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Monday, 29 August 2011

The Best Cupcakes in Didsbury: Local Girl Shows Great Business Acumen in Perceptive Report

I must come clean and admit - perhaps to no-one's great surprise - that I didn't study anything to do with business at school. Instead I chose useful things like drawing, and reading, and languages, meaning that I could do you a lovely sketch whilst simultaneously talking you through the plot of Pride and Prejudice and conjugating a few Latin verbs, but would perhaps struggle to explain the finer points of commerce if required to do so.

Even I can see, however, that if you live in an area where there are lots of lovely cake businesses then this is generally likely to be a good thing for you, the dutiful consumer. Manchester in general - and Didsbury in particular - has become a hotbed of cake talent in the last couple of years, leading to a regrettable thickening of the waist as I single-handedly attempt to restart the economy by imbibing as many icing-based calories as possible. More excitingly still, I note with some interest that my favourite bakers are introducing a range of exciting new developments as they try to stand out from the rest. Here are a few of the best:

1. Airy Fairy Cupcakes. The Cake Boutique on School Lane is a simply gorgeous space, and chief Airy Fairy Laura has sensibly decided to make the most of the upstairs rooms by launching a number of enticing classes, the details of which can be found on her website. The latest to be announced is the frankly irresistible-sounding "Burlesque and Afternoon Tea", where we learn some devilishly sexy chair-based dance routines, including basic striptease (goodness only knows what an advanced strip might incorporate) before reverting to sensible middle-aged women and having a nice sit down (on the same chair we just foxed over?) and some lovely tea and cake. The first one takes place in November - which, I might just take the opportunity to remind everybody, coincides with the celebration of my birthmonth.

2. Lollicakes. These are the comparatively-new kids on the cake block, two gorgeous girls in Didsbury who specialise - as their name suggests - in cake pops. For the uninitiated, these are moist little balls of cake, coated with icing and chocolate and then impaled on a handy stick; they are smaller than cupcakes, thereby allowing you to eat them in multiples of approximately seven (although do bear in mind that I specialised in Latin, not Maths). Katy and Laura were the first to bring the cake pop to the North West, and have achieved a lot of success very quickly - they already supply Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and The Circle Club, and now (perhaps the most excitingly for them) they supply me as well, although I cannot promise exclusivity due to my cake-whoring ways. The reason for their success? Cuteness. One or both of them must have an extremely steady hand, for their lollicake designs are simply stunning - my favourite Hello Kitty ones appear on this link, but I am also very taken with their frogs, bumble bees and Smurfs (have a sniff round Selfridges to see what designs are in at the moment - I fear Mr Liz would sell his soul for those Star Wars ones). They are also introducing some dessert-based lollicakes, and if the lemon cheesecake one I've just scoffed is anything to go by, these will be very nice indeed - although I did have to draw my own Hello Kitty face on it.

3. And the Dish Ran Away With the Spoon. Anna and James's gorgeous little shop on Burton Road is perfectly placed to make the most of West Fest, the annual celebration of independent businesses that takes place next weekend. The 3rd and 4th September will see "Teafest" at The Dish, serving up a range of loose-leaf tea; I, for one, will be quite happy to leave the job of scraping tea leaves out the strainer to someone else, particularly as those tea leaves can then be read for you - I'm hoping mine will forecast another win on the bingo at Love2Eat in the evening. Full details are on their website; I'm very much hoping that other local businesses take inspiration from this, and announce they will be celebrating West Fest by holding something called "Winefest" (you see? Clearly I would have been an excellent business student).

