smile on Grandma's face for over 50 years" doesn't really need to enlist the help of local bloggers in stirring up a flurry of sausage innuendo. Grandad's Sausages (@GSausages) is a locally-based family business from sunny Bury, now run by brothers Matthew and Michael in memory of their Grandad Bernard, who founded the company more than 50 years ago (and was presumably the reason for Grandma's cheerful demeanour). They also make terrible banger-based jokes on Twitter, where their avatar is a pig in a top hat - if you can find anything here not to like, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

Anyway, there are ten different flavours and they sent me a party pack of seven to sample: Traditional British Pork, Olde English, Lincolnshire, Cumberland, Pork & Welsh Leek, Pork & Somerset Apple and Pork & Fiery Chilli. Being a single girl of, ahem, modest appetites, I've not tried them all yet - but the ones I've had so far have been suitably meaty with a good strong flavour and not too much fat coming out during cooking. You see the Pork & Leek and Pork & Apple here - and yes, that IS a sexy bed of sprouts they are reclining on. I look forward to trying the rest - and whilst I remain a Bobby's Bangers girl through and through, there's always room for a bonus banger in my fridge.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Seventh Annual Didsbury Beer Festival Returns to St Catherine's

There are certain events in the Mancunian calendar that I consider to be totally unmissable. Didsbury Beer Festival is one of them, and whilst beer festival cynics (and it saddens me that these people even EXIST) may claim that such an event is essentially a cold, drafty tent full of people of a certain age wearing anoraks, I would like to temper this slightly by pointing that the tent is practically on my doorstep and is filled with lots of lovely beer and that, actually, that's a pretty nice coat I'm wearing. This year's festival is, unbelievably, the 7th; I have attended them all except one, and it was a pretty major trauma that kept me from going that year - the embarrassing number of Didsbury Beer Festival branded pint glasses in my kitchen bears (beers?) testimony to my devotion to this particular cause.

Last night was the first of the three-day festival, and I paid a flying visit to sample a couple of ales and conduct a bit of a recce ahead of a more serious assault on the Saturday sessions. There seems to be more beers than ever, many of them local - I had a half of Ginger Marble from Manchester's Marble Brewery (I always start with this as it's one of my favourite ever beers: a big, spicy, swaggering beered-up version of the cockiest gingerbread man imaginable) and then a half of Funky Banana from Holmfirth's Nook Brewhouse (terrible name; great beer - light, refreshing and slightly sweet).

The festival is on again tonight between 6 and 11pm (entry £5) and tomorrow between 12 and 5pm (£3 entry) and 5 and 11pm (£4 entry). There is live music both nights and always a lovely atmosphere - it's also obligatory to have a portion or two of chicken curry and chips from the legendary St Catherine's hatch in order to soak up all that beery goodness. The full beer list is available on the DBF website and there is also a pretty good selection of ciders and perries for anyone who didn't make themselves ill on cider for their 18th birthday and not been able to face it since. I will be spending my time until Saturday afternoon persusing my copy of the beer brochure and idly circling the ones I want to try whilst pondering my generosity - over the last six years Didsbury Beer Festival has raised over £75,000 for local charities. This year's deserving causes are Visioncare and The Wellspring, both offering help to homeless and other vulnerable members of society - so really, it's our duty to go along and drink beer. See you there...

- Didsbury Beer Festival is at St. Catherine's Social Club, School Lane, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6HS until Sat 1st November.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

'Tis the Season for Staying In - Preferably with a Holland's Hallowe'en Ghoul-ash Pie

Ah, Autumn. Yes, the sudden drop in temperature has been a bit of a shock, and no-one likes getting up in the morning while it's still dark - but there's still much to be welcomed in a season that allows you to pop the heating on, open a bottle of red and bring a blanket downstairs to put over your knees while you watch Strictly. You may have noticed from the lack of blog posts recently that it takes quite a lot to get me out the house at this time of year, but there are a few occasions looming on the horizon that I will make an exception for: Didsbury Beer Festival (more of which next week), Hallowe'en (if only to avoid the constant knocking on by trick or treaters) and Bonfire Night (the cat has assured me that if I pour him a small brandy before I go out he'll be fine on his own).

To celebrate two of these three auspicious occasions (I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before they create a special pie for Didsbury Beer Festival), Holland's Pies have sent out some recipes to promote their new limited edition seasonal creation. Now last time I wrote about this famous Lancashire firm I got some stick from certain quarters, but I care not - I love a pie, and as I generally can't be bothered to make my own I'm more than happy to eat one that I've located in the freezer. The new one sounds good, too - the ‘Ghoul-ash Pie’ has been created exclusively for Holland’s by celebrity chef Tom Bridge from The Great British Bake Off and features beef and paprika. For Bonfire Night they recommend the good old Potato and Meat pie and suggest you serve it with mushy peas - recipe below. You can even share your Hallowe'en or Bonfire Night photos on their Facebook page or Twitter feed for the chance to win either a Ghoul-ash Pie or a Bonfire Night party pack containing a Holland’s pie cosy to keep your pies warm (this is not normally an issue for me), hand crafted Holland’s mittens (I need these desperately) and a batch of Holland’s Potato & Meat Pies (ditto).

