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

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Bobby's Bangers: A Brief Paen to the Humble Sausage

In food terms, I can't really think of any item so potentially varying in quality as a sausage. A quality banger is a thing of beauty, capable of bringing light where previously there was darkness and joy where previously there was sausageless sorrow. And yet. Some sausages are unworthy of the name - limp, bland tubes of flavourless chaff made from goodness knows which bits of goodness knows which unhappy animal. Mr Liz once bought a well-known brand of sausage from a supermarket "because they were on offer and I had these as a child", and they were utterly inedible - flacid pink devil items tasting only of rancid fat. He was forced to repeat one hundred times "not everything I remember from the 1970s will still be appropriate in 2012" and has not been allowed to do the shopping solo since.

But you may remember that last week, I had a brief, thrilling, clandestine encounter at The Mark Addy with James from Bobby's Bangers - his sausages had missed the "Meet the Producers" food barge, and thus he had brought me some to try in the comfort of my own home. Now, obviously I was already minded to enjoy these pushy bangers, for they come emblazoned with my new motto for life, "Keep Calm and Eat Bobby's Bangers" and were also GIVEN TO ME IN A PUB, but last night we tried the Full English Breakfast ones and found them everything we'd ever dreamed of. I'm not always a fan of the heavily adulterated, flavoured banger, but this one really works - large, tasty chunks of black pudding in a sausage with a coarse meaty texture with real heft and chew; even the subtle taste of tomatoes and baked beans add to rather than fight with the flavour of the meat. I served them with my own homemade chilli cornbread, of which I am inordinately proud - in theory, I should no longer need to go to Southern Eleven approximately every three days now I know how to make my own, but we'll see how that goes.

The Madras ones are in the freezer, ready for another day - if you have any ideas what I should serve these with, then please send them my way. You can find these meaty gems at various farmer's markets - drop them an email at james@bobbysbangers to find out where they'll be or find them on twitter @bobbysbangers. James gave me these sausages for free, but I was not obliged to review them and will certainly be buying them in future from Mr Liz's Sausage and Pie Fund (otherwise known as his back pocket). Honestly though, if those sausages REALLY think that deliberately missing the barge last week will get them their own, dedicated blog post, they've got another think coming...oh.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Damson Restaurant, Heaton Moor: Top Birthday Dinner for Aging Husband

Now, I know there's a serious risk that many of you will be as fed up with Mr Liz's epic "Birthday Fortnight" (which, incidentally, is set to rumble on for another week at least) as I am, so I promise that after this post, you will hear no more about it. However, every birthday celebration needs a jewel in its crown, and for Mr Liz this came on Friday - for Friday was DAMSON NIGHT.

I've written before of this little gem of a restaurant, tucked away in Heaton Moor and consistently serving some of the best food in Greater Manchester. Now, however, there is a serious danger that others will become aware of its classy charms, for Damson's chef, Simon Stanley, is up for Chef of the Year at this year's Manchester Food and Drink Festival. As well as being a great chef, he also knows how to spoil a birthday gentleman - here are some of the highlights...

Pre-starter: before the serious business of ordering off the menu began, we had the pleasure of a taster dish that Chef Stanley had created in Mr Liz's honour. This was a splendid "risotto" that had apparently been made with potato rather than rice; it also contained morel mushrooms, truffle butter, a beautiful deep-fried quail's egg and a hefty dollop of magic. I cannot say any more about this dish as I've been sworn to secrecy - suffice to say that I can't really think of a restaurant dish I've had recently that either tasted better, or showed higher levels of skill. I'm ashamed but not remotely suprised to hear myself confessing that I ate all of mine and half of another, slower-at-eating person's; after all, it was practically my birthday.

Starters: Now, you'd hope, I think, that with a party of twelve diners I'd pretty much be able to tell you about ALL the starters on the Damson menu; sadly this is not the case, as two choices proved quite overwhelmingly popular with my selfishly un-blog-focused companions. The first - unsurprisingly - was the chicken liver & foie gras parfait, served with apricot and raisin chutney and toasted ginger brioche; I always have this, so although you've seen it many times on this blog, you can see it again. It was as luxuriously rich as ever, melting unctiously into the warm, sweet brioche with all the decadence required for a birthday celebration. The other hit was the pigeon breast with Bury black pudding croquettes, served alongside celeriac and apple remoulade, pickled golden raisins, honey and whole grain mustard dressing, and it must be noted that it has taken me longer to type the name out than it did for a number of hungry-faced guests to snarf down the perfectly pink pigeon and its array of well-judged accompaniments.