And finally, I can't mention cake without extolling the virtues of the lovely friend who, as we sat sadly in the pouring rain at Fletcher Moss Park on Friday night watching Heartbreak's Pride and Prejudice, produced a Tupperware box full of homemade blueberry and pecan cake. You know who you are, and I'm honestly not sure I would have got through the second half without you.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Smoak Bar and Grill at Manchester Malmaison - Local Girl in Too-Full-For-Cheese Shocker

It strikes me that, by and large, hotel restaurants must be a tricky thing to get right. I fear that for many of us, raised on a diet of sitcoms from the 1970s and 80s, the image that prevails is one of a very tall, quite silly man goose-stepping his way around the tables of some astonished, weeping tourists, while a small Spanish man drops trays and gets smacked around the head (yes - I actually thought Andrew Sachs was Spanish - I was very young). I have eaten in some truly dreadful hotel restaurants, utterly beige in their soullessness, and peopled almost entirely by unhappy couples pushing little pieces of very anaemic fish around their plates.

I have also been to some rip-snorting hotel bars and restaurants, which have taken the sensible route of thinking, "I know! Let us simply concentrate on designing and running a really good bar or restaurant, that loads of people would want to come to, and give them lovely food and drink in an atmosphere not resembling that of a funeral parlour - and then we'll run a nice hotel as well." The very best hotel bar I have ever been to was at a nice little place on the outskirts of Edinburgh - they made Bloody Marys with fiercely hot chilli vodka, and ran a quiz where someone would come round with an enormous carrier bag full of packets of crisps between games, prompting an unseemly fight over the last bag of prawn cocktail between the hundreds of happy locals who were happy to patronise this excellent bar that just happened to have handy rooms attached.

For similar reasons, I applaud Smoak Bar and Grill, the new restaurant that has replaced the Brasserie at Manchester's Malmaison. On a Thursday night, the place was packed - full of youngish, cheerful people who were eating and drinking here because they wanted to, not because they had to - a huge compliment to a new restaurant in a part of Manchester not short of places to eat. Here is why we loved it:

1. The menu. As its name suggests, Smoak is primarily a steak restaurant, specialising in succulent slabs of meat grilled to perfection over oak smoked chips (more of that in a minute). However, the menu is impressively extensive: I have already ear-marked a further half dozen dishes I must come back and try - top of the list for next time is the rare breed chop with pulled pork, served with coleslaw, cornbread and fried onions. There are a few vegetarian dishes on the menu, but as our table offered a clear view of the restaurant's butchery (basically some tasty animal carcasses hanging in a glass case), it might be a little thoughtless to bring your herbivorous friends here anyway.

2. The staff. The people who work here are simply lovely, and give the impression that they enjoy their jobs very much. From the charming young barman who assured us that ALL their cocktails were both hangover and calorie free, particularly the cream-based ones (fictitiously, it turned out - NEVER trust a winking barman is a life lesson I have clearly learned far too late) to the cheeky waiter who took one look at my licked-clean dessert plate and said "well yes - I can see you didn't enjoy that at all", all were cheerful, funny and friendly - a delight.

3. The grungy-in-a-good-way atmosphere. This might just be the point that divides opinion over Smoak - this is a dark, sexy warehouse of a space, with bright red seating and tables crammed in close together (all the better for noseying at what your neighbours are eating, is what I say), and The Killers playing at high volume over the noisy clink of cutlery and the buzz of cheery, after-work conversation. The staff wear t-shirts, and happily dollop ketchup onto the side of your plate if that is what you so desire; the wine is served in tumblers and the water from space-ace metallic beakers. We loved all of this, but it IS brave to serve high-end food and drink (at reasonably high-end prices) in this kind of deliberately casual atmosphere; we were disappointed to see, for example, that all of the neighbouring tables had spurned their tumblers and asked for proper wine glasses instead (which were brought instantly, without resentment).

4. The food, obviously. All of this would count for nothing, of course, if the food wasn't really, really good. The steaks themselves were peerless - I went for the fillet steak with bearnaise sauce and, for the first time ever, left my sauce through choice, because the steak it accompanied was simply too rich, juicy and buttery to have any need of such adornments; my husband found the same with his pepper-crusted sirloin steak from the specials board, and joyously dunked his skinny, skin-on chips into his peppercorn sauce instead. He also wolfed down the roasted bone marrow that came with my fillet with all the speed and alacrity of a cat that has stolen something particularly tasty from your plate; I swear I even heard him growl softly, just once, when a passing waiter came too close.