So, I'm happy to pretend that I'm off to some glamorous bar launch, but in reality I'm here in my pyjamas, eating a dish of mushy peas and planning which real ales I'll be going for first next week - and all the happier for it.

Mushy Peas

Ingredients
500g/1lb 2oz dried marrowfat peas
1 tbsp sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Soak the dried marrowfat peas the night before cooking in a bowl of cold water. The next day, rinse the peas under cold running water and place into a large saucepan. Add boiling water to cover the sugar and salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste. Boil gently for about 20-30 minutes, or until the water has evaporated and the peas have turned into mush.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Harvey Nichols Manchester Taste on Two: Christmas is A-Coming and the Blogger is Planning to Get Fat

One of the very nicest things about the run up to Christmas is the sudden proliferation of lovely things in the shops. Suddenly it seems like an excellent idea to pick up a small sequinned shrug, which admittedly offers no protection against the Mancunian elements, and team it with a sparkly hairgrip or two and an oh-so-cute bag which is too small to actually carry anything but which will be just right for any party one might get invited to.

And the Christmas food is even better. Monday evening saw the Taste on Two event take place at Harvey Nichols Manchester, a mini festival to showcase some of the goodies to be found in this most tempting of food halls - and whilst not specifically a Christmas event, I sampled many things that I can confidently say will contribute to my annual festive weight gain. Being Harvey Nics, the evening started with a cocktail and, more unexpectedly, the tying on of a rather desirable Harvey Nics apron, causing me to fear an imminent involvement in some kind of butchery class that thankfully never came. Instead, I wandered round a selection of tasting tables trying out a number of premium food and drink items, including Joe & Seph's amazing gin flavoured popcorn, Yee Kwan Ice Cream, Booja-Booja truffles and Manfood boozy jams (which I heartily regret not buying a truckload full of).

We also enjoyed demos from Tickety Brew, Woodall's Charcuterie (with cheese matches from Burt's Cheese), Harvey Nichols Wine Shop and Grey Goose Vodka, who showed us how to make three different Martinis and then - even better - permitted us to neck them. I had to drink a very great deal of both the wet and dry Martinis in an attempt to find a preference (the difference is in the amount of vermouth added) and still can't be completely sure without further testing.

At the end of a splendid evening I left clutching a quality goody bag which - along with the apron and the generous food and drink samples - made this a great value event at £15 a ticket. A lovely night - and I'm hoping to find more than a few of these choice items under my Christmas tree come this December...

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Restaurant Review: Annie's, Manchester, which charms us despite its flaws

For various reasons, I didn't have a great week last week. And as is so often the way when you're not having a great week, I clung on to the promise of a Friday night out with good friends as the raft that would rescue me and carry me over to a better, brighter week (don't worry - I've exhausted myself now as well as the metaphor, so there will be no more to trouble you). And as is also so often the way, Manchester came up trumps with a frankly splendid night out - even if the centrepiece of the evening, dinner at Annie's restaurant, was a slightly haphazard experience.

If you've heard of Annie's restaurant before, it's probably because of the involvement of Coronation Street star Jenny McAlpine - it's almost certainly not because you've happened to wander past. Annie's is tucked away on Old Bank Street, between Cross Street and St Ann's Square, and unlikely to attract much passing trade despite its city centre location - which might explain why the upstairs bar was completely empty at 8pm on a Friday night. Downstairs in the restaurant it was slightly busier - we were shown to some comfy, mismatched armchairs and perused the menus whilst admiring the paper doilies, which we liked, because they reminded us all of our grandmas' houses. There was also a pianist/singer who plays live every Friday and she was excellent, warbling her way through a number of classics in a heartfelt manner which prompted one of my companions to remark that a single girl "could have a really good cry in here on a Friday over a few cocktails". He meant this as a compliment, but the recently single should consider themselves warned. It was also very dark downstairs in the restaurant, hence the poor quality of photos - as my flash has the ability to make even a long-dead piece of steak look startled, I've gone with murky as the lesser of two evils.