Mains: Once again, there were two stand-out dishes in terms of popularity. Pictured here you see the 28 day aged sirloin steak, served with dauphinoise potato, flat mushrooms, spinach and garlic, topped with a roasted shallot and red wine sauce - a classic dish that is an ever-present on the Damson menu, and deservedly so. Everyone's steak was cooked exactly to their liking, and the meat itself was so tender that the steak knives provided were entirely superfluous to requirements. The dish is almost worth ordering just for the dauphinoise potato, which is so deceptively soft, creamy and yielding to the touch that you almost miss the hefty garlic kick it delivers with such panache right at the end (not a SINGLE vampire troubled us on the way home, and you can't tell me that's just coincidence).

The other very popular dish was the slow cooked belly of middle white pork, served with spiced white cabbage and pulses, pickled golden raisins and - adorably - a little cast iron cassoulet dish containing a wonderfully smoky, sultry side of beans and chorizo (yes, I fear I HAVE had my fork in someone else's dinner again). All the meat used by Damson comes from Chorlton butcher extraordinaire Lee Frost, and the quality really shows in these simple yet elegant dishes. The menu also offers a couple of excellent fish dishes (the cod is pictured here) that went down a treat with two of the diners, and the roasted poussin served with croquettes of the legs, wild mushroom macaroni, new season Wye valley English asparagus and lemon sabayon was also a hit. In short, twelve diners with wildly differing tastes ate every scrap and had nothing but praise for every dish sampled.

Pre-dessert: another special, just-for-Mr-Liz's birthday dish (I fear his birthday expectations may be hard to manage from now on), this was an exciting selection of dainty treats including pistachio panna cotta, caramel salted popcorn and chocolate rum and raisin clusters. We liked. A LOT.

CAKE: now, when we came to Damson for my birthday, we ordered a splendid cake from Katy Torevell, pastry chef at both Damson and The Red Lion at High Lane - a vast chocolate affair laden with Maltesers and chocolate fingers. I have been absolutely banned from using the phrase "monkey see, monkey do, monkey want more" in any way shape or form after the birthday boy took exception to its appearance in my last post, so I shall simply point out that, for his birthday meal, Mr Liz had requested a splendid cake from Katy Torevell - a vast chocolate affair laden with Maltesers and chocolate fingers. And here it is.

So, once again, Damson has delivered. The food was flawless, and with the most expensive main (the steak) at £19.95, is excellent value in view of its quality. The staff coped well with such a large, noisy party and are clearly both knowledgable and enthusiastic about the food that they serve up, happy to answer questions and explain small details about the dishes on the menu. Highly recommended - and if you want to vote for Simon as Chef of the Year, you can do so HERE whilst I take a rest and consider my birthday duties truly and utterly fulfilled.

- Damson is at 113-115 Heaton Moor Road, Heaton Moor, Stockport, Cheshire SK4 4HY; tel. 0161 432 4666; you can find out more about Katy's beautiful cakes at her Sugar Lump Confections via her Facebook page.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Mark Addy Gourmet Evening July 2012: the Beginning of a Triumphant Birthday Fortnight

A few years ago, I decided that birthdays were just too much fun to be restricted to one day per annum, and enthusiastically adopted the tradition of the Birthday Week. This is of course far more sensible than it might sound - most of us these days have a pretty extended network of friends and family, spread out in various geographical locations, and the flexible notion of the Birthday Week allows for the lucky celebrant to catch up with all of those people nearest and dearest to them. And - less worthily - adopting this tradition also means a/ more nights out and b/ more presents.

Unfortunately, in this household, this year is a story of monkey see, monkey do, monkey want MORE. This year is a special birthday for Mr Liz, and he is insisting on a full birthday fortnight, running from Monday just gone to Monday week - and I've got to be honest, I'm exhausted already. I've already eaten my own body-weight in cheese at Tuesday's International Cheese Awards (more of this in another post), and we've still got Damson, Olympic football, Linen at Manchester 235 and - oh - PARIS to go. Last night, though, was the last Wednesday of the month, so you know what that means...Gourmet Evening at The Mark Addy. Here's this month's luscious line-up:

1. Morecambe Bay Shrimp Shooter. Regular Addy-ites will know that this dish has appeared on the Gourmet Evening menu before; its popularity (as well as its local and seasonal nature) meant that this shot glass of hot, fishy broth, rich with cream and flecked with fiery pepper, was deservedly back. I burnt my mouth on it last time and am ashamed to say that absolutely NO lessons had been learnt and I burnt my mouth on it all over again.