Starters and puds were also good - frito misto with a gorgeously fishy, salty dipping sauce for me, and the splendidly named "Three Sausage Sampler" for Mr Liz - a strange but exuberant offering of three differently sized meaty chunks (putting me in mind a little, somewhat bizarrely, of the three bears) perched aloft a smear of mashed potato. The starter portions were not large, but the desserts were enormous (I would prefer a slight swapping-round of these ratios) - six perfect profiteroles balancing on a choux pastry ring for me, and a plateful of pear and chocolate waffles for Mr Liz; both are shown below - remember the waffles look smaller due to the perspective, but were actually roughly similar to the Coliseum in circumference.

Regretfully, all this greed left me unable to sample what might just be Smoak's crowning glory - a proper, wheel-it-about, point-at-what-you-want CHEESE TROLLEY. I will have this next time, and in the meantime I include a picture below that I may stroke lovingly from time to time whilst thinking about what I could have had.

So...not everyone will like Smoak, and that is precisely why we loved it - a great restaurant that just happens to be part of a hotel. And not a goose-stepper or a moose head in sight.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Gio-Goi Clothing: New Shop in Manchester AND a Lovely Homecoming Rave

Now obviously I am fully aware that, by and large, it pays to be forward-thinking and look to the future rather than the past. There is no point, for example, in lying in bed the morning after a night at Crazy Wendy's Thai karaoke restaurant, wondering whether it was really very wise to drink those six bottles of wine and then perform Hey Big Spender aloft someone else's table; equally, you are likely to achieve little by getting out those photos from university (in the days before you could approve every shot, remember) and thinking what very good legs you had when you were eighteen. It is in the past, and you cannot change it.

That said, every so often it can be enormous fun to give in to a little nostalgia, particularly if it is of the slightly fraudulent variety. In the late eighties, I was entering my early teens and therefore incapable of a/ forming opinions for myself and b/ going out late and doing exciting things (although I did once return a book to the school library very overdue indeed). Instead, I saw life through the filter of Smash Hits and Just Seventeen, the latter of which celebrated the arrival of acid house music by putting a very small smiley face on the cover, tucked away underneath a headline feature on how to win the hearts of any or all of Bros. By the time I came to Manchester, the Hacienda was in its end-of-days; once again, the girl from Somerset was just that fatal step behind the times.

That will not stop me, however, from celebrating the return to Manchester of the Gio-Goi clothing brand, and the homecoming rave that accompanies it. The brand was started in Manchester in the late eighties - no doubt at a time when I was still campaigning hard to be allowed a puff-ball skirt - by Anthony and Chris Donnelly, two enterprising brothers who began by selling clothes at Manchester clubs and raves, including the Hacienda; thus it is only right and proper that their first store in England should open in Manchester Arndale Centre tomorrow, Thursday 25th August.

Even better, they're having a party. Friday 2nd September sees the Donnellys hosting a one-off bash at Moho Live in the Northern Quarter, featuring - this is the exciting bit - a fleet of Hacienda legends, including Mike Pickering, John Da Silva and Graham Park (Mr Liz didn't recognise ANY of these names until further information prompted him to say that he HAD heard of M People *rolls eyes and takes someone else along*). If you want to go (and obviously, you do), visit the Gio-Goi website for details of how you can win tickets to go along and see two women who should know better dancing wildly to a bunch of DJs they would like to have seen the first time round, had they not been cruelly subjected to Tiffany and Debbie Gibson instead. Finally, this is our chance to be where we SHOULD have been all along...

