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Monday, 15 September 2014

Foraging in Rochdale with Caorunn Gin and Discover the Wild: A Grand Day Out Despite the Rain

Now, I am not by nature a particularly outdoorsy girl. I like the idea of the countryside very much indeed, but only a highly sanitised version - ideally one without wasps, or mud, or bad smells. I have not been camping since I was a child and consider it, on the whole, perfectly possible to admire the beauty of nature through one's car window on the way back to a comfortable dwelling with central heating, a roof and hot water on demand.

Thus I was as surprised as anyone to find myself tramping through the countryside somewhere near Rochdale in the pouring rain (and I mean pouring), looking at wet leaves and contemplating ruefully the hitherto-undiscovered non-waterproof nature of my trainers. Yep, last weekend - the only wet day in recent weeks, naturally - I went foraging, and it's a glowing endorsement of our charismatic and engaging guide David Winnard of Discover the Wild that I had a fabulous time despite the weather. The whole event was the brainchild of Caorunn Gin, a Scottish brand which I tried for the first time a few months ago and have since purchased on a regular basis, with the idea being to take a busload of bloggers out into the wilds to look for the five Celtic botanicals used in the gin (and bring the bloggers back again, no doubt contrary to the wishes of those who would rather they simply be left there to fend for themselves).

The first botanical we (OK, David) found was dandelion - to be fair, even I have a fair idea what these look like thanks to my poor gardening skills and their fondness for my lawn. David also showed us some rowan trees loaded with the beautiful red berries that give Caorunn its name, an apple tree (not technically the Coul Blush variety that Caorunn uses as they only grow in Scotland, but near enough), some purple heather, and finally - down a secret, very muddy path - some bog myrtle. This last one is much sought after, and is the reason I'm not allowed to say exactly where we went (even if I knew, which I don't on account of being too busy chatting to look where I was going whilst on the bus). David showed us lots of other things as well, including elderflower, rose hips and sloe berries - we were all pretty impressed by how many edible and interesting plants and flowers we came across in our 90 minute stroll.

After all this healthy, wholesome outdoorsy stuff, it was back to Manchester and more familiar territory - lunch and cocktails at The Lawn Club. Here we were welcomed with a Wild Urban Bramble Cocktail (specially developed with Elixir to mark the Forage to Glass events) and a lovely buffet lunch as well as a bag of goodies to take home and make our own cocktail with (including some elderflower syrup and rowan and apple jelly made by David's fair hands). So yes, it was a very gentle introduction to the world of foraging, leading a number of rather churlish friends to rather uncharitably remark that I had essentially been foraging for cocktails, and lunch, and that it was little wonder that someone with my track record for such things had managed to sniff them out. I did learn a lot though, and have indulged in a number of rosy fantasies since whereby I become the kind of woman who puts her wellies on, pops out and forages for a number of tasty items, and then comes home and makes jam etc rather than just buying it at Sainsbury's. Whilst this may admittedly still be some way off, I do plan to book David for a full day foraging trip, particularly as it's now mushroom season - have a look at his website here if you'd like to do the same. I'll be the slightly mardy one at the back in unsuitable shoes...

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Diplomatico Rum Tasting at Manchester House: Views, Canapés and Cocktails Make for a Glamorous Wednesday Night

Now, I must admit to being a fairly late convert to the dark, sultry charms of rum; unless of course you count the Barcardi and cokes I used to force down as a student in the interests of swift and efficient inebriation. Like many late converts though, I am somewhat evangelical about my chosen subject - there are some truly outstanding examples of this versatile spirit out there, and none more so than Diplomatico, who last week hosted a rum tasting evening in the bar at Manchester House with matched canapés by Aiden Byrne.

The twelfth floor bar at Manchester House is perfect for this sort of event, with its stunning views of the Manchester skyline providing an ideal backdrop for the equally beautiful selection of rum brought along by Skippy and Mark for the occasion. Diplomatico is a Venezuelan rum and as such is subject to strict rules and regulations: all the sugar cane used must come from there, and all production and ageing must take place in Venezuela - the rum must also be at least 40% ABV and aged for a minimum of two years (hence there are so few white rums from Venezuela). All of this makes for something pretty special, particularly as Diplomatico use sugar cane honey as well as molasses, leading to that sweet, rounded mellowness that makes a really good rum so irresistible.

