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Thursday, 22 December 2011

Pinchjo's Tapas Bar Saves Local Girls from Festive Overload

Now, I like a mince pie as much as the next person - more, probably, if the next person happens to be a miserable Scroogey curmudgeon, although possibly slightly less if the next person is Mr Liz, whose high regard for any pie that has pastry both on the top AND the bottom would lead him to eat one at every meal if so permitted. However, there does come a point at this time of year when even I start to hanker after a non-Christmassy meal, one that does not involve a fat fistful of purple Quality Street, or the surreptitious consumption of the contents of one's Advent calendar before closing up the windows again with an innocent look on one's face.

Step forward Pinchjo's, the estimable tapas restaurant on Burton Road in West Didsbury, run by the ever delightful Joe. Visiting here is ALWAYS a pleasurable experience, as the food is the best tapas I've had in Manchester and it's almost - almost - possible to imagine oneself in sunny Spain, swaying one's elegant shoulders to the latino beats in much the same way a glamorous senorita might had she not spent the previous few minutes trying to avoid the world's biggest puddles along Burton Road.

Even better, Joe's Winter Deal is still on this week - two tapas dishes, a pudding and a beer or glass of wine for £15 every night between 5 and 7pm. Mr Liz went directly to the meat section of the menu, selecting beef with artichokes in balsamic glaze and chicken skewers with a tomato sauce as the dishes most likely to contain a very high meat-to-vegetable ratio (he was correct, and blissfully untroubled by salad of any kind throughout his meal). The ladies (I include myself in this appellation, as it's my blog, and I can call myself a lady if I wish) both chose lamb koftas served with mint yoghurt: spicy flat discs of tasty meat served with what was actually the best salad I've had in recent memory - Joe must have some secret with December tomatoes that turns them into a blast of pure sunshine; whatever it is, it's a secret I am myself sadly ignorant of. We both then picked from the fish section - creamy seafood paella for me and a dish of plump, tender calamari to my left that I stole shamelessly from. Not a shred of turkey or a sprout in sight.

Truth be told, the ladies were both full by now, but as dessert was included we all bravely grappled with a little something. Mr Liz's chocolate cake was pronounced delicious, but only by him as it disappeared too quickly for anyone else to try it, and my creme brulee was small but richly delicious. The only slightly flat note in the whole meal was the almond cake, which was decreed a little dry and heavy; if I was a better friend I'd have shared my creme brulee, but I'm not, and I didn't. *hopes friend will forget this*

So, a most enjoyable, Christmas-free night, with nary a Noddy or a Mariah to be heard and no festive comestibles allowed. Oh. Except one. A small bout of Twitter bullying - of which I am not proud - had prompted Joe to whip up a batch of mulled wine of quite astonishing ferocity, laced liberally with brandy and goodness knows what else, and absolutely the most delicious drink this side of Barcelona. And trust me, until you've had tapas washed down with Joe's lethal mulled wine, you really don't know what it is to have to retire to bed at 9.30pm on the first night of the Christmas holidays...

- Pinchjo's is at 192 Burton Road, West Didsbury, Manchester M20 1LH, tel. 0161 434 2020 or book via their website. There are no pictures in this blog, for which I blame a/ hunger and b/ Joe's mulled wine, upon which I plan to lay the blame for everything - domestic and political - during the next few weeks.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Local Girl Lured to Altrincham for Lamb Pitta and a Cheeky Mulled Wine; Pitta Crepe has a LOT to answer for...

I am increasingly distressed to note that my smug, insular existence - an existence that has seen me happily ensconced in the walled environs of Didsbury for many a year - has been somewhat under threat of late. Firstly, there's my new favourite restaurant, Damson, which lies across the border in Heaton Moor and therefore necessitates the procuring of a taxi cab, often on a Saturday night. Now, it seems that I am going to have to find a job in Altrincham, or at least an excuse to visit pretty much every Saturday, in order to feed my new lunchtime obsession: Pitta Crepe.

Now, I was a little sceptical about this too. On a Saturday just before Christmas, with a delicious mixture of sleet, rain and snow falling merrily from the leaden skies, street food was pretty much the last thing on my mind, which was veering far more naturally towards an afternoon on the sofa watching a black and white film and eating the remnants of the birthday chocolates. And yet an unassuming mobile kitchen, tucked away in the Stamford Quarter and manned by the most cheerful man in Britain, has today served me some of the best food I've eaten in ages - and that includes the meal where I sat by the Christmas tree in my pyjamas and ate five types of cheese for dinner.