Friday, 19 August 2011

Curry and Bingo Night at Love2Eat Deli: All Hail the New Bingo Queen of Didsbury

It is with some shame that I confess that I have lived in Manchester – which is “up North” for any Southerners who have mistakenly strayed across this blog – since I was seventeen years old, and until last night had never played bingo. It’s fair to say that I am often a late starter with regards to such things; I lived in Rusholme for a good year or so before I had my first curry, for example, and have only recently made my first stumbling steps into the murky yet thrilling world of black pudding.

Perhaps the reason for my bingo virginity lies in my lack of competitiveness. I am the person who goes out into the kitchen to rustle up a few snacks if a board game of any kind is produced at a social gathering, and once had to have my pulse checked by a nearby doctor during a game of Buzz that produced excessive palpitations. And from what I’d heard, bingo is perhaps the most competitive game ON EARTH, played mainly by sharp-eyed, tight-mouthed old ladies, dabbing violently at a whole fleet of cards with pinpoint accuracy, their trusty stick by their side ready to beat off any young pretenders. Comments from friends did little to dispel this image; drink through a straw, suggested one, so that you never have to take your eyes from your card, and under no circumstances be distracted by the crisps and nuts that will have been left provocatively on your table (no doubt planted by sharp-eyed, tight-mouthed old ladies) to lure away your attention from the matter in hand.

Well, anyone who knows me will see the sheer ridiculousness of suggesting I ignore food placed before me, or suffer the indignity of drinking wine through a straw. Luckily, last night’s inaugural foray into Land of Bingo came not at Gala, but at the much less threatening-sounding Curry and Bingo Night at West Didsbury’s Love2Eat Deli. This once regular night has been resurrected, allowing the great and good of Burton Road to get their bingo fix on a monthly basis without being stabbed in the back of the hand by a cross old dear armed with a dabber specially sharpened for that very purpose.

This is how it works: £20 English pounds buy you a three course meal followed by several games of bingo - we had five rounds last night, but the number of games seems to depend on how drunk Tim – bingo caller extraordinaire – gets before the end of the evening. Anyone who has eaten at Love2Eat before will know that their food is simple but good – we had poppadoms, onion bhaji and kissing chutney (a gorgeously tart Granny Smith pickle, presumably made from the old dear with the dabber) to start, followed by chicken curry, smoked aubergine curry, lentil dhal, rice and naan bread for main. Pudding came in the form of a choice of ice-cream cakes by Ginger’s Comfort Emporium – I went for the gingerbread with caramel sauce, a little like a very posh arctic roll, and requiring a quick run-round of the plate with a finger when no-one was looking. Even better, you take your own booze, meaning that dutiful Mr Liz was swiftly dispatched into the rain to grab a few bottles from the handily placed Reserve Wines just down the road.

So, food over, and it was eyes down. A hush descended as, dabbers poised, a roomful of slightly drunk diners prepared to fight to the death for an array of desirable prizes. We had already decided that I wanted to win the cream tea for two, and my friend was after the dinner for two with wine; we had set our sights high, for they were the two biggies. After the first three rounds, nothing; the table behind us scooped everything. That’s OK, we thought, we didn’t WANT to win wine, for we are after the BIG PRIZES. A change of dabber brought a change of luck, and I – Lightning Liz – had snaffled the cream tea, prompting me to applaud myself wildly and display warning signs of becoming dangerously over-excited. Hurrah! said my friend, but I really must get home, for it is almost midnight (yes, honestly – who knew bingo was such a tense, drawn-out affair) and my dog is already not speaking to me. No, no! said I, for our luck has changed, and you shall win the BIG PRIZE of dinner for two with WINE. And – double hurrah – she did, showing a speed and determination with her dabber that can only be found in a girl hailing from Accrington.

