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Saturday, 27 April 2013

Sweet Baboo and Olympian at Chorlton Irish Club: ONLY Clue for Local Girl that it ISN'T 1992

One of the unexpected pleasures of getting older has been the discovery that whilst one may no longer be at the cutting edge of fashion, one actually no longer cares that this is so. This brings with it a hugely enjoyable freedom - the freedom to do what you want, and eat what you want, and drink where you want, and wear what you like, and listen to the music you actually want to listen to, rather than worrying about what everybody else is doing and thereby spending a precious Friday night wedged in some dive or other whilst a child of about nine plays music that makes your head hurt. Even better is the fact that it really is true - if you wait long enough, all the things you have always liked become popular once more. Every day, for example, there is at least one student amongst my classes wearing a Smiths t-shirt, often with the insouciant air of someone who has done something terribly clever and discovered a band that NO-ONE has ever liked before. Almost all of the female students wear leggings and little flowery tea dresses, or skinny jeans with ballet pumps; in other words, the same default outfits that I have been rocking through thick and thin since about 1991.

In other early 90s news, my favourite album of the year is Suede's Bloodsports - a mighty return to form that has been marred only by the sight of Brett Anderson, now an uncomfortable-looking middle-aged family man, hamming it up on Jonathan Ross. In the last week I have booked tickets not only to see Suede, but also New Order and Johnny Marr at Jodrell Bank. Tonight, I am going to see Clint Boon and the Clone Roses, and maybe have a drink at Jabez Clegg first. There is a new Primal Scream album to look forward to. It is honestly as if the last twenty years have never happened, and it is MAGNIFICENT.

Occasionally though, I do deign to listen to something new. A few weeks ago I fell in love with a song by Manchester band Olympian, called "Kill the Lights Suzanne" - it features Badly Drawn Boy and it is beautiful, so I am most excited to hear more of their stuff when they support Sweet Baboo at Chorlton Irish Club on the 9th May. This is the first in a series of regular live gigs organised by Bop Local, who have always understood that people over the age of 25 are still quite partial to going out dancing but would also quite like to do it close to home and ideally be in bed with a nice cup of tea by midnight. Full details can be found on the Bop Local website, but this looks a real bargain at just £7 a ticket and has obviously proved beyond all doubt that my finger IS still firmly on the pulse. Now, just to pick out some nice leggings and perhaps a cardigan to wear on the night...

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Drop Dead Chocolates: Mr Liz Sets Up Camp, Open-mouthed, on Doorstep in Hope of Future Deliveries

Now, truth be told, even the most sanguine amongst us would be hard pressed to find pleasure in all that comes through the letterbox. Take today, for example; I have come home to find a note saying "windows cleaned today" (which in itself is clearly not problematic, were it not a sign that someone will knock on later and demand £6.50 of cash money that could otherwise be spent on beer), and a Boden catalogue. I have never ordered from Boden in my life, and find it astonishing that my consistent track record of showing absolutely no interest at all in their wares should justify the expense of sending me a brochure every month or so; still, if I ever need an overpriced cardigan, I shall know exactly where to look (the recycling bin, most likely).

As we get older though, we can take steps to mitigate this flood of unpleasantness and turn the tide in favour of nice, wanted items plopping onto the front door mat. In recent times, I have done this by moving ANYTHING that might be likely to send me a bill to "online only", and by subscribing to a fleet of subscription magazines that mostly involve food: so much nicer to come home to a glossy picture of a sausage roll smiling up at you from the mat. And, of course, there is - in theory - the joy of the online purchase, although this in practice often leads to its own particular set of traumas: if there's one thing worse than arriving home to a bill, it's coming home to a jaunty card telling you that your parcel has been taken away to a depot whose opening hours are between 5am and 6am on every second Saturday.