Foodwise, the menu is a cracker, full of pub classics that perhaps don't push the envelope (sorry - but that is more of a cliche than a metaphor, so I'm having it) but which are a tempting sight indeed for a girl who's only eaten two Ryvitas and an apple all day. Whilst I could happily have eaten the lot, execution was a little inconsistent - my starter of scallops with Bury black pudding and minty peas was an enjoyable version of this classic combination, with plump, perfectly seared scallops (although for £8.95 I would have preferred an extra scallop and a little less black pudding), whilst the Lancashire Rarebit (toasted bloomer topped with cheese, mustard and ale accompanied by homemade chutney) was tasty and satisfying, if a little inelegant. The corned beef hash cake was rather under-seasoned though, and the accompanying poached egg was hard - a careless mistake to make in a restaurant that wasn't that busy.

With the mains, I came up trumps again - my fillet steak was a beauty, cooked very rare as requested and with excellent texture and flavour; the accompaniments (large flat mushroom, tomato, hand-cut chips, a really good Bearnaise sauce) generous and tasty. The medium-rare sirloin was similarly impressive, and offered particularly good value at £18.95 including choice of sauce. The vegetable hot pot (seasonal vegetables topped with sliced potatoes and served with homemade red cabbage) was also deemed a success, offering a good selection of different vegetables and a properly crunchy topping. The issues were with the Cheese and Onion Pie, served with hand cut chips and Annie's baked beans, and one of the restaurant's signature dishes - but also very dry (as can be clearly seen even through the gloom of my low-grade photography) and almost completely lacking in flavour. It wasn't bad enough to send back - it was just heartbreakingly inferior to the other dishes on the table. Maybe it was just an off-night - this pie is apparently the dish which receives the most positive customer feedback, so perhaps another sampling is due.

Rather unfairly, I also had the best dessert. My sticky toffee pudding was a vast slab of light-as-air cake drowning in a sea of butterscotch sauce, and was delicious; Didsbury Girl's spotted dick and custard (ordered primarily for juvenile reasons) was also very well-executed and reminded us all that the 70s did give us something of note after all. The Mint Chocolate Indulgence (homemade minty chocolate mousse with mint chocolate chip ice cream, dark chocolate sauce and crisp minty chocolates) was fine, although deemed a little heavy on the ice cream. The Fizz Bomb was a disaster though - billed as a "chilled chocolate treat", this was essentially an inpenetrably hard ball of ice cream that remained inedible even after the rest of us had finished.

Despite these issues, we did like Annie's. The staff were helpful and obliging, the portions were generous and some of the cooking excellent. It is frustrating though for a meal to be so inconsistent when it could be outstanding - I would award my three courses a good 8.5 out of ten and would happily have paid for it, but this was not the case across the board. We also would have liked the singer to play on past 9pm on a Friday night - there was no music at all after she'd finished, which in a quiet restaurant produces a strange, flat sort of atmosphere. Next time, I've threatened to bash out a few tunes myself, so Annie's really do need to think twice about whether they want that...

- We were invited in as guests of the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our food, although we did pay for some of our drinks and for service.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Tampopo, Exchange Square: Manchester's Latest Pop-Up

On the whole, it seems that Manchester is fond of the pop-up. Perhaps it's the sense of novelty that a temporary bar or restaurant provides; perhaps it's the combination of the innovative and new with the reassuringly familiar that some of these temporary installations offer; perhaps it's just that we like to maximise our eating and drinking opportunities by having even more places to choose from. Either way, Manchester has embraced the pop-up with some enthusiasm, and I would be surprised if the endearing little Tampopo venue (the Tam Pop-up, of course) that has appeared in Exchange Square isn't a big success over the coming months.

This is a pop-up with a practical purpose behind it as well - as its former home, The Corn Exchange, is currently undergoing a massive refurbishment, Tampopo have moved back onto the streets until this is all completed early next summer. And it works well - Tampopo's street-food inspired menu translates well to the casual environment of the new venue, offering a pared-down menu that I would happily polish off in its entirety (and I had a pretty good go at doing this at the launch party the other week). My favourite dish of the evening was a new one - Tampopo's first Bahn Mi, a Vietnemese pork baguette that lends itself perfectly to being eaten in one's fingers (even if it is quite hard to hold one's wine glass at the same time); even better, 50p from the sale of each one will go to Mines Advisory Group, a landmine clearing charity. Other standout dishes included an excellent Nasi Goreng, an Indonesian rice dish packed with flavour and served with addictively crunchy onion flakes, and there is also a good range of decent beers and wines to wash everything down with.

The venue itself is both cute and functional, with room for up to 35 diners at its little plastic stools and tables as well as a takeaway service. You can watch them cook your food in the open kitchen, and the glass roof protects from the Manchester elements - apparently heaters will be installed as winter approaches. I for one can think of few things I'd rather do than escape the crush of the Christmas Markets and come down here for some fresh Thai food - with the arrival of the temporary Aumbrey restaurant this week as well, the Manchester pop-up is clearly alive and well.

- Tam Pop-up is on Exchange Square, and is open from noon till 9pm every day (and perhaps a little later on weekends).