Got something lovely, shiny, gorgeous or sparkly to share? Join the twitter feed @ThingsToDoinMcr, or get in touch at

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Posh Pickles and Preserves: Christmas Comes Early

Much as I love Christmas, I've always been of the school of thought that it shouldn't really start before December - all this Christmas-in-November business has always felt just a little premature, like eating all the chocolates from one's advent calendar and then suffering from a potent mixture of shame and gluttony. Every year it gets harder to resist though; take last Saturday morning as an example. I was already vulnerable, having forbidden myself to watch The Muppets Christmas Carol on the Sky Christmas Channel, and when the parcel of Christmas goodies arrived from Cheshire-based Posh Pickles and Preserves it really seemed a sign that I should wait no longer.

I'm an absolute sucker for festive food. I love all the flavours of Christmas and would eat them all year round if I could - sprouts, chestnuts, cinnamon, booze-steeped fruits...I honestly get excited just thinking about such things. And as if decreed by fate, the first jar out of the box was the Mulled Wine Christmas Punch Preserve, a loosely-set jam made with plums, apples, red wine, orange juice and peel, and a whole host of Christmassy spices; in short, it was my idea of heaven, and I'd like to pretend that I didn't eat a good portion of it straight from the jar with a spoon. Other Christmas treats included the Cranberry Sauce with Juniper Berries and Ruby Port, a nicely tart preserve which again was strong on festive flavours like cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and the Strawberry and Champagne Celebration Jam - like the Mulled Wine Preserve, this was an example of that rarest of things, a jam with booze that you can actually taste. I include a photograph here, not so that you may scoff at the unimaginative way in which I consumed this jam, but so that you may admire its beautiful scarlet hue.

Posh Pickles & Preserves began life in 2005 when founder Stephanie Bath was undergoing kidney dialysis, and has gone from strength to strength ever since, winning the Prince’s Trust Award for Business Success in 2006 and Outstanding Business Achievement Award in 2007. Steph clearly has a nose for an interesting flavour combination (as well as a liberal pouring arm with the booze) - I've tried her pickles before, and was particularly taken with the Bloody Mary Chutney, a winning combination of tomatoes, Bloody Mary spices (chilli, Tabasco, Worcester sauce) along with a good glug of vodka that was quite honestly made to go with cheese. Also very versatile is the bestselling Vietnamese Lemongrass and Chilli Relish, a punchy sauce that I found useful as a cooking sauce and marinade as well as a pickle; be careful though - this one is very garlicky and is therefore not recommended for potentially romantic occasions.

As well as approving of these interesting flavours, I like that neither the jams nor the chutneys are too sweet. The Sweet Mango and Cheshire Apple Chutney is not remotely cloying thanks to the inclusion of generous quantities of chilli, mustard seeds and ginger, and was very happy made into a wrap with some cold roast chicken, rocket and mayonnaise. The Raspberry Jam is satisfyingly pippy, and the Sticky Pear and Ginger Jam is well-balanced and tempered with a hint of lemon. I plan to buy a large jar of this latter item and make some kind of interesting cake with it, as I think the flavours would work perfectly.

I've always wanted to be the sort of woman who makes her own jam and chutney but, quite frankly, I'm not and never will be; luckily, Steph is, and makes these lovely things in small batch pans so that we can pretend that we did it instead. Posh Pickles also donate money to the National Kidney Federation - a charity close to Steph's heart - from the sales of their chutney, so really, it's a moral duty to purchase it if we are to consider ourselves community-minded citizens. The full range is available from their website - I suggest you have a look and treat yourself to some Christmas cheer immediately even if it is still November.