2. Glebeland Growers Salad. In his opening preamble, Chef Robert Owen Brown said that he's getting quite into salad, as long as it's "proper salad". I can confirm that ROB's understanding of a "proper salad" is one that contains approximately three small pieces of greenery along with a selection of popular breakfast items - in this case, cubes of warm, crumbly black pudding, slivers of fat, flavoursome bacon, and a quivering poached egg. Absolutely delicious, although I fear disappointment and perhaps a tantrum when I next serve up salad at home to a husband who has been given false expectations of what a healthy dish should be like.

3. Signal Crayfish Cocktail. I really can't get enough of prawn cocktail - I love it in all its forms, even the plastic, luridly pink versions that come in a tub from the supermarket. I can't help it; I think it's because I was born in the 70s. Being the Addy, of course, this was neither lurid nor plastic - saucy, sexy, local crayfish peering haughtily from their rightful place in a martini glass. There was even a tiny - tiny - bit more salad in the bottom of the glass.

4. Roast Pork Fillet with Summer Truffles and Mushrooms. This was the only dish last night that I wouldn't give full marks to - my piece of pork was on the small side (yes, I AM aware that I am in the middle of eating six courses, but hungry is as hungry does) and also a tiny bit dry. The rest of the dish effortlessly redeemed itself though - the potato was deliciously soft, creamy and garlicky, and the sauce pungent with but not overwhelmed by the earthiness of the truffles.

5. Dunham Massey Berries. The desserts at Gourmet Evenings are often deceptively straightforward - this was just fresh, sweet berries in a syrup made from their own brethren, and topped with lots and lots of cream. When the raw materials are this good, you just don't need to do any more to them.

6. Selection of Local Farmhouse Cheese. Course number six is always cheese, and for the second month running I stayed to eat it rather than have it packed up in a foil party bag that ALWAYS intrigues fellow travellers on the bus on the way home. As usual, I ate the blue one, Mr Liz ate the non-blue one, and we fought over the grapes.

I must also mention two exciting things that happened last night - firstly, the generous folk at The Addy had arranged for a bottle of birthday champagne to be waiting on our table for when we arrived (I kindly helped Mr Liz drink it, for it was a school night *good wife*), and secondly, the lovely James from Bobby's Bangers brought me along a bag of sausages that had missed the food barge on Monday (more of these fellows another time). It's been a life-long dream of mine for a man to hand me a bag of sausages in a pub (although I didn't actually know this until it happened), and his small, kind action has earned me countless brownie points with Mr Liz.

So, for the second month running, there was nothing here that could possibly upset anyone - which does rather take the fun out of posting the menu on Facebook and then checking a few hours later to see what particular dishes poeple have got their knickers in a twist about this month. Although please ROB, do NOT see this as a challenge for next month...

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Visit Manchester's Meet the Producer Event; OR, All Aboard the Black Pudding Barge!

Sometimes, just sometimes, British food takes a bit of a beating. As I type this, I'm picturing a manicured fleet of whippet-thin Italians casually snaffling that last piece of Parma ham, or an elegant troop of beautiful French ladies toying winsomely with plateful of pastel macaroons; every so often one of these European visions splutters a little at the thought of what we Brits might currently be eating - eels, probably, with chips. In a pie. Between two pieces of bread, with gravy.

This is all a patent fallacy of course. British food is amazing, and here in Greater Manchester we are particularly blessed with great produce, made with dedication and enthusiasm by people who actually care. How fortunate then, that on Monday I found myself on a barge (my second in three days) with a number of these very people - local producers gathered together to showcase their products and network with potential buyers as part of the Visit Manchester "Meet the Producers" event. The whole event was organised by food dynamo Deanna Thomas, a passionate believer in high-quality, local, seasonal produce; she is also inordinately fond of bringing like-minded people together (I'm thinking of renaming her Cilla and buying her a hat) - hence the event, which I'm pretty sure took place on board a barge so that I couldn't execute a smash and grab with all the choicest food items. Over the course of a gloriously sunny two hours, we heard from and sampled produce from each of the following...presented here in order of being grilled by Deanna, waving a microphone.