We began with a Mai Tai cocktail and a shot of the Anejo, the Diplomatico entry level rum. Skippy described this as good for mixing but I also found it more than acceptable on its own thanks to its 5% sugar cane honey and four year ageing process. The Mai Tai was exemplary (as it should be, with its name meaning "out of this world"), and was followed by a tot of the Diplomatico Reserva that had gone into it. The canapés were also starting to come out by this point, with each one designed by Aiden Byrne to complement its partnering rum - the chocolate lychee, Szechuan and rose was a work of art in its own right but went perfectly with the sweetness of the Anejo, and the cherry filled with foie gras mousse and served with palm sugar (a Manchester House classic) provided an indulgent pairing with the Reserva.

Next up, the Blanco (which had far more flavour than any white rum I've ever tried before, and is certainly the only one I've ever been able to drink neat), a killer Daiquiri and a canapé of crab and curried papaya - along with a visit from Chef Byrne himself. Rum number four, and we were starting to get to the good stuff - the Diplomatico Reserva Exclusiva is 80% heavy (much like myself by this point of the evening); in other words, it is 80% sugar cane honey and thus a perfect match for the spiced bread and pressed plum.

The final two rums were ones to savour, as they would both be way out of my price range in real life. The Diplomatico Single Vintage 2000 is a 43% heavyweight and is aged for 11 years; it also came with most people's favourite canapé of the night - a roasted scallop with white chocolate and truffle risotto (this is currently on the lunch menu in the restaurant, and would quite frankly merit a trip to Manchester House on its own). Last but definitely not least was the Ambassador, aged for 12 years in Pedro Jimenez sherry casks and quite simply one of the nicest things I have ever put in my mouth (no sniggering at the back please). The same goes for the cured foie gras, spiced banana and speculoos biscuit, and the final cocktail of the evening, a twist on an Old Fashioned called The Treacle.

All in all, this was one of the most enjoyable couple of hours imaginable, and offered quite ludicrous value at £30 for six rums, three cocktails and canapés. The cocktails at Manchester House are something special anyway, but Business Development Manager Emma Cottam says they're planning to host more of this type of event in the future, and to get the chance to sample some of Aiden Byrne's creations as well was an added bonus. Keep an eye out for the next one, as it's likely to sell out in the blink of an eye - and I'm willing to fight in the most unladylike manner for a place.

- Manchester House has streamlined its impressive cocktail menu and made it more user friendly, with a helpful contents page separating the different options into their base spirit and making suggestions for variants on old favourites. You can, ahem, see from the pictures below just how frightening user-friendly I found the new menu when Emma invited me in to try it. Some of these are from a paid visit, some from a comp - but I loved them all equally.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Tasting - and a Look Back to Summer

So, September is here, bringing with it thoughts of crisp mornings, mashed potato, red wine, new pencil cases, picking one's way gingerly through fallen leaves lest something unpleasant be lurking underneath...and, of course, the dreaded "c" word: Christmas. I make no apologies for uttering this word so early in the year; indeed, I'm simply flagging up the fact that tickets are already on sale for one of the highlights of the forthcoming winter - the Three Wine Men Manchester Christmas Tasting. For 2014, the men in question - Olly Smith, Oz Clarke and Tim Atkin - have a new Manchester venue, and will be setting up shop at the Lancashire County Cricket Ground at Old Trafford on Saturday 29th and Sunday 30th November.

This seems like a good time, then, to reminisce about this summer's Three Wine Men Festival, which took place at Manchester Town Hall at the start of July. If you've not been to one of these splendid events before, you present your ticket at the door, are given a tasting glass, and then enter a winey paradise - in this case, The Great Hall, its walls lined with tables behind which smiley people are waiting to pour wine into your glass so you can swill it round and try and look knowledgeable before necking the lot. Exhibitors ranged from the large, national brands (Marks and Spencer, Morrisons, The Co-Operative) to the international (Rias Baixas) to the local and familiar (Corks Out, Barrica Wines), with The Cheshire Cheese Company on hand to help mop up all that alcohol with some dairy goodness (although to be fair, there's only such much a couple of cubes of cheese can do in the face of so much wine).