By now, it really was midnight, and the atmosphere in the room had clearly soured as far as we were concerned – so we took our prizes and got out while the going was good, Mr Liz just a little despondent that he had sat at the Table of Luck and won nothing. Obviously, I will be going again next month, and would suggest that everyone do likewise to support this lovely local deli – if it didn’t mean I was less likely to win next time *adopts sharp-eyed, tight-mouthed look, stick ready to defend Bingo Queen title…*

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Rhubarb Restaurant Headlines a Frankly Perfect Anniversary Evening

Sometimes, a night out just goes perfectly, impossibly right; you look back at it and think that you wouldn't change a thing. And luckily, after a trying week that saw - amongst other things - riots in Manchester and (on a slightly more personal, domestic level) ownership of a nosy, just-can't-leave-it-alone cat with gloss paint all over his face, last night was exactly such an occasion.

First things first: it was our wedding anniversary night out, to celebrate seven years of being married to a man who enjoys making hilarious jokes about how he would get less for armed robbery, and we had chosen to dine at Rhubarb restaurant on West Didsbury's Burton Road. This has been a reliable destination ever since it opened in 2003, but really seems to have raised its game recently - quite rightly leading to nominations for Best Restaurant and Best Chef for Bryn Evans in the upcoming Manchester Food and Drink Awards (you can vote for them here). Here are the highlights of this swaggeringly good evening:

1. Brisk walk Up West to Burton Road - a half hour journey that meant I could now eat with impunity for the rest of the evening. I am wearing some excellent gladiator sandals, a fact that the weather respects as the rain holds off for the entire evening - an event that has happened only twice in Manchester since records began.

2. Quick wine-tasting at Reserve Wines. This is a gem of a wine shop - lovely people, lovely wines, and an irresponsible tendency to tweet about lovely wine-tastings that lure you off your sofa and into the shop's gently smiling mouth.

3. Inaugural visit to Mary and Archie, the new(ish) bar that replaced our beloved Silver Apples on Burton Road; first impressions good (Mr Liz wisely points out it may take further research before we can pronounce a full vedict). We sat in the window, drank bottled Belgian beer, and watched a succession of ill-advised outfits parade past, including a lady in shoes so high she practically had to be carried across some of West Didsbury's rockier road surfaces.

4. Rhubarb. Looking back, I seem to have chosen the three courses with the highest possible saturated fat content (lucky I walked there, eh?) and unsurprisingly, it was all delicious: chicken liver parfait, followed by rump steak, followed by cheese, followed by some whining about having eaten too much. A special mention should go to the steak, procured from Chorlton's Mr Frosty Butcher himself, cooked perfectly, and served with proper big, fat chips - crispy on the outside, fluffy in the middle; a little like a cat coated in gloss paint, in fact. This course was excellent value at £17 - the piece of steak was the size of a small bungalow, and came complete with green beans and the aforementioned chips; no need to spend extra on side dishes here (although obviously, we did, as no-one in their right mind could resist parmesan coated courgettes, surely). The service was lovely, with a special mention to the brave girl who single-handedly wrestled a wasp to the ground while the man at the next table actually ran around in fright, flapping his hands and practically climbing on his chair. All in all a flawless meal - thank you Rhubarb.

5. What? you cry - haven't you had enough nice things happen to you in just one night? Well, just to cap off the perfect evening, we flagged a taxi down and found to our joy that for the first time ever, we'd secured the Hacienda taxi, allowing us to ride home in style, decked out in the classic yellow and black stripes so recently seen on that unfortunate wasp.

So hurrah for the perfect evening; here's to topping it next year when, if my in-depth academic research (Wikipedia) is to be believed, I will be the lucky recipient of a present made entirely of salt - hence the accompanying night out really had better be phenomenally good.

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Manchester Riots: Gastro Club Bravely Eat While Manchester Burns

This morning's blog was meant to be really very straightforward: a brisk discussion of last night's Gastro Club dinner at The Mark Addy, complete with shoe details (a very cute pair of orange and black suede pumps if you're interested) and a list of the barking things that Robert Owen Brown had us eating this time. And all of that will come, I promise.