1. Great North Pie Co. I wrote about Neil Broomfield and his award-winning pies after Mr Liz hoovered up one of the Lancashire cheese and onion variety at the Whim Wham Cafe a few weeks ago; it reappeared here, along with a deliciously pink goat's cheese, beetroot, red pepper and hazelnut offering. Neil will cater for private events, and also hauls his tasty wares round a number of farmer's markets (full list on the website) - we bought some at the Cheadle Maker's Market recently and Mr Liz had eaten one before we'd even made it back to the car.

2. Mrs Love-itts. This lovely Rochdale-based business also makes pies, but had brought along some of their Scotch eggs for us to try. They make them in pretty much every flavour you can imagine - I sampled the caramelised onion, the hot chilli and Stilton variants, and all were sublime - firm, quality, well-seasoned pork meat packed with flavour. They also have great local names - The Curry Mile is the madras version, and The Smithfield is the vegetarian version, made with couscous. You can find them at 24 North Parade, Newhey, Rochdale OL16 3RD; tel. 01706 849852.

3. Manchester Veg People. This enterprising co-operative of Greater Manchester organic growers and restaurants works together to provide fresh, seasonal food at prices that reflect actual, fair costs of production. Alan Creedon, who essentially acts as an agent for local growers, was our boat representative - it was his birthday, and we celebrated it by toasting him enthusiastically and then nicking all his beetroot.

4. Falshaw's Farm Shop. Located on Nabbs Farm in Bury, this fabulous shop-cum-cafe has its own on-site butcher using only the beef and lamb from their own farm. Sadly for the greedy barge-goers, their speciality is their ice-cream, made on the premises using milk from their own cows...and not remotely suitable for travelling long distances on such an unseasonably warm Manchester day.

5. Irwell Brewery. Now, the way to make yourself instantly popular on a barge trip is to be the one who brings the beer, and Peter Booth from Irwell Brewery was no exception. Based in Ramsbottom, the brewery is behind the new twice-yearly local beer festival - the next is in October in aid of Mountain Rescue - and currently refuses to sell to supermarkets because they are not willing to offer even cost price; you can, however, catch their beers at various Greater Manchester pubs, including The Mark Addy. I clanked my way off the boat with a handbag containing an illicit bottle of "Mad Dogs and Englishmen" India Pale Ale, which a delighted Mr Liz proclaimed "deliciously light and pleasantly hoppy" (he went on to say "you are the BEST WIFE IN THE WORLD", although this part did technically remain unspoken).

6. Chocolate Cafe. Another booming Ramsbottom independent business, the Chocolate Cafe has deservedly built a devoted following, and is the current holder of the Manchester Food and Drink Awards title of "Best Coffee Shop or Casual Dining Venue". They also sell their exquisite chocolate products via mail order - or, you can simply contrive to sit next to Paul Morris and his plateful of amazing truffles on board a barge at some point.

7. Bury Black Pudding Company. Well, I couldn't really pretend not to have tried this, what with Mr Liz sending me to Bury Market to pick some up at every possible opportunity. I used to think I didn't like black pudding, but this is the real deal, and it's delicious; Managing Director Debbie Pierce also claims that it is healthy (being all-natural, and full of iron), and whether this is true or not, Mr Liz must NEVER BE TOLD, as he will begin asking for it EVERY DAY, particularly if he believes he has the full force of medical evidence on his side.

8. Bradley's Bakery. Linking seamlessly into our next producer, Mark Bradley had brought along two of his award-winning pies, including the Pork and Bury Black Pudding seen here. Even nicer was the Steak and Cow Heel Pie, inspired by Robert Owen Brown's menu at The Mark Addy and prompting tears of joy and reminiscence in Mr Liz when I took one home for him - he said it reminded him of Wigan, in the 70s, in a good way. It also just might be the nicest pie I've ever had, and this coming from someone who normally leaves half the pastry is quite a compliment. They are based in Ashton but - and again, Mr Liz MUST NOT KNOW - will actually do overnight pie delivery, by courier, because they understand that when you need pie, you need it quick.

9. Of Crust and Crumb. This small Artisan bakery, run by Paulina and Peter, is currently on the move, but their lovingly crafted loaves, rolls, baguettes and focaccia can be found at a number of stockists and farmer's markets which are listed on their website. Half a seeded loaf can also currently be found in my bread bin, but it's delicious, and you're not having it.

10. Oliviccio. Yes, yes, yes, I know - olives are not traditionally native to Greater Manchester. Oliviccio, based in Saddleworth, import the finest fruit from Greece, but then use local herbs and garlic to dress and stuff the olives. I sampled as many of these as I could before Carl and Nikki chased me off with a stick, and found my favourite to be the chilli and garlic - fresh firm olives in a marinade with real bite. You can find the whole product list on the website, along with the farmer's markets they attend; they can also deliver in the Saddleworth area.