So a big hurrah then for the increasing number of companies who are deliberately designing and packaging their goods to fit through the letterbox. This includes Drop Dead Chocolates, an online supplier of luxury confectionary based in Sale, Greater Manchester, who made my day last week by sneaking up to my front door like a good fairy in the night and depositing THIS through the letterbox:

You will note the sleek, handsome box - and perhaps think that such a size and shape could not hold anywhere enough chocolate to assuage the remnants of a day's worth of M60 road rage. Au contraire: inside, my feverish hands found forty eight chocolates (those Neopolitans down the middle are stacked four deep), beautifully presented and lucky to make it into this photograph before the first of the truffles nobly gave themselves up for the greater good (mine). I've eaten about half of them now, and haven't found a duff one amongst them - the white chocolate champagne truffle is my favourite so far, with a good kick of booze and just the right texture, but whilst typing this I have also enjoyed one of the more unusual choices in the form of mint mousse in dark chocolate (although some of the little sugar crystals from the top have gone between the keys - I must make a note to let them know about this).

I was lucky enough to be sent a mixed taster box for reviewing purposes, but I would buy again - either as a gift for someone else or as an occasional treat for myself (although to be fair, this is only really feasible as I am one of those annoying people who can make a box of chocolates last for about three months, whilst poor Mr Liz sits dog-like near whatever surface is currently holding said chocolates occasionally shooting a baleful glance in their general direction). Prices start from £2.50 for a box of twelve Neopolitans, and go up to £24.50 for the larger boxes of 36. There is also the option to personalise your selection by choosing which chocolates are included, but you do need to spend a whopping £100 to qualify for free P&P.

Still, you can't argue with the quality or service here - all I need to do now is find a way of keeping Mr Liz's paws off the box when it next arrives on the front door mat; indeed, this may be a service best suited to those whose husbands do not get home from work before them...

- Drop Dead Chocolates is a Perception company; read more about their chocolatey stable here on their website.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Don Giovannis, Manchester: Local Girl Impresses Fancy American with her Crab-Pickin' Skills

Now, in any city there will be restaurants you just never end up going to for one reason or another. Perhaps they lie slightly off the beaten track, or are out of your price range, or appear in the local paper on a regular basis for having mice and cockroaches in the kitchen. Perhaps a friend has had a bad experience there, or they serve a type of cuisine you don't like. Or maybe, as with the case of Don Giovannis on Oxford Street in central Manchester, you just don't really know why, other than a vague feeling that there are better places to eat elsewhere. Don Giovannis have a new menu though, and are keen for people to try last night we did, and were pleasantly surprised.

We arrive shortly before 7.30 on a beautiful evening, full of the joys of Spring and absolutely starving our heads off. Initial impressions of this venerable establishment (a Manchester stalwart since 1984) are mixed - I am not keen on the orange chairs, but we are given a lovely table in the window, and as the daylight fades and the fairy lights begin to glow there is an undeniably warm and convivial atmosphere in the restaurant (and as Mr Liz obligingly points out, my backside amply covers the offending orangeness of my chair *glares, but cannot deny accuracy of in-trouble husband*).

We order from the a la carte and start with that obligatory classic, Tomato Garlic Bread. We ask for this to "be going on with" as I am so hungry that I am considering eating my napkin or perhaps a nearby table leg, but it arrives with our starters instead and is thus slightly redundant. This is the only service blip of the evening though, and the bread itself is thin, crispy and delicious - as it should be in any half-decent Italian restaurant. I also very much enjoy my starter of Frittura Mista, which is amongst the dearer of the starters at £8.45 but is a veritable riot of fishy favourites - deep-fried calamari, scallops, king prawns and white bait served with a good, thick aioli which has plenty of flavour but doesn't overpower the fish. The scallops are particularly joyous - two plump fellows served with coral still attached; in fact, by comparison, Mr Liz's calamari looks a little wan - good as he declares it, I would rather pay the extra £1.50 and have scallops and king prawns thrown in any day.