But the problem with booking a meal a long time in advance is that, sometimes, things come up that make it less convenient to go; things such as appointments, illnesses and - just occasionally - riots. We had all hoped, of course, that Manchester would rise above the crazy madness in London and Birmingham, and go about its business in its normal, dignified fashion, but as our bus travelled into the city centre yesterday evening it became increasingly clear that everybody else was going the opposite way and trying to get out; minutes later the bus, tram and train services had stopped altogether.

In the time it took us to walk to The Addy, Manchester literally transformed itself into a ghost town. Those shops and bars not already looted closed up for the night with a swiftness that suggested the owners had known and feared this moment would come for some time; gangs of kids - and they were kids - in masks and hoods congregated seemingly from nowhere, sometimes up to fifty at a time, and ran purposefully up Market Street as we walked equally purposefully in the other direction, all in an eerie silence broken only by the ominous chug of the police helicopter over Piccadilly Gardens.

So what did we do? We went for dinner, obviously, prompting a wise woman to post on Facebook that it was all true - I really would crawl across broken glass to get a good meal; as would many others in Manchester, it seemed. Katie didn't get the 70 people she had originally expected at last night's first birthday party of the Gastro Club she founded from nothing, but she certainly got more than 40 hardy souls, determined to enjoy themselves no matter what, and fed and looked after in splendid style by ROB, John, Melissa and all the other amazing staff at the Addy.

For the record, this is what we had:

1. Eggs with wild watercress
. Two tiny quails eggs tucked away inside a normal-sized shell, served with watercress and caviar. A classy start that suggested that our journey across war-torn Manchester had not been in vain.

2. Wild Mushrooms with Madeira. The world's poshest mushroom vol-au-vent: toadstool-shaped pastry filled with mushroomy goodness.

3. Little Fishes. These were the little sand eels we had at the last Gourmet Evening - still good.

4. Slow Braised Pruney Pork with umble pie. This was the course that separated the men from the boys: a cute, innocent-looking pie that turned out to be filled with pig heart, spleen and uterus (all in a tasty gravy, obviously), served with half a pig's head per three people. Now, pig's head on a plate really does look like pig's head on a plate (complete with teeth), and as a lot of it is fat there isn't actually a great deal of meat to be had - but it did (apparently) allow an ill-behaved Mr Liz to offer his neighbour on his other side a bit of tongue.

5. The Gastroclub Birthday cake
. Not a birthday cake at all, but a huge pillar of Stilton surrounded by individual fruit cake "bricks" (to enable us to go looting afterwards, presumably), each with a guest's name on. The fact that not everyone could attend would seem to indicate that the good, brave staff of the Addy will be rewarded for their sterling efforts in the face of adversity by a diet of pig's head sandwiches and cakes with someone else's name on in the coming week.

All of this was accompanied by an increasingly strange atmosphere that was part convivial geniality, part fear; surreptitious glances at Twitter between courses suggested that all hell was breaking loose outside, with Miss Selfridge on fire, Afflecks Palace under attack, and gangs of kids doing pretty much whatever they wanted. The truth of the situation really hit home when we were asked to leave the premises halfway through the dessert amid rumours that Australasia, just across the river from us, was under attack. Luckily, the friends we were with had secured a lift to take us home, and we waited nervously on streets that were dark and empty, populated only by streams of hooded males quietly making their way past us on their way to the centre - not a bit interested in us, inexorably drawn to disturbances elsewhere.

The Mark Addy was literally the only place open last night, and the staff and patrons should be proud that the Gastro dinner went on regardless. There's been a lot of talk about the spirit of Manchester on the social networks over the last few days, and really, how could this be better exemplified than by people wrestling with a giant pig's head whilst chaos reigned outside? So thanks to the Addy and staff, and thanks to Katie Brunt for organising another triumphant Gastro Club (presumably her most trying yet - surely she deserves your vote for "Food Hero" at the Manchester Food and Drink Awards?) In the true spirit of Gastro Club, I leave you not with pictures of idiots trashing their own city for kicks, but an image of the Gastro birthday cake, dedicated to the amazing be-broomed volunteers who have been out on Manchester's streets since 9am this morning restoring a bit of pride. Here's to the next Gastro Club being a little less eventful.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Clandestine Cake Club Comes to North Star Deli, Chorlton

