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Friday, 20 December 2013

Festive Afternoon Tea at Opus One, in which Guest Blogger Nicole Scales a Mountain of Cake and Reaches New Heights of Gluttony...

For someone who becomes ridiculously excited at the thought of Christmas, yet equally cannot bear the early-onset hysteria that brings Christmas decorations to stores in September, I was more than ready to start the spirit and sparkle mid-December. However, as my friends and family have learnt the hard way, I do not permit the consumption of seasonal baked goods out of season, and therefore did not partake of my first mince pie until Saturday last. With my rather tardy start to the season of indulgence, what better way to ramp up the excitement than to enjoy the Festive Afternoon Tea for two at Opus One at the Radisson?

Tardy in life as I am tardy in my foray into the festive season, I arrived in a fluster and was immediately impressed with the calm manner of the lady who took my coat and whisked me to my table. After a moment to settle into one of the squashy cushioned chairs (the clever people at Opus One must choose these deliberately, as there was no way I was leaving quickly after sinking into it), we were offered a pot of tea from the extensive selection; being traditional, I opted for Earl Grey whereas Liz went for Assam. We agreed both were delicious, and the generous-sized teapots were refilled part way through our afternoon.

Then for the treats. The waiter came bearing a suitably traditional tiered plate laden with goodies. Despite eyeing up the cake items at the apex, as all greedy girls would, we decided it was only right to begin at the bottom and sample the array of finger sandwiches, eight fillings in all. Amongst the more traditional afternoon tea flavours of smoked salmon and cream cheese, and egg and cucumber, nestled the roast turkey, cranberry and stuffing, and the honey roast ham and mustard. The turkey was moist and the cranberry sweetly sharp, but it was the ham that stood out for me. It tasted just as a Christmas ham-on-the-bone should - tender, slightly salty and perfectly complemented by the vinegary twinkle of the wholegrain mustard. As greedy girls, we enjoyed sampling all the festive flavours, and we were happy to share and cut each sandwich in half in order to do so; however we felt that two of each of three different fillings would have been sufficient.

On to the middle layer, where the most delightful treasure was unearthed: fruit scones with clotted cream and jam. The scones were perfection - warm, light and fluffy, and with little nuggets of sweetness courtesy of the currants, cranberry and orange. The dried fruit was not overpowering though, which was a jolly good job, as I certainly tried to overload my scone with cream before Liz alerted me to the need to reserve some for my second scone. I would have liked a little more clotted cream, particularly as there were four scones to divide it amongst, however on reflection, the less greedy of you would probably manage. The dinky jars of gem-like jam preserve appealed to my love of all things miniature, and we reasoned that the fruit points accumulated probably eliminated the calorific cream.

Having eaten our way up the mountain of morsels, stopping for fortifying sips of tea on the way, we finally reached the summit. The cake selection was plentiful, and included a mini chocolate fudge cake, a cream-filled cornet and a triangle of fruit cake. Perhaps I was spoilt by the scones, but I was slightly disappointed by the cakes. Although beautifully presented, they didn't quite match up to the home-made deliciousness of the scones, and I found the cream horn cloying and a little dry. We decided that we could probably manage the winter berry jelly, which was cool and refreshing after so much sweetness.

By this stage our eyes were certainly bigger than our bellies, and we had to ask for the remaining cakes to be boxed up to go. The waiter was charmingly obliging, and on reflection, had probably witnessed this very same reaction before. And this is probably indicative of the value of the Festive Afternoon Tea - at £18.95 per person you certainly get your money's worth - it was even too much for two self-proclaimed greedy girls. Obviously, we managed to find room later in the evening, particularly as the festivities continued with a celebratory cocktail. So thank you Opus One, for being the gateway to my Christmas conviviality.

- Opus One is at the Radisson Blu Edwardian Hotel, Free Trade Hall, Peter Street, Manchester M2 5GP. We were invited as guests of the restaurant, and were not asked to pay for our meal.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Cheese and Wine at Hickson and Black's Deli, Chorlton: Festive Faces at the Ready

There are a number of highly excellent advantages linked to the run-up to Christmas, and the festive period in general. For one thing, it is entirely permissible to accept and consume a small sherry at any time of day or night should the opportunity present itself; equally, entire afternoons may be safely passed in the watching of a succession of low-quality festive films, often featuring brave canines, small children lost in dangerous snowscapes or - ideally - a combination of the two.
It is also entirely to be expected that those with an already high level of cheese consumption may push the dairy boat out still further, embarking upon a whole new array of Christmas cheeses which - by law - must be consumed with an appropriate wine pairing. To this end, I was pleased to be invited to Hickson and Black's deli in Chorlton for a cheese and wine tasting (no finer combination of words in the English language than these four in my opinion) in order to showcase some of the wines already in stock and dangle a couple of possible new ones for our opinion. Now, barely a day goes by on Twitter without some smug Chorltonite crowing about the magnificence of the Hickson and Black's sandwich they have just snaffled (bacon seems particularly popular) and I have bought cheese here before from their excellent selection, but I had never really thought of it as a place to buy wine. I now stand corrected on this matter - here's the sampling list, with my favourites clumsily highlighted in non-wine expert manner:

The Whites

Statti 'Feudo dei Baroni' (Greco) Calabria 2012

Ciconia 'Branco' (Anton Vaz, Viognier, Verdelho) Portugal 2012

Domaine Patrick Vauvy 'Sauvignon de Touraine' (Sauvignon Blanc) Loire 2012 - this was a favourite with most people. I am suspicious of Sauvignon Blanc, particularly in non-summer conditions, finding it often a bit acidic and rather tasteless. Not so with this one - soft, fruity and pretty exquisite with a sliver (/slab) of goat's cheese. I think this was £12.95 but as measures were fairly generous I'm afraid I cannot be completely certain on this matter.

Levenwacht 'The Tin Mine' (Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Roussanne) South Africa 2011 - another favourite, with an unusual minerally taste and a blend of grapes that really works. Not currently stocked at the deli, but SURELY it should be.

The Reds

Cours la Reine 'Saint-Chinian' (Syrah, Grenache Noir) Languedoc 2012

Tierra Segrada 'Antigua' Tempranillo, Garnacha) Carinena 2006

Devil's Corner 'Pinot Noir' (Pinot Noir) Tasmania 2012 - in truth, I enjoyed all the reds, but this was my standout favourite. Although I did, ahem, have to try it several times, just to be really sure.

Chateau Les Rochers Mirande 'Montagne-Saint-Emilion' (Mainly Merlot) Bordeaux 2006

The Extra Blagged One

Niepoort 'LBV' Douro 2007 - I am only a very recent convert to Port, but as a room full of wined-up people were baying lustily to try this, it seemed churlish not to join in. I think I have been put off Port previously by exposure to nasty, cheap, supermarket stuff; this one is in a whole different league and worryingly easy to drink, particularly when someone has foolishly placed a plate of blue cheese right by you on the counter. Hickson and Black's sell a half bottle for - I think - £12.50, and I am keen to procure one for my Christmas drinks cabinet (which is, in truth, only a metaphorical cabinet, but is none the worse for that).

All of this booze was ably soaked up by a selection of cheeses, pâtés and meats from the deli counter; the range and quality of cheeses here is particularly impressive, as you will see if you have a little browse of the website here. Thanks to Jay and Steve for their excellent hospitality; now all we need to do is start a campaign for Hickson and Black's to have its own dedicated tram stop for those of us who wish to cart their wine back to the wilds of East Didsbury...

- Hickson and Black's is at 559A Barlow Moor Road, Chorlton-cum-Hardy, Manchester M21 8AN; tel. 0161 881 2001.