- Steph sent me some mini jars to try but was very clear that I was under no obligation to write anything nice about them (or indeed, anything at all). They really are nice though.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Robert Owen Brown and Inca Pop-Ups Join Forces at Manchester's Proper Tea

It's little wonder that Manchester still can't get enough of the Pop Up, whether this be a one-off supper club or full-on restaurant. I've never been completely convinced by street food, thanks to the whole eating-whilst-standing-up-and-often-as-not-in-the-pouring-rain thing, but can fully understand that opening a permanent restaurant is a financial commitment beyond most people's reach, particularly with rents and rates in Manchester requiring a pretty sharp turnover right from the off. Common sense, then, to make use of an existing venue in order to spread the costs, a little like a foodie time-share - and that's exactly what happened last Saturday night, when a room full of people were able to sit comfortably in the beautiful Proper Tea and enjoy an excellent one-off menu from Robert Owen Brown without worrying about getting coleslaw in their hair or rain in their shoes. The supper club had originally been planned to take place in Chapter One Books in the Northern Quarter, but a last minute glitch meant Proper Tea stepping in to save the day, and whilst I was sad not to eat surrounded by books, the new venue was pretty much ideal (long walk to the toilet aside). Anyway, my friend had brought me along the Hawksmoor at Home cookbook for a birthday present, so I was able to pretend I was indeed in a bookshop, albeit one with a very small stock selection.

I previewed the menu here a few weeks ago, and it didn't disappoint - although I had warned a trepidatious boyfriend, a first time visitor to a Robert Owen Brown event, about the likelihood of the presence of animal unmentionables that didn't in the end materialise. Instead we were treated to a sophisticated succession of courses showcasing the pleasures of game - the rabbit consomme was a simple yet delicious clear stock peppered with chunks of meat and crunchy mini dumplings; the pigeon was cooked pink and served thinly sliced with sweet chestnuts and crispy parsnips that really complemented its rich flavour; and the roast partridge sat happily on a bed of wild mushrooms and caramelised onion. The dark chocolate tart could have been a little more bitter for me, but I don't really have a sweet tooth and in any case was saving myself for the final course of the night - the white port-soaked Garstang cheese was everything I hoped it would be and more, and the sweet waffles with which Rob served it were a revelation. And just when I thought I couldn't eat any more, the lovely Claire from Inca Pop Ups (who knew it was my birthday) appeared with a plate of cakes and everyone sang to me - just the perfect end to a fab evening. Mention must also go to Nic from Reserve Wines, who had chosen some great drinks for the evening - we really enjoyed a Rioja priced at a very reasonable £15 a bottle.

This is the first event I've been to organised by Inca Pop Ups but I will definitely be going to more - it's always a pleasure to see Rob but as well as his cooking the evening was really well organised and offered very good value for money. Keep an eye on Eventbrite for their forthcoming events - the next is on the 28th November and features another collaboration with Rob, this time in Alderley Edge. I can't go to this one - but with a menu including a "bird in a bird, in a bird, sat in a pear tree", it's frankly your duty to go along and take a few photos to share with the rest of us...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Cake and Bake Show Returns to Manchester for 2015

As we approach the season when it becomes perfectly acceptable to consume baked goods at any and indeed every meal, it seems only fitting for the Cake and Bake Show to take up its annual Manchester residency in its new time slot and location. The four day celebration of all things cake kicks off tomorrow at EventCity, and promises a whole range of well-known faces - including new national heroine Nadiya Hussain, who so recently made us all hungry every Wednesday evening on the Great British Bake Off. Other celebs hovering round the cake this weekend include Gregg Wallace (no surprise there then), Lisa Faulkner, Rosemary Shrager, Phil Vickery and Eric Lanlard; truth be told though, stellar as the line-up invariably is, I rarely see many of the demonstrations as I'm too busy wandering round the exhibitor stalls (sporting, of course, a cross-body bag in order to leave both hands free for sampling).

The exact format changes every year, but you can find a full list of exhibitors and visiting experts here on the Cake and Bake Show website, and read all about the 2013 show here. One of the highlights of this year's show looks to be the story book cake display created by food artist Jacqui Kelly and featuring life-size characters including my own personal favourite Paddington Bear. You may wish to enjoy the photograph shown here of Jacqui's beautiful cake - or indeed go and see it for yourself - before I run into it face first on Saturday and consume half a sugar bear quicker than you can say Aunt Lucy.

- The Cake and Bake Show is a great day out for those of a greedy and/or excitable persuasion, and this year looks to be even better value as your Cake and Bake Show ticket will also gain you entry to the Ideal Home Show taking place concurrently. Adult tickets will cost £15 on the door - for full details check the website, as certain concessions are available. SEE YOU BY ALL THE CAKE.