11. And last but not least, an honorable mention for Altrincham's Burt's Blue Cheese - Claire couldn't attend, but very kindly sent three of her beautiful semi-soft blue cheeses for us to eat in her absence. Which I did.

And yes, you've interpreted the list correctly - I had essentially been allowed to board a vessel filled with beer, black pudding, pies and Scotch eggs; I'm pretty sure something similar would feature in Mr Liz's last supper. And just to cap it all, splendid Mark Addy chef Robert Owen Brown had come in on his day off to man the kitchen - purely because he believes in local produce.

It's not an easy time for any business at the moment, let alone the small independent producers, but every single one of the lovely people I met today deserves their growing reputation and success. And those imaginary Italians? They'd choke on their Aperol spritzes if they heard even HALF of the conversation that took place outside the Addy later that afternoon regarding BADGER ham...perhaps that's one food item that we won't be seeing aboard a barge any time soon.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

The Liquorists' Gin Barge: Local Girl Drinks Gimlets on the High Seas (Sort of)

As previously discussed, there are certain words in the English language that quite naturally collocate; in other words, they go together, like bacon and eggs, salt and pepper, and cheese and anything. Then, a pair of bold young bar consultants going by the name of The Liquorists dared to put two words together in a thrilling new combination that has literally been stopping people in their tracks when they hear it for the first time: GIN and BARGE. Yes, that's right, a Gin Barge this weekend set sail on Manchester's fair waterways, packed to the gunnels with cheery folk frankly over-the-moon to be plied with strong liquor at one o'clock in the afternoon - but more of that later.

The day, snappy entitled "Gincident" (a blend which pleases the English teacher in me as well as the alcoholic) begins with a marvellous sight - the jaunty L.S. Lowry barge making its way into the Castlefield Basin, with Tom - one half of The Liquorists - standing gloriously astern and waving in a jubilant, I-have-a-ship-full-of-gin-here manner (the other half of the dynamic duo, Jody, was presumably inside doing the actual work, making our lunch and supervising the welcoming G & T that greeted us as we boarded). As well as this warm-up drink, over the course of the three-hour cruise (basically down to The Mark Addy and back again) we received ALL of the following:

- Clever, educational stuff from Tom. Whilst the admirable on-board barman whipped up our drinks, Tom told us all about gin, its history, and the cocktails which we were about to receive (and for which we were indeed truly grateful). In the wrong hands, such talk can be merely something you tolerate whilst impatiently awaiting your next beverage, but Tom is funny, and engaging, and completely able to continue with his spiel even when faced with a hen party wearing large, bushy moustaches in his direct line of vision. A true professional.

- Five gin-based cocktails. Yes, five full-sized, full-strength cocktails IS a lot for an afternoon, but in the same way that calories don't count if you eat standing up, alcohol units don't count if consumed whilst on water*.

*not necessarily true.

The drinks we had are artfully dotted around this luxuriously gin-soaked page; they were brought to us at our table at regular intervals, and comprised the following:

1. The Martinez, the forerunner of the Martini - deliciously strong and sweet but quite astonishingly unsuitable for a girl who is rubbish at afternoon drinking. Luckily, I was able to swap it with one of the moustachioed hens for something else.

2. The Singapore Sling, a refreshing and sweet contrast to the preceding drink, with its jaunty combination of pineapple juice, Benedictine and, erm, gin.

3. The Bramble. EVERYONE loves a Bramble: this was LUSH.

4. The Gimlet. One of the hens disliked this, because it "tasted of gin". Not surprising really - it's gin, lime juice, gin, and some more gin.

5. The Marmalade Collins. I'd never tried this one before; it turned out to be a long, refreshing, sweet-yet-tart affair. I also feel it would make an excellent breakfast item, due to its citrus spread-based content.

- In the midst of so much booze, a large, soaky-up sort of repast was clearly called for if we weren't to slowly, helplessly, topple overboard like inebriated lemmings. Now, you'd think that preparing such a feast - in a four feet square kitchen whilst bobbing along the Ship Canal and being heckled by a number of people baying loudly for gin - would be an impossibility: not so. Plate after plate of delicious cold buffet items appeared one by one at our table - salads, couscous, potatoes, pasta...even a cold sausage platter (apologies to the hens, who got little of this last dish once Mr Liz had spotted it). Obviously you don't come on this sort of event for the food, but it certainly matched the high standard of the rest of the day.