The trouble with writing a blog that occasionally - just occasionally - mentions food, in passing, once or twice, is that people make certain judgments about your capacity for greed. Recent comments have led me to believe that this is the case with my poor, wronged, misunderstood self; a recent musing on Twitter over which Greek phrases I should learn for my holiday, for example, led to a flurry of replies suggesting that "more please" was really the ONLY phrase I needed. And so I realise, with sinking heart, that no-one in the known universe will believe me when I say that last night I honestly didn't mean to go to the latest meet-up of the Manchester branch of the Clandestine Cake Club. No! It's TRUE! *stamps feet*

At least hear me out. I was having a particularly virtuous day yesterday, having spent the morning slapping emulsion around the house and the afternoon writing a 1500 word article, and had lovingly got some Artisan Meat Company sausages out the freezer to craft into a delicious repast for myself and Mr Liz. All was well until a casual look at Twitter suggested growing excitement over a cake meet at Chorlton's North Star Deli (a venue I have practically lived at, it seems, for the last few weeks); a cake meet from which I was cruelly excluded. For you see, Clandestine Cake Club is for people who are good at making cake, the idea being you sign up, make your cake, take it along to that month's venue, make polite conversation for three minutes, then eat all the other cakes - preferably without using your hands (OK, I may have made that last bit up). I am a poor cake maker, unwilling to bother with things that require weighing, measuring and timing, and felt I would perhaps be ostracised if I turned up with a nice pot of tapenade or a few meatballs and tried to pass them off as cake (although I might still try this at a future meet). I was resigned to a quiet, cake-free night at home.

Au contraire! A small bout of foot-stamping later and I was going, swept up in the generosity of Twitter and smuggled in the back-door entrance of being a "plus one", i.e. a good-for-nothing ligger allowed to turn up empty-handed as a guest - hurrah!

*realises may still be on slight sugar high and adjusts excitement levels*

Manchester is clearly a city that loves its cakes; last night's meeting was only the second to take place here, but the deli was packed to the rafters with lovely ladies clutching magnificent confections that - in some cases - had been bravely carried across Manchester on public transport. As an entirely, ahem, disinterested bystander, I can offer the following observations:

1. Manchester men folk either cannot bake, or are entirely frightened by the thought of being trapped in an enclosed space with a large number of sugar-filled ladies, for there was nary a man to be seen - rectify this please, Manchester Men, and get your pinnies on forthwith.

2. The best cake in the world is something called a Mojito cake. Out of all the cakes (and I think there must have been about twenty of 'em - some of them are pictured below BEFORE we got our hands on them), this was my favourite by a country mile; I asked clever Kate for the recipe, and can pass on the helpful information that she said something about icing sugar and limes, and then laughed a lot about my failure to get to the Cheese Festival the other week.

3. Anyone planning to attend one of these cake meets should not, repeat NOT, consume a plate of sausages one hour before kick off.

4. Anyone planning to attend one of these cake meets, especially one who may or may not have consumed a plate of sausages one hour before kick off, should fill their bag with Tupperware so that they may take cake home with them when they start to feel a bit sick and can eat no more.

5. Anyone who takes cake away in Tupperware but has a hungry, neglected husband at home should be aware that the hungry, neglected husband will spot the wide-eyed delirium that accompanies too much sugar in certain women and grab the Tupperware off her for her own safety. He will then sit downstairs and bravely defuse the situation while people with sugar headaches go quietly to bed; his favourite so far is the 99 Cake, although he has trotted off to work today clutching more Tupperware.