Monday, 2 November 2015

New Guest Post: A New Look for Manchester's Walrus and Tusk Bars

Sometimes, real life (and the kind of employment that actually pays the mortgage) gets in the way of lovely blog events. I'm very lucky, then, to have several excellent guest bloggers who are happy to take one for the team and drink wine on my behalf (although this feels less lucky when said guest blogger sends you photos of his o'er-flowing wine chalice whilst you are still at work). Still, it's fitting that for this, my 600th post, I hand the reins over to the fragrant Chris, who has been having a lovely time at the re-launch of Walrus and Tusk in the Northern Quarter...

As the NQ appears to go from strength to strength and with the whole area appearing to have a renaissance over the last 6 months or so (in my humble opinion), it makes sense for Walrus and its next-door neighbour Tusk to continue to keep themselves fresh.

So as autumn sets in, it was nice to pop along tonight to the unveiling of their half a million pound relaunch, yes, that’s right, £500,000! With such a generous spend on another relaunch, you maybe thinking that it has changed its target market and is looking to a different clientele, and based on the plush new interior, you could think this to be true.

The new theme of copper and wood (and plush leather booths) does give it a wow factor. The booths are incredibly comfortable, especially when looking out into the dark night at the flame throwers who were called into action for last week's launch party (and cuddling a new cocktail), and are perfect for groups of 4-6 or maybe a couple more if we are getting intimate! This, coupled with the extensive spirits, bottled beers, ales and cocktail menu, makes Walrus a great venue to kick your night off.

If you were to invite Walrus into your itinerary, you would be pleasantly surprised with the prices too. The food menu is very reasonably priced and is perfect for small bites, sliders, sharers and, for those thin-crusted pizza lovers, a decent range of pizzas. My personal favourites were the breakfast pizza and the chicken burger (£9.95). There is also an impressive range of classic “mix ups”, or cocktails, including The Bohemian Mojito (spiced rum and ginger) and my favourite of the night, The Solero (vodka based with passionfruit, vanilla and mango), both £7.50. Draft beer isn’t on offer at Walrus, but there’s plenty of branded bottles beers and some unique ales offered, so you wouldn’t go without.

There is a definite look and feel of style in the design of Walrus, and not a theme that is currently repeated within the ever changing NQ. Offering such a simple [yet tasty] food menu, and a perfect place to start your night out, I just hope that with such a large spend on Walrus and Tusk (much darker and moodier (in a good way)), it manages to be a success.

- Walrus is at 78-88 High Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1ES.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Brick or Treat and Spooky Seas: Half Term Fun at Legoland Discovery Centre and Sea Life Manchester

By and large, I am not envious of people who are parents. It does have to be said, though, that there are some pretty amazing things out there for kids to do, and I am occasionally envious of these. So here's guest blogger Tim to tell us about two frankly brilliant places to take your children this half term...

Certain principles of mine have been realigned after becoming a parent. Some were strengthened; spending money, for example, requires a more disciplined approach, as does alcohol consumption. Certainly on weekdays. Other principles might, for the sake of my child's pleasure and sleep, benefit from a little loosening. Take Zoos; any qualms about the wellbeing of proud, exotic, noble giant cats born and raised in Lancashire captivity are put aside in favour of my daughter's spellbound smile. My objection to clothes produced in ethically questionable conditions has retreated at the advance of a toddler's growth rate and tendency to return from nursery covered in paint, mud and spaghetti hoop juice. Concessions must be made to ensure a bundle of joy's happiness. And cleanliness.

So it was that I, amoral and standard-free parent of one, found myself journeying to the Trafford Centre on a Saturday morning. Another principle forgotten. Another "I'll never do" done. And why? For the entertainment of my two year old daughter and her best friend. Truthfully, there are few better reasons.

Our first port of call was Sealife, Manchester's primary (I think only) centre dedicated to the wonders of marine biology. I've always found it a bit strange that Manchester, a city that resorted to building a huge canal to bypass the fact it was very much inland, should host a Sealife centre. We've actually visited it before and enjoyed it but wanted to take the opportunity to go back with our daughter a little older and to check out the Halloween displays which form part of this week's Spooky Seas event.