Most of the tickets for Gincident were sold months ago, the good people of Manchester clearly knowing a good thing when they heard it. However, as the merry barge will sail every Friday night and every Saturday and Sunday afternoon for the next few weeks, it's worth following The Liquorists on Twitter (@theliquorists) or Facebook in case of last minute cancellations and availability. It's great value at £45, and that "no hangover guaranteed" promise that they so boldly offer? Well so far, it's true*.

*Further testing deemed advisable.

Saturday, 21 July 2012

Introducing "B-Day": Bacon Jam, Batman and Love2Eat Bingo

I think we're probably all familiar with the term "D-Day", a phrase which originated from the invasion of Normandy during World War II and which has now come to mean any important or significant occasion. Well, I now propose adding a new phrase to the English lexicon in the form of "B-Day", a term which shall come to mean "a day on which really, really good stuff happens, but that stuff must only begin with a B, or it doesn't count, not as a B-Day anyway". I admit the definition probably needs a little refinement before the OED will accept it, but to illustrate this thrilling new concept, I offer Friday 20th July as an example of a wholly successful "B-Day".

1. Stay in BED awhile, and read a BOOK. Self explanatory this one, really.

2. Have BACON JAM on toast for lunch. The fact that "bacon jam" now has its own, well-used hashtag on Twitter just goes to show how love of porcine goodness is sweeping the nation - I even had an exemplary helping of this sweet-yet-salty, sticky-yet-sturdy product on sourdough toast at Solita this week. The fact that I was able to have it at home is thanks to a lovely friend who MAKES it - she guards the recipe most assiduously, but we do occasionally have clandestine meets where she hands over samples of the good stuff in anonymous, unmarked containers; my God it's good. You can see it here, but you can't have any of it.

3. Go to the cinema to watch BATMAN, the, erm, Bark Knight Rises. Now, you wouldn't normally get me anywhere near a film that lasts 146 minutes, and I must admit that since following October Jones' immense "Tweets from my Dog" on Twitter I can't take this franchise entirely seriously, thanks to a perpetual image of a dog in a cape going "I'm BATDOG, LOL". However, in honour of "B-Day", I went - out of professionalism, and not because the film has Christian Bale and Aidan Gillen in or because Mr Liz bought me a giant bag of Peanut M & Ms. Oh, the film is v. good by the way *carefully places tick next to "film review skills demonstrated: check"*

4. Go to the BINGO. The third Friday of every month is now Bingo Night at Love2Eat Deli on BURTON Road in West Didsbury, an event that has run occasionally in the past but will now be a regular fixture. If you quite fancy the idea of bingo but are, like me, terrified by your own mental image of a fleet of colossally aggressive old ladies, staring, gimlet-eyed, at a whole raft of different cards at which they regularly jab with a spring-loaded, pimped up super-dabber, then this is for you - nice people, in a nice restaurant, eating nice food and doing just a little gentle dabbing on the side.

Obviously that doesn't mean we don't play to win. I didn't win ANYTHING, but a steely-faced Mr Liz, grimly concentrating on his game card with a fervour I've not seen him apply to ANY other area of his life, was a winner not once, but twice, scooping dinner for two and a bottle of wine of his choice (by a huge stroke of fortune, he went for pink Prosecco, which coincidentally is MY favourite wine as well). Even if you don't win, and spend the night smiling graciously through gritted teeth and begrudgingly applauding the winners, there is much good-value fun to be had here - deals change regularly, but last night we each had three courses for £20 a head (including bingo). The food here is simple but good, allowing a choice from a small selection of daily specials: I went for Cornish crab cakes for starters, while Mr Liz broke with tradition and had - oh - PIE, this time in the guise of a generous Ploughman's.

For mains, I went for the BBQ chicken with loaded potato skins and homemade coleslaw - succulent, boneless rolls of skin-on chicken, secured with cocktail sticks and with a jug of sweet, tangy sauce on the side. And I'm a SUCKER for homemade coleslaw. Meanwhile, Mr Liz was enjoying spicy slow cooked ribs with a warm salad of roasted new potatoes and tarragon - I show you a picture of it on the plate here, rather than round his mouth, which is where it soon ended up.

Puddings were not strictly necessary, particularly since the bingo was just starting up by this point, but for the sake of completeness, I had strawberry Eton mess, and Mr Liz had Dandelion and Burdock cake - pastry fork in one hand, dabber poised in the other. And add to this the best "B" of all - BRINGING your own wine or beer is positively welcomed here, although you can also choose from the excellent wine list (or indeed, simply sit with a man who is winning items from it). Love2Eat is a gem, and a fitting end to any triumphant "B-Day".