Many of the wines were available to purchase on the day - I bought a beautiful Grüner Veltliner from the lovely Jane at Barrica Wines (the 2013 Domane Wachau Federspiel Terrassen) and a nice meaty Australian Shiraz from Richmond Wine Agencies (the 2008 Botham Merrill Willis - don't let any unpleasant images you may have seen recently of one of these gentlemen put you off this most excellent wine). I also loved the Arc du Rhône Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Boutinot, but it was £21.49 and I'd run out of money by then.

You can also book for various masterclasses with one or other of the three wine men - we didn't get round to booking these before they sold out but Tim, Oz and Olly were very much in evidence anyway, greeting people as they came in and happily posing for pictures. Indeed, both Oz and Olly, clearly utterly dazzled by my charming mother, had a long chat with us post-photograph despite her obvious wish to stop using up valuable drinking time and get back to the wine tables.

- Tickets for November's Manchester Christmas Tasting are available from the Three Wine Men website and cost £25 per session with an extra £5 per masterclass - I salute those of you who are game for the 11am Saturday session, although I do reserve the right not to sit next to you on the tram afterwards...

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Chaophraya, Manchester: Tasty Thai Cheers Up a Miserable Wet Monday

Sometimes, you mean to go to a restaurant for ages and yet somehow never get round to it - and for no discernible reason. Chaophraya has long been such a venue for me - great-looking menu, handy city centre location, never heard anything about it but good things...and yet never been there.

All of that has now been put right, and frankly I was a fool not to have done it earlier. The place was packed on a wet Monday evening - perhaps with people taking advantage of the excellent value Early Bird offer whilst seeking refuge against the weather in this plush haven - always a good sign I think, particularly when those customers range from large groups to couples on a romantic night out (and greedy bloggers). We wanted to try a number of dishes and therefore chose to eat from the set menu list - there are different options here at a range of price points, but we went for a middle ground option with the "Set Maenum Yom" at £35.50 per person. Being of a greedy persuasion, we started with some good prawn crackers and some excellent Prawn Tom Yum soup - a little pricey perhaps at £8.95, but with just the right level of chilli and generous amounts of mushrooms and king prawns. This particular Tom Yum was thickened with coconut milk, giving it a lovely creamy texture that our waitress explained was more typical of the Northern regions of Thailand and which we felt heightened the traditional hot and sour flavours of the soup.

On to the set menu then, which began with a sharing platter of pork spare ribs, chicken satay, steamed dumplings, prawn and chicken toasts and deep-fried pork marinated with honey and Thai herbs. This offered a nice combination of appetisers and was flawless in its execution - all the different flavours stood out despite the variety of tastes and textures on the plate; my favourite was the sweet, sticky pork strips, but I would happily eat any of this again.

Main courses were equally varied, offering full portions of four different dishes: Four Seasons Duck Curry, Crispy Pork Belly with Thai Basil, King Prawns with Ginger and Beef in Black Pepper Sauce, served with egg-frid rice. The only disappointment here was the beef dish: the sauce was satisfyingly fiery but the meat mysteriously tough and chewy - a real shame, as earlier we'd particularly admired the scent and sizzle of this dish as it made its way past us to another table. The others were lovely though, particularly the rich and comforting duck curry; we also loved the contrast between the fatty, sticky pork cubes and the fragrant Thai basil-infused sauce.

They sensibly recognise that most diners are likely to be pretty full after this lot but may still fancy something sweet to finish off their meal - the fresh fruit and chocolate fondue was perfectly judged in terms of size and content (and as I hadn't noticed it on the menu also came as a very welcome surprise). Another pleasant surprise at Chaophraya is the wine list - we had an excellent Gewürztraminer that we thought very well-priced at £24.95, the slight sweetness coping well with both the spiciness and delicacy of the dishes we tried.

So, a very good meal in a place with lovely staff and a great buzz. Obviously Chaophraya is part of a chain (albeit a small one), and with the lovely Siam Smiles in Chinatown attracting so much attention at the moment for its cheap and authentic Thai food, it would be easy to dismiss Chaophraya as rather expensive and comparatively Anglicised. This is unhelpful - the two places offer completely different dining experiences and I count myself lucky to live somewhere which offers the choice. I will definitely be back for the Early Bird evening menu - now I've finally made it to Chaophraya I'm very much looking forward to going again.