Pitta Crepe has been going for about eight months, slowly building a large and loyal following who seemingly tweet daily about their love for the Moroccan Lamb Pitta: minced, spiced lamb served in a flatbread with salad, yoghurt and chilli sauce. This is their best-seller (with Chicken Tikka a close second), and it is easy to see why. The lamb is succulently tasty, and manages to be at once robust and delicately flavoured - Mr Liz literally gazed at it open-mouthed until he was thrown a scrap, at which point he immediately retired with it, growling at all comers until the treat was safely snaffled. Not that he wasn't much amused with his own gargantuan Bratwurst, hand-made by WH Frosts in Chorlton (is there a single foodie pie that Frosty doesn't have his finger in?) and served with onions and potato wedges. This one is a seasonal offering only, although has proved so popular that owner Simon is thinking of keeping it on as a regular (I'm pretty sure Mr Liz will put his signature to this if required) once the festivities have finished - it's worth getting one before next Saturday though, just in case he changes his mind.

This magical pocket kitchen also sells sweet and savoury crepes, and even has some alcohol-free mulled wine to wash it all down with. Prices are silly for food of this quality, with my large lamb pitta costing just £3.50 (and with hindsight, the regular size would have been plenty) and Mr Liz's sausage-fest £4.50. There is even a covered seating area alongside the van to protect hungry folk from the elements, or Simon will happily foil-wrap food so it can be taken home (although I suspect anything I tried to transport in this manner would not survive the car journey home).

The only downside? It was cold in Altrincham today, so cold that to defrost our hands we were FORCED to go to the nearby Brew House and drink more mulled wine - just to warm up, you understand. Last time we came here it was our beloved Le Trappiste, so it is with some relief that we note that it seems just as welcoming as ever - the decor is the same (although Tin Tin has gone), the staff just as lovely, and the selection of Belgian beers still healthy despite the emphasis now on this as a world beers bar.

In fact, after a quick trip to the market as well, today reminded me how much I like Altrincham - where else can you go home with a belly full of lamb pitta and a handbag full of kippers? They may, of course, wish to use this as their advertising slogan in future...

- Pitta Crepe is opposite Rackhams in Altrincham, and is open Monday to Saturday.

- The Brew House is at 18 Shaws Road, Altrincham WA14 1QU.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Airy Fairy Advent Calendar Gets Local Girl Frankly Too Giddy

First things first: one is NEVER too old for an advent calendar. It's high time that we adults rose in revolt and reclaimed Christmas from those pesky kids who seem to think it's all about them - Christmas is for grown-ups to drink Baileys, and wear sparkly eye-shadow, and eat all the purple ones out the tin of Quality Street; just this very evening I have cooked my last healthy meal of the year, and plan to subsist entirely on a diet of wine, cheese, pate and chocolate from now until Christmas Day.

Therefore, I not only have an advent calendar from Thorntons with my name iced on it, I have also completed the "spot the difference" puzzle on the back without an ounce of shame, and consume my precious chocolate at approximately 7am every day without compunction. So imagine my delight to discover ANOTHER advent calendar, this time online, where behind every window lurks not a risibly tiny scrap of chocolate, but a breathtakingly good cupcake-related deal. Such is the gift that Airy Fairy Cupcakes have bestowed upon us this year - twenty pink and purple boxes, each sheltering a sugar-based surprise (apparently 21-24 are coming soon - presumably chief Airy Fairy Laura didn't trust us not to peep), including discounts, competitions and special deals. She has even included a piece of cupcake-themed wisdom behind each window; not that I've, ahem, checked every door up to and including the 20th *avoids eye contact*

For someone who is old enough to harbour vague memories of advent calendars WITHOUT chocolate, where the windows had been opened so many times in previous years that they no longer stuck down, popping open willy nilly to reveal the thrilling religious image behind, this is all quite unreasonably exciting. Having checked my diet sheet, I have elected to add cake to my list of acceptable December meals, purely in the interests of a healthy balanced diet of course. So, Laura, I'll be seeing you on the 20th (if not before)...but if you could just add a spot the difference puzzle as well, my joy will be complete.