Thursday, 19 July 2012

SoLIta Restaurant Opens its Doors in the Northern Quarter: Local Girl is Smitten, Although Fatter than Before

Anyone who uses social media will pretty much be aware by now what a double-edged sword sites such as Twitter can be. Particularly if you're fool enough to follow a crowd of people who are just as greedy and food-obsessed as you are. Yes, these people are erudite, and witty, and helpful for instant cooking advice; yes, I've made lots of lovely, real-life friends with similar interests to my own; and yes, I've heard about all manner of interesting bars and restaurants that I wouldn't necessarily have known about otherwise. And yet, anyone who has ever been sat quietly at home, trying to enjoy a bowl of no-points vegetable soup and perhaps engage in some intellectual pursuit or other, will know the frustration of having a stream of what can only be described as FOOD PORN popping up on your timeline. GordoManchester is eating his own body weight in beef! Hungry Hoss is going back for seconds! The Hungry Manc has a sticky chin! And all of this accompanied by glistening, desirable, IRRESISTABLE pictures of quivering delicacies that you currently DO NOT HAVE.

This cruel phenomenon has perhaps never been more evident than in the steady stream of gastro porn emanating from SoLIta this week; this new, achingly fabulous restaurant and bar doesn't even open until tomorrow night, but a clever marketing campaign that has basically involved luring in all the biggest greed-faces that Manchester has to offer, feeding them, and then letting them tweet about it, means that SURELY there is no-one left in the North of England who HASN'T seen at least one picture of that pulled pork sundae. And if you can't beat 'em, join 'em - finally, FINALLY, last night it was my turn to be the porn purveyor.

But before the food, the location. SoLIta is on Turner Street, a slightly less well-known part of the Northern Quarter, and aims to establish itself as a friendly, welcoming, good-value local restaurant that combines the best of New York, Italy and Manchester - the name is short for "South of Little Italy", harking back to the days when Ancoats was home to a large Italian population. The venue is deceptively big - the ground floor bar is pocket-sized, offering just thirty covers, but there are two private dining areas upstairs and a massive, sound-proofed bar downstairs. SoLIta is also justly proud to be the only restaurant in Manchester with an Inka grill - basically a huge, indoor charcoal barbecue that had Mr Liz slavering with want and clearly mentally plotting how much floorboard reinforcement we'd need to have one at home (I'll save him some time here - NO).

Once we'd had our tour, the food began to arrive. They are still tweaking the menu ready for tomorrow's big launch, but this is the kind of thing you can expect:

- Rooster Scratchings: anyone who has ever roasted a chicken purely so they can pick off all the crispy bits of skin afterwards under the guise of helpfully stripping the carcass will need no persuasion from me that legitimising this practice by serving hot, crunchy, salty triangles of chicken skin in a restaurant is a most excellent step forward in culinary terms. You see them here with a saucy glass of Aperol spritz, which SoLIta is keen to see as the drink of the summer, if only the sun would come out.

- Salt Cod Balls served with salsa mayo: crisp on the outside; hot, soft fish on the inside, and all the while sitting nonchalantly astride a blob of the freshest, greenest sauce. It looked for a moment like Mr Liz wasn't going to get one of these; I will just say it was one of the saddest, most angst-ridden moments I have ever had to witness - I swear he almost kissed the waitress for sheer relief when his own perky ball appeared.

- Sourdough Toast with Bacon Jam: I have a fairly shrewd idea that bloggers across Manchester will have awakened this morning craving nothing more than a good big dollop of smoky-sweet porcine stickiness on their Warburton's - not since the Almost Famous Triple Nom Burger have I awoken with such an overwhelming desire to eat all over again what I ate the night before.

- Pulled Pork Sundae: obviously, this was the one we'd all been waiting for - tender sweet pork in a rich barbecue sauce under a crown of 60/40 mashed potato. The 40 relates to the percentage of butter in the mash, but as a responsible patron, head honcho Dom promises to alert your doctor if you eat this dish more than three times in a month *nods approvingly whilst secretly plotting a cunning disguise, perhaps involving a stick-on moustache, to circumvent cruel limit*

- After that little lot, we were on to the mains. We particularly enjoyed the Hanger Steak, which really showed off the full potential of the Inka grill: perfectly pink and moist on the inside but smoky and charcoal-infused on the outside. The Inka Grilled Vegetables had similarly benefitted from their brush with the grill, and we also loved the accompanying "house sauce", a salsa verde made with capers, parsley, olive oil and anchovies. The only dish we were less certain of was the Deep Fried Mac 'n' Cheese with Pulled Pork - we agreed as a table that the pork, lovely on its own, was too sweet with the rich macaroni cheese, which would have worked perfectly well on its own and didn't need to be jazzed up by being squeezed into into a brioche. Obviously, we still ate it all, in the interests of professionalism and all that.