The experience began with a lovely talk and display about turtles and the conservation efforts around them. The scene was beautifully lit, with effects that enchanted the girls and made them (even more) excited for the day ahead. The bulk of the centre is, of course, based on various tanks full of weird and wonderful fish. Now, even though the girls didn't (and still don't) know their stingrays from their sticklebacks, they charged about enthusiastically and did spend lots of time observing the amazing creatures on show, faces pressed against the glass, genuinely intrigued. Our toddlers were too young to fully appreciate the scope of fish on show, and the educational accessories, but they really enjoyed the environment and the older children there were obviously fascinated by the place. As well as the fish, stingrays, crabs, seahorses (the girls' favourites) and sharks, there were Halloween themed colouring activities, a spooky, I'm a Celebrity inspired tombola, generous goody bags and a soft play area that went down very well. The staff were great, very enthusiastic and welcoming and in all Sealife is a place well keep going back to, confident that our daughter will be more engaged each year. Until she reaches the age where everything is rubbish. But I don't want to think about that right now.

Legoland is just a couple of doors down the way and was very popular, with queues coming out of the door at 10.30am. We'd never been before and didn't really know what to expect, besides Lego. The start of the visit was similar to Sealife - you have your photo taken and then proceed to a short talk by a young, enthusiastic and fun expert. This was less esoteric than its marine counterpart and offered kids the chance to shout, jump up and down and get a free Lego brick. Ticking many boxes.

The next step was a ride. It's a bit like a ghost train except you're taken through a castle landscape that's being attacked by orcs, giant trolls and some resurrected skeletons. Fear not though, your train is equipped with laser pistols with which you are able to fend off said green skins. It's fun, it really is and, to my slight surprise the girls weren't scared but at the end simply yelped the affirming word "Again!"

We pressed on though, through a Mini-World exhibition that, while impressive, was not really suitable for our girls. Certainly not at that time when they just wanted to climb into the display, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the mini-Eiffel Tower my daughter darted towards. Older, more rational children were much more suitably appreciative.

The main room of Legoland boasts several activities, such as go-karts and another soft play area that our two darted for feverishly. By this stage they were in that familiar toddler state: tired, shattered, mardy but having so much fun the suggestion of going home was met with howls and sitdown protests. As a result we missed out on many of the activities available but there was a great buzz about the place, with kids clearly having a huge amount of fun. It was the kind of place you could easily spend a day in, with several hours worth of play arenas to choose from and a restaurant at hand. There was also ample seating for adults, which I imagine was entirely necessary given the cheerful chaos of the room.

Ultimately the fun was all too much for our little ones, who we coaxed back to the car via the Legoland shop, nude statues, fountains and a tasty round of croissants at a nearby cafe. Predictably, they weren't long in the car before they were asleep in their seats, sprawled out, gently snoring, perhaps dreaming of boisterous Lego orcs or serene seahorses. Either way, it was the sleep of satisfied children and not for the first time since becoming a dad, my hitherto held principles had been disproved.

Spooky Seas and Brick or Treat are both on until November 1st at Manchester's Trafford Centre.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

INCA Pop Ups presents Robert Owen Brown's 5 course menu at Chapter One Books: Locals Rejoice whilst Animals Quake

If I were forced to pick my two greatest passions in life, I would choose food and books. My house is filled with books (I reckon I have around 3000) and I spend my working day pontificating pompously on another dozen or so - stopping only to come home and investigate one of my two fridges in order to find out what's for tea. It would therefore be something of a dream come true to go to a pop-up supper club hosted by one of my favourite chefs in a bookshop - and yet miraculously, this admittedly rather specific vision of utopia is now within my reach as former Mark Addy chef Robert Owen Brown sets up stall next month at Chapter One in the Northern Quarter to bring us a spectacular five course menu.