For mains, Mr Liz won't be swayed from his default choice - if we're eating somewhere that offers a Diavola pizza then he orders it. It turns out to be a pretty good example of the species - I like the cooling, creamy mozzerella and the contrast it creates with the spiciness of the salami and chilli, finding the overall effect fresher than ones he's had elsewhere. Mr Liz comments to the waiter that he'd prefer it slightly spicier, but this is immediately rectified with the offer of some additional chilli oil and next time I look up, the whole thing is gone. My own main course is one of the new dishes on the menu, the Spaghetti Neri al Granchio e Vongole - squid ink pasta with fresh crab meat, clams, cherry tomatoes, garlic, white wine and parsley. We feel it is not the most elegant presentation - it looks like I've already been at it in the picture below, whereas I promise I haven't - but it turns out to be the stand-out dish of the night; every restaurant needs to give you a good reason to go there, and for me it would be this. The crab-to-spaghetti ratio is perfect, and although I get myself in a terrible mess with the crab claws I am clearly enjoying myself - the American businessman at the table next to us leans over to enquire about my dish, and says his wife will love it when she joins him next week. Incidentally, this gentleman eats at Don Giovannis on his own every week, because he likes the food and the way they look after him - such reciprocal loyalty is always worth noting in any restaurant.

To wash all of this down (we are FAR too full for dessert), we choose a perfectly good Sangiovese at £16.95 from a wine list that is heavy on Italian selections - as it should be, although this is not always the case in Italian restaurants in the UK. We do feel that some cheaper wine options would be a welcome addition to the list, but overall the meal is good value for city centre - a fact surely reflected in the number of families packed into the restaurant on what is clearly a busy night. Tomato bread blip aside, the service is charming and efficient, although I do need to point out that we were invited to review the new menu, and were given a contribution towards the cost of dinner. Will we visit again? Very probably, especially if we were going to the Palace Theatre or to Manchester Central with family - or as part of Mr Liz's new favourite night out, for he has discovered that Don Giovannis lies exactly halfway between Brew Dog on Peter Street and The Whim Wham Cafe on Whitworth Street - a fact he is unlikely to forget anytime soon, and one that explains this morning's beer and gin head...

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Skinny Launches for Manchester and Liverpool: Local Girl Celebrates with Trips to Whim Wham Cafe and SoLIta (and by drinking cinnamon whisky, of which we shall not speak)

Now, if you had to list pairs of cities who are considered great friends and allies, shining examples of entente cordiale and bonhomie, then I doubt very much that Manchester and Liverpool would emerge as contenders for the top spot. Both fine cities, yes, and only just over thirty miles apart; both immeasurably important in the fields of British music, and culture, and sport - and yet both view the other with much suspicion and not a little derision. Each thinks the other talks funny, and walks funny, and is partial to alarming facial hair (even the women); surely it's high time someone pointed out that the North West should just think itself lucky to boast two such fabulous cities?

Well now - finally - the two are to be united, with the arrival of The Skinny, a new free culture and listings magazine covering both Manchester and Liverpool in one almighty fell swoop. The Skinny has been publishing on a monthly basis in Scotland for the last eight years, and has finally plucked up the courage to come south of the border - and judging by the launch issue, it will be most welcome. The Skinny's tagline is "Independent Cultural Journalism" - paid for through advertising revenue, its aim is to "allow someone sitting in a pub at a loose end, on a Tuesday, to find something interesting to do", whether that be visiting an art gallery or theatre, reading a book, going for food or drink, or to a film or club - the range of material covered is huge (although Mr Liz and others like him might take issue with the idea that one might ever be at a loose end in a pub). Around 22,000 copies will be available every month in places like bars, theatres, cinemas, galleries and cafes; we picked up our copy in The Whim Wham Cafe (more of which in a moment). We also very much enjoyed last night's launch party at 2022NQ, although the cinnamon whisky foisted upon an unsuspecting public has a LOT to answer for today.