You can find out more details about the Clandestine Cake Club on their website, and book future places through Gwyneth, the marvellous Manchester organiser. Venues, dates and themes will vary from month to month, although the general theme - nice people sitting eating cake - will presumably remain constant. So thank you, cake makers, for kindly sharing your goodies, and thank you Deanna for taking heed of my tantrum and proving that ill-behaviour really does pay off. I will leave you with an image of one of the Tupperwares (NOT mine) about to leave the building: if you have EVER seen a finer party bag than this, I want to know where.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Join Us For Supper at North Star Deli, Chorlton: This Time, Flopsy Gets It

Many years ago, I spent a fairly miserable few months following a well-known diet - the one that involves counting points with religious fervour for four days, then falling off the wagon completely by going out for a curry that frankly takes you off the points scale before you've even finished your poppadom, followed by a tense weigh-in that results in a disapproving look from a scary lady in the upstairs room of a pub (my weekly meeting really was upstairs in a pub, leading to an often overwhelming urge to order pie and chips and a pint of lager on the way out, just to spite the scary lady - it was something of a vicious circle.)

The diet does work however, because it teaches you two vital things. Firstly, stop! look! listen! THINK! Do you REALLY need to pop that Quality Street into your mouth? And secondly, and perhaps more usefully whilst there are still purple Quality Street left in the tin, the more you exercise, the more you can eat. Now, the rules in the well-known diet I speak of above are a little on the strict side in this respect - something about four hours of aerobics = half a carrot, or something equally draconian, so I have developed my own system that you are welcome to adopt if it seems to suit your own lifestyle. Here are some examples:

- half an hour of light weeding to make the garden presentable for visitors = your own body weight in meat and bread products at the ensuing barbecue

- gentle stroll to local hostelry = unlimited food and drink (including gassy, lager-based drinks) at said establishment

- and, most pertinently to yesterday's agenda, three hours of painting your hallway a nice jaunty yellow colour = a three course dinner at North Star Deli.

Now, I wrote last month of the inaugural Join us for Supper night at this admirable Chorlton deli, and as I take my blogging very seriously, I felt it only right to go back and just make sure that standards had been maintained. The idea is a simple one - a monthly celebration of good, local food served up to nice people while they chat over a glass of wine or two, and this month's - "A Celebration of British Summer Time" - was even better than the first one. Here's why:

1. Lightly cured sea trout with a salad of pickled cucumber, sea vegetables and chardonnay dressing. This stunning starter ticked all the boxes - delicious, healthy and, thanks to the beetroot curing, PINK (it's a little known fact that pink food actually contains no calories, being dainty scoff for fairy folk who would never get off the ground if it did.) The veggie option - beetroot, rocket, lentil & Cheshire goat's cheese salad - was also delicious (what I could get of it), and is here modelled by the lovely Kath Foster, allowed out from her sterling work at Foster's Fish for the night:

2. Rabbit pie with cider and rosemary, served with mashed potato. This one had caused a little consternation from some corners when the menu was first announced, but the Flopsy Pie, made with bunnies who'd been too slow to escape Mr Frosty Butcher's shotgun and cider from the admirable Moss Cider project, was superlative. A proper big, fat, Desperate Dan-style pie made with - as Deanna told us afterwards - suet pastry, and served with rich, gloopy-in-a-good-way mashed potato: it's really a very good job I did all that strenuous painting. You may admire my pie below; there is some vegetarian nonsense in the background that you may ignore in your reverence of THE PIE:

3. Three ways with berries. The dessert was the only slightly weak link at last month's Supper Club; this month it was a staggering, swaggering triumph. The highlight was the oh-so-cute little tower of shortbread biscuits, each topped with cream and blueberries; you can just see it here, bottom right, before I scoffed the lot - it was really a "berry" good dessert *smirks*:

Join us for Supper is excellent value for food of this quality at £25 per head, so keep an eye on the website for details of the next event. Next time, I may even decorate the tricky, reachy, high bits of the landing rather than downing tools halfway up the wall; just THINK how much I could eat then...

- North Star Deli is at 418 Wilbraham Road, Chorlton M21 0SD.