- Get into the Christmas spirit by opening a few doors on the calendar here; the charming Cake Boutique is on School Lane in Didsbury.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Manchester Christmas Markets 2011: Zippy's Back!

Love 'em or hate 'em, the Christmas Markets are now as much a part of the Manchester calendar as the Literature Festival, the Food and Drink Festival, and Mr Liz's annual pilgrimage to the black pudding stall at Bury Market where - if his behaviour for the year is found to bear scrutiny - he is allowed the double thrill of a hot one to eat there and then AND a cold one to take home.

Not everyone loves the Markets, however, and I myself am still pretty much undecided on whether they constitute a Jolly Good Thing or a Bit of a Damp Squib. Let us consider the whole conundrum in a scientific and objective manner for a moment...

Manchester Christmas Markets: Cons

1. Too many people. It's all very well to wake up on a festive morn, full of Christmas cheer and just in the mood to visit the Markets, but what you have not taken into account is that half of Manchester and the surrounding area have woken up with the exact same thought. The Albert Square Market opens at 10am, and if you want to get within a metre or two of ANY of the stalls (except for those one or two forlorn traders who never seem to get any custom at all, with their luridly painted glass and nauseatingly winsome clocks) then you really do have to think about getting there soon after this time. This year, the Markets have apparently been more popular than ever, and so whilst there are more sites than previous years to try to thin out excess traffic, this is still a fearsomely competitive arena - so get those elbows sharpened. If you have a shopping trolley or pram to use as a battering ram, so much the better.

2. The Manchester weather. All those people mean that there is no chance whatsoever of putting up an umbrella without causing serious injury to innocent bystanders. Crisp and clear = excellent Market weather; typical Manchester drizzle = stay at home with Saturday Kitchen.

3. Lack of Variety. There ARE some lovely stalls at the Markets, selling beautiful handmade jewellery, fragrant soaps and body products, cute toys and gifts, and delectable food and drink items. But they don't really change from year to year, nor from site to site - go round Albert Square, walk down Brazennose Street, then back up King Street, and you will have seen more woolly hats with animal faces on than you ever thought possible.

4. That Father Christmas. Now, I am something of a traditionalist when it comes to Christmas, and that includes my choice of Santa: he should be a big, fat, twinkly, rosy-cheeked old gentleman in a red suit - preferably made from a quality velour - and properly sturdy black boots. He should NOT be a strangely startled-looking creature with more than a passing resemblance to (the now sadly deceased) Zippy from Rainbow. This unfortunate individual sits dolefully above the Market in Albert Square and, frankly, frightens me more than just a little - he most certainly is not welcome down my chimney this Christmas.

5. Finishing before actual Christmas. Every year the Markets pack up and move on a few days before Christmas - this year they end on Wednesday 21st December, forcing hapless men across Manchester to do their last-minute panic Christmas Eve shop elsewhere. Selfish, just selfish.

Manchester Christmas Markets: Pros

1. Interesting alcohol at any time of day. Obviously, it's the law to drink as much mulled wine during the month of December as humanly possible, but the Markets have introduced a hitherto unknown treat to me - hot chocolate with a dash of brandy, covered with squirty cream. If you have followed my advice about getting to the Markets early, I can confirm that these taste excellent at any time from 10.30am onwards.

2. Pig in a Bun. Clearly, the concept of pig-in-a-bun is a sound one at any time of the year, but there is nothing better than the soft white roll filled to bursting with chunks of pork, stuffing and apple sauce served up at the Christmas Market. And once you've mastered the art of consuming it in a graceful manner, standing up, trying to maintain a vestige of lipgloss, wedged between 2,000 other people also eating Pig Buns, you'll have learnt a skill to be proud of.

3. It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas. Truth be told, the rigorous academic debate so strenuously explored above is completely irrelevant, pleasingly intellectual as it is: I go to the Christmas Markets EVERY year, and will continue to do so forever more, just because a trip to Albert Square to get pushed, and squashed, and trampled, and pay a £2 deposit for a mug that will eventually join the 27 identical ones in your kitchen cupboard, means that IT'S CHRISTMAS. So, unpack your straw reindeer with pride, for now it's time to pour yourself a small sherry and watch It's A Wonderful Life, secure in the knowledge that everything is how it should be.

- for more information on the Manchester Christmas Markets, visit the Manchester City Council website; you can even catch a little glimpse of Zippy Christmas...