- Chaophraya is at 19 Chapel Walks, Manchester M2 1HN. We were invited to try the menu and were not asked to pay for our food or drinks, but both agreed we would be more than happy to go again as paying customers.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

The Botanist Comes to Deansgate, Manchester: Mini Wheelbarrow-Sized Handbags at the Ready

So, first things first: does Manchester city centre really need another Living Ventures venue? Whilst I have a lot of time for a number of Living Ventures restaurants, a quick look at the online menu for the new Botanist on Deansgate ahead of the launch do last week left me thinking that maybe we didn't, particularly as the food menu here is very similar to that of the nearby Oasthouse just down the road at Spinningfields. In the former Label premises at what people of my age might class as the "wrong end" of Deansgate, the decor at the new Botanist is, by all accounts, the same as others in the Botanist stable (I hadn't been to one before but know a few people who are regulars at the one in Alderley Edge). So really, what's the point?

Well, two things. Firstly, perhaps being at the "wrong end" of Deansgate, in an area packed with uninspiring chains and bars beloved of hen dos and stag parties, is a pretty clever decision - true, some of it might be based on nostalgia (the restaurant is located on the site of Living Ventures boss Tim Bacon's first Manchester bar, JW Johnson’s, back in the 90s), but there is simply nowhere else in this part of town that I, a lady of increasingly advanced years, can imagine going. There is live music every night, usually piano- or guitar- based, and featuring songs of an appropriate mood and vintage for someone who likes to pretend that time has frozen somewhere around 1997 - a definite bonus in my opinion.

Secondly, there is the cocktail menu. In recent years I have become heartily sick of the cocktail and increasingly choosy about both where I drink them and which ones I am prepared to drink - too many are sweet, sickly, over-priced concoctions that just don't interest me at all. The cocktail menu at the Botanist is quite simply the best I have seen for years - at first, it looked off-puttingly lengthy, but on closer examination I found I was pretty keen to try almost all of them (and, to be fair, I did have a noble attempt at this). My favourite so far is the Apple and Rosemary Sling, recommended by our knowledgeable waitress as a good palate cleanser for a girl too full for pudding - and the combination of rosemary, Olmeca Blanco tequila, Hayman’s Sloe Gin, apple juice, sugar syrup and lime juice was indeed perfect: long, refreshing, not remotely sweet and with the taste of decent tequila coming through very strongly. Second place went to the Peach and Basil Margarita with its fresh basil, peach purée, Olmeca Blanco tequila, lime juice and apricot liqueur, but I enjoyed everything I tried - I can't pretend that at typical city centre cocktail prices of £6.95 - £7.95 a go I could afford to drink many on a night out, but I would go back just for these alone (and have already been inspired to raid my herb garden to knock up my own Botanist-style drinks at home). And yes, you will notice a markable decrease in the quality of the cocktail photography - in itself I reckon this is a glowing testimony to the generosity of spirit content.

Food-wise, the place is more than decent. I'm not sure I would go here just to eat, but would definitely end up being tempted if I was in for drinks. The food is beautifully presented - my starter of Chicken liver and rum pâté with plum and apple chutney (£5.95) arrived with the pâté in a little plant pot with ginger crumb "soil" on the top and the chutney in the world's cutest mini wheelbarrow. It's easy to knock this kind of styling as a little contrived but I rather like the commitment to the theme shown here - and whilst the pâté could have done with a little more oomph flavourwise, I thought this was a great dish for the price. For main, I had half a chicken, fresh from the rotisserie, served in a crate with BBQ sauce and "properly seasoned" chips; the chicken was lovely (I want to use the words succulent, tender and moist but can't quite bring myself to use such a combination) and the extra sides I greedily chose (deep-fried onion "petals" and mustard seed and red cabbage coleslaw) were both excellent. Again, a good value dish at £9.95 - my only complaint being that the chips were a little salty even for me. I still ate them all though, and that is of course the only reason I drank so many cocktails afterwards.

- The Botanist Manchester is at 78 Deansgate, Manchester M3 2FW. I was invited to the press lunch and was not asked to pay for my food or drink, and have yet to dine there at a peak time - but service was excellent and I would be happy to pay the prices on the menu on another occasion.