Anyway, in the spirit of celebrating nice things to do in Manchester, I should point out that yesterday our fair city showed itself at its very best: the sun was shining, I spent the day eating baked goods at The Cake and Bake Show at Manchester Central, and then squeezed in two more of Manchester's finest in the evening (as well as The Skinny party - never let it be said that women of ninety have no stamina). First up, a swift visit to The Whim Wham Cafe, one of my favourite places in the whole of Manchester, for a couple of gin cocktails. We very much enjoyed this offering from the new Spring menu - essentially a Bramble but made with raspberries. The Whim Wham is an oasis of class and calm (and gin), and I love it very much.

Then, after the whole cinnamon whisky debacle, to SoLIta for dinner. The current burger special is the Life Aquatic, an exuberant surf and turf affair that allows the hopelessy greedy dinner to consume burger, crabmeat AND panko-coated prawns all in one meal. This only has a few days left on the specials board but it is so good that if Franco doesn't put it on the main menu I'm going to handcuff myself to his leg as a protest - I think it's the best special yet, and am prepared to have t-shirts made up to that effect if necessary. We also enjoyed our starters of Sweetcorn Hushpuppies (fried cornmeal and sweetcorn dough balls with red pepper jam) and Ribs, Wings, Rings and Things (the "things" are essentially deep-fried chillies), although the latter did result in quite spectacularly sticky hands and faces.

So we, the people of Manchester, welcome The Skinny to our mighty city. And we celebrate our new union with Liverpool by linking arms, offering the branch of friendship...and pointing out that the launch do was rightfully held in the better of the two cities...

The Cake and Bake Show 2013 at Manchester Central; Excitable Local Girl Eats own Body Weight in Baked Goods

Truth be told, I do not often bake. There are plenty of reasons for this: I lack patience, for one thing, finding it fairly tiresome to even weigh things out, let alone spend a couple of hours carefully crafting roses from sugar paste. For another, I am prone to eating pretty much whole batches of raw cake mixture before they ever reach the oven, thus having to feign a perplexed, puzzled sort of face when Mr Liz enquires why the recipe promised 24 cakes and yet I only appear to have made five.

Still, that's not to say that I don't enjoy a nice slice of cake from time to time, and was most excited when the Cake and Bake Show rolled into Manchester yesterday, bringing with it the prospect of a whole, happy day filled entirely with simple carbohydrates and good honest sugar rushes. And clearly many others were excited too - if the huge queues waiting for Manchester Central to open at 11am were anything to go by, only about twelve people in the whole of the North West were actually at work yesterday; the others were all running amok round gingerbread villages and gawping lustily at Eric Landlard (who, you note, is looking straight at ME in the photo you see below) whilst trying to maintain a composure that suggested they were honestly only interested in his baking tips.

The Cake and Bake Show is the only live experiential event in the UK dedicated to cakes, bread and baking; in other words, as well as wandering round myriad stalls offering all kinds of beautiful baked goods and trying to nonchalantly cram as many of the free samples into your mouth as possible without being physically thrown out, you can also stop by one of the many demonstration areas and watch people who actually know what they're doing whip up a few choice items. The line-up across the whole weekend is impressive - yesterday we saw John Whaite, Cathryn Dresser and Brendan Lynch from the most recent series of the Great British Bake Off, Dan Lepard, Eric Lanlard, Simon Rimmer (who has grown a beard, and made three items in the same time it took everyone else to do one) as well as baking royalty Paul Hollywood, King of the Baked Good (who, sadly, was too far away to photograph).

It WAS all pretty busy - you have to be quick to get seating in the demonstration areas, and some of the stalls had pretty much run out of stock by early afternoon (Mr Liz was saddened, for example, that his tardy wife was not in time to get him a pie from Bradleys Bakery, although he did proclaim the hastily purchased substitute from Pryces the Bakers a very tasty 8.5 out of 10 *wipes brow in relief at avoidance of pie-related rampage*). The trick seems to be to go early and plan what you really want to look at or purchase; still, the day offers excellent value with tickets priced at £14.50, which includes all the demonstrations I've mentioned. The Cake and Bake Show runs until 8pm tonight (Saturday) and from 10-5 tomorrow - it's well worth going along; indeed, I haven't entirely ruled out going along again tomorrow for me vs. cake round two...