- Lastly, we sampled the dessert that had been tantalising my timeline all week - the Deep Fried Coke. This inventive offering - coke syrup encapsulated in churros batter, fried until golden and then dusted with sugar and cinnamon - was delicious, and pretty much sums up for me the combination of innovation and tradition that informs the ethos behind this splendid new restaurant. Prices are extremely reasonable, quality is high, and the staff are lovely: there will no doubt be a massive queue when SoLIta opens its doors tomorrow night at 6pm - and I really suggest that you join it.

- SoLIta is on Turner Street in Manchester's Northern Quarter, tel. 0161 839 5600 - check out the full glorious, gluttonous menu on their website.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Dangerous Dairy Diary Dates: The International Cheese Awards 2012 and Fresco Freddo's Gelateria Threaten to Wreck Brave Girl's Diet

First of all, apologies for the longish silence (or, alternatively: you're welcome). Things to do in Manchester has been away, on a spiritual retreat which blended a strict macrobiotic diet with strenuous bootcamp sessions and not - NOT - on a jolly to South Wales to dip its feet in the sea and eat fish and chips. And because I've spent a week restoring my ayurvedic chakra and not - NOT - stuffing my face with fish and chips, I can allow myself to be very excited about these forthcoming dairy-based feasts.

Firstly, it's almost time for this year's International Cheese Awards - the 115th time that assorted cheese makers, connoisseurs and just general greed-faces from all over the world will convene in Nantwich to sample and judge each other's cheesy wares. Last year’s competition saw 3,730 entries from 26 countries jostling for awards in 300 different categories; this year entries are coming from as far afield as China, although there will also be a specialist market area dedicated to smaller, independent cheese makers. Judging takes place on Tuesday 24th July (I'm thinking back to my school days here, and regretting that I didn't have the foresight to request careers guidance on how to qualify as a cheese judge) and then the show is open to the public on Wednesday 25th. As they are expecting around 35,000 visitors on the Wednesday, I would suggest the following:

1. Set off early, in order to be first through the doors and, by extension, first at the cheese.
2. Sharpen your elbows, in case you are tardy setting off and need to push early-birds out of the way. If your grandma can lend you a tartan shopping trolley to help block others, so much the better.
3. Do NOT eat breakfast - toast is simply empty calories when you could be leaving room for extra Stilton later.
4. Do NOT expect to actually see the Gino D’Acampo demonstration; you may be able to hear him, but remember he is only small, and will be hidden behind all the tartan shopping trolleys. You may have more luck with James Martin and Jean-Christophe Novelli, for they are taller.
5. In the absence of a tartan shopping trolley, take a number of the biggest bags you can find with you. I have already struck an entirely fair deal with Mr Liz that I will carry the bags there, and he can carry them home when they contain seven kilos of cheese in individual, sample-sized portions.

Tickets cost £14 in advance - for more information or to book places see the Cheese Awards website - and then accept that you simply won't sleep for excitement between now and the 25th.

In dairy news part two, I note with a small skip of joy that Manchester's Oxford Road is soon to welcome Fresco Freddo's Gelateria, a new haven of summeriness which promises us sun-starved Mancunians twenty two different varieties of gelato and sorbet so that we may pretend we are wandering along a deserted stretch of sun-dappled Italian coast rather than being splashed by buses and poked in the eye by umbrellas. Rather sensibly, they are also planning to offer hot desserts including crepes and waffles, but the real draw here will be the gelato, which is essentially ice-cream's healthier, more satisfying cousin: low in fat with no artificial flavourings, made with milk rather than butter cream and containing around 25-30% air compared to ice-cream's 50%. The launch date looks set to be towards the end of July - keep an eye on their currently rather enigmatic website for future announcements.

Anyway, with that little lot coming up, I for one am pretty relieved that I didn't consume my own body weight in cheese and ice-cream last week - now I'm off to dig out my shopping trolley and investigate the possibility of chic, Italian-style stretch-waisted trousers...