Rob is the master of the five or six course menu - I used to eat all sorts of unusual animal parts on a monthly basis at his Gourmet Nights at the Mark Addy, and I've also attended a couple of pop-up events he's done with Bangers and Bacon that have been pretty special (again, as long as you don't think too deeply about what part of Larry, Percy et al you might be eating at any one time). The menu for the Inca Pop Ups events on Saturday November 14th looks amazing, running as follows:

Welcome Drink (not sure what this will be but presume it will be something suitably stiff to brace us for what is to follow)

Wild Rabbit Consommé with thyme dumplings (brilliant - LOVE rabbit)

Tea smoked Wood Pigeon breast with sweet chestnut & crispy parsnip salad (can find no fault with this - nice, seasonal ingredients, perfectly autumnal)

Roast grey leg Partridge with wild mushrooms & caramelised baby orbs of joy (yep, sounds good...oh, wait. Orbs of joy? Remember advice re: not thinking too deeply)

Bitter dark Chocolate tart with ginger nut ice cream (back on safe ground here)

White port soaked Garstang cheese (yep - lots of this one for me please)

Espresso or Loose leaf White Tea (to help prevent accidental napping on the way home).

This looks to me like a proper, classic Rob menu - and excellent value at £40 a head (including a £20 deposit). I've already booked my places and you can do likewise (insert your own sophisticated punnage here about booking/books etc - you're welcome) via eventbrite. Animals, it's time to hold on to your privates again!

Monday, 5 October 2015

PLY Manchester - Bringing Italy to the Northern Quarter

I need to start by holding my hands up and admitting to being several miles behind the curve on this one, because I'm going to tell you how good PLY in the Northern Quarter is. You of course already know this - you've been posting photos of their sourdough pizzas all over social media for months, and like it so much you voted it Bar of the Year in the recent Manchester Food & Drink Awards - and last weekend I finally got round to trying it for myself. Rest assured I have been posting photos of sourdough pizza ever since.

We went last Sunday evening when it was quietish and we could appreciate the impressive nature of the space they've got here - it's an open, capacious affair but has been skillfully carved up into separate sections so that it feels cosy rather than stark. Despite it being a Sunday night, the small raised eating area was pretty full and apparently they'd been rammed all weekend - so much so that they'd run out of a few items. This is always disappointing but fortunately they had everything we wanted (although to be fair, I wanted everything), and we liked the straightforward nature of the menu - they sell satisfyingly Italian-sounding antipasti, and pizzas, and that's about it. I had the Aubergine and Burrata antipasti as a starter, and it was exactly as promised (but better) - marinated and chargrilled slices of aubergine, a whole fat creamy burrata, rocket and chilli flakes. It was a masterclass in understated simplicity, as was the Bresaola and Rocket across the table; thinly sliced bresaola piled high with rocket, radicchio, parmesan and caperberries tossed in a simple lemon dressing. This was some of the nicest food I've eaten outside of Italy - just good ingredients served with respect and integrity by people who know what they're doing.

Next up, PIZZA. These actually came while we were still tackling the giant antipasti, something that tends to annoy me in restaurants, as I'm quite a slow eater and like to linger over each course before the next one shows up. Our waitress explained that this is all part of the bid for authenticity; the antipasti are not designed as starters and thus the pizza will come whenever it is ready - fair enough, perhaps, and the pizzas were excellent. The bases are homemade sourdough and a little on the thick side for me, but then I do like my pizza insanely thin; otherwise, they are perfect, with generous toppings and just the right amount of smoky charring from 90 seconds in the wood-fired oven imported from Napoli (goodness only knows what the Italians would make of its cheery disco-ball facade). I chose the Artichoke and Pig's Cheek and loved it - nicely fatty cubes of smoked pig along with good chunks of artichoke, tomato, mozzarella and a sprinkling of chilli flakes. My date had the Salami of the Week and was impressed by the number of slices of proper, tasty salami along with tomato, mozzarella, basil and parmesan; he ate the lot, and then managed the last slice of mine too. We washed all this down with a couple of pints of Dortmunder (the only draught beer they had left) and had a quick browse of some of the artwork - the current Doodle Wall display is by Myro Doodles and is suitably Mancunian in theme; in fact, we thought it did a great job of summing up what's so good about PLY - this is real Italian food served up in a venue that's undeniably Manchester in mood and style. PLY is a clever fusion and I love it - it'll certainly do me until I can get back to Italy again.

- PLY is at 26 Lever Street, Manchester M1 1DW. We were invited in to review and did not pay for our food or drinks but I will be back as a paying customer; in fact, next time I'm meeting someone in town I'm going to be deliberately early so I can wait here, in Book Corner.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Spinningfields Rotating Menu: Five Restaurants, Five Courses

When the new Michelin stars were announced last week, it was no great surprise that once again there were none for Manchester. Equally unsurprising was the Mancunian reaction, which was predictably defiant and can largely be summed up by "you can keep your poxy stars - we have an amazing restaurant scene and we're perfectly happy as we are, thanks". It's certainly true that Manchester has a wealth of great restaurants and that some nights it's difficult to decide where to go - hence the genius of last Sunday's Rotating Menu event at Spinningfields. Part of Manchester Food & Drink Festival, this promised to be a culinary roadtrip around some of Manchester's best venues, with a different course in each of Manchester House, Ibérica, Australasia, Fazenda and The Alchemist - an ambitious plan, made all the more so by the fact that there were five sittings from 1pm onwards.

We were booked on the final one at 5pm, which began at one of my favourite restaurants - Manchester House, which is normally closed on a Sunday but had opened specially for this event. Here we were plied with sparkling rosé and had our first course of the night - the Squab pigeon with cherries, pistachio and violet mustard. This dish has been on the menu right from the beginning and is probably their signature dish; the foie gras cherry is still a very splendid thing no matter how many times you've had it.

By this point we were all enjoying a game of "guess which restaurant is next", and many of us were correct by anticipating a fish course at Iberica. I reviewed here a few weeks ago and loved it, so was excited to go back; even more excited when this course turned out to be octopus. Served very traditionally with potatoes and a very garlicky pimenton mayonnaise, this dish initially caused some consternation at table - many had never had octopus before, and were a little startled by the suckers (a few even cut them off). I love octopus and would order this dish every time - and even the doubters ate and enjoyed it.

For the main course it was always going to be Fazenda. I am wildly partial to this meat lover's paradise and eat here regularly - the staff are utterly welcoming and charming, the unlimited salad bar is spectacular and the all-you-can-eat meat is of the very highest quality and always perfectly cooked. For this event, they'd selected four of their signature cuts - the rump steak, the chicken hearts (to which I am utterly addicted), the pork belly with honey sauce and the minted leg of lamb - and essentially kept bringing them round until we could eat no more. They let us have unlimited runs at the salad bar, and kept topping our wine glasses up, and chatting with us about Portugal, and bringing us extra chips; we didn't really want to leave. Reckon I'll be back here again within the week.

Dessert had to be at Australasia - the puddings here are exquisite, and the one they'd chosen for us was no exception. The Chocolate Dome with Salted Caramel and Blackberries was a show stopper, brought to the table as a round chocolate ball over which the staff then poured hot caramel sauce, melting away one side to reveal a beautiful nutty ice cream in the middle. Unfortunately our time here was marred by an issue over a nut allergy that could have had the most serious of consequences and which was badly handled by one of the members of staff; luckily all ended well but it did rather take the gloss over what would have been a really lovely course. We also had one of their excellent lychee martinis, which I often have here in lieu of a dessert, thereby giving me a pleasing feeling of having had not one but TWO puddings.

By this point some of us (me) were definitely waddling, not least due to the cute but cumbersone gift of a plant potted up by David Wayman (who has a lovely shop on The Avenue) that had been waiting for each of us on arrival at Australasia. Fortunately we had to walk only as far as The Alchemist, where our final course consisted of our choice of cocktail from their ridiculously extensive menu. My raspberry Mojito was excellent, although the venue was a bit on the busy side for me (on a Sunday night too - clearly the whole of Manchester had last Monday off) and I'd in truth have liked perhaps a sliver or ten of cheese to properly consider this a course; still, they were probably just saving me from myself.

I ended up booking on to this event quite late, as I'd originally been put off by the price tag - at £80 a head this was not a cheap night out. I consider it was worth every penny though - the food was all pretty flawless, and each venue was generous with the booze (particularly Manchester House and Fazenda). I really hope the idea catches on - it's a great idea to be able to visit several different places in one night without committing to a full meal in any one of them, and it was also nice to sit on communal tables and chat with like-minded people. Roll on the next Rotating Menu; in the meantime, you'll find me at the salad bar in Fazenda with my extra large plate.