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Friday, 12 December 2014

Gusto Manchester: Bigger, Shinier, Sexier (Them), Fatter (Me)

I've written before of my fondness for Gusto Didsbury, a charming venue right on my doorstep that manages to offer a friendly local feel despite being part of the large Living Ventures stable. The staff always remember you (although this might just be a sign I eat there too often), the menu is always interesting, the food is always good and the atmosphere is always buzzy. Best of all, Gusto Didsbury didn't even mind that this Monday lunchtime I was unfaithful, and spent the afternoon flirting and schmoozing with the frankly very beautiful new Gusto Manchester on Lloyd Street; after all, they probably fancy her too.

Gusto Manchester has actually been around for a while, but was a much smaller place by the name of Olive Restaurant and Bar - it's now fully rebranded and an ambitious refurbishment has seen it almost quadruple in size (although to be fair, I estimate that I too have probably done likewise since my last visit). The new venue is simply stunning, with a classy Art Deco feel that is both opulent and welcoming, with plush leather booths, sexy lighting and beautifully laid tables - we particularly admire the lovely wine glasses. The light above our table does cast some interesting shadows in the photos though, so I include a picture of it here in the spirit of naming and shaming, and pointing the finger of blame at anyone but the photographer (me).

The a la carte menu is the same as in other Gustos, and therefore embarrassingly familiar to me. For starters, I have the Fritto Misto of sardine, prawn and squid, served with pan fried garlic polenta, green gazpacho and lemon puree - all the fish is beautifully cooked in a light, crisp batter, but the sardine fillet is the standout element. I'm not sure the polenta adds a great deal, but I'm not a huge fan of this item anyway, finding that it takes the addition a good half pound of butter and Parmesan to render it desirable - this version is, in all honesty, pretty tasty. My friend orders a half portion of Tagliatelle with Prawns, Garlic and Sweet Chilli Tomato Sauce, one of my all-time favourite Gusto dishes and therefore clearly an erroneous choice as I snarf as much of it as I can get my hands on - it's just the right balance of hot and sweet chillies, the prawn-to-pasta ratio is generous and the added rocket gives the dish a nice freshness.

On to the mains, and our heads are turned by the super sexy specials list, which offers a range of tempters unique to this particular Gusto. Really and truly I want the Lobster Thermidor, but feel this is likely to be an inappropriately rich dish for someone who has to do some Christmas shopping after lunch. Instead, I go for the Rosemary Cured Monkfish with lobster sauce and crispy speck ham at £21.75 whilst my friend has the Six Bone Rack of Lamb with Salsa Verde at a slightly heftier £27.75. Both of these require additional side dishes, so between us we order fries, baked rosemary and garlic roast potatoes, French beans with shallots and Italian fried courgettes. These are all excellent, particularly the roast potatoes, but at £3.25 they do undeniably add a considerable expense to main courses that each come in at over £20 on their own. The mains themselves are beautiful to look at - well-portioned plates of good, simple ingredients without too much frippery. The monkfish is firm and meaty and goes well with the rich lobster sauce, and the lamb is perfectly pink and tender. Both dishes are, however, over-salted - the fish is salty even without the presence of the ham, and the salt crust on the lamb has been quite exuberantly applied and would perhaps have benefitted from a lighter touch. This is a shame, as it's the only flaw in what are otherwise impressive dishes.

Obviously I am full, and equally obviously I have dessert anyway. I am talked into the Nutella and Mascarpone Calzone by our very helpful waitress and I will be forever grateful for her persistence in this matter - it is a thing of quite astonishing deliciousness and well worth the fifteen minute wait. My friend orders the lemon Sorbet on the basis that this is a light, modest choice - and it would be, were it not the largest portion of sorbet that either of us has ever seen. Add to this gluttony a bottle of decent Barbera and I have never felt less like looking round the Christmas markets in my life - we could frankly have stayed in this oasis of calm and good taste for the entire day. Will I be leaving my first love, Gusto Didsbury, for her glamorous new relative? No. But I'm sure I can be permitted the occasional fling.

- Gusto Manchester is at 4 Lloyd Street (just off Deansgate), Manchester M2 5AB. We were invited as guests of the restaurant and paid for our wine and for service but not for our food.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Flanagan Collective's A Christmas Carol: Theatre, but with SPROUTS

I've never made any secret of the fact that I'm a big fan of Christmas. Obviously, I very much enjoy the additional opportunities for eating and drinking afforded by a celebration that now seems to fill an entire month, but my love of Christmas goes beyond mere greed and also encompasses my fondness for tradition. I love the whole ritual of it all - getting the decorations down from the loft, wrapping presents with a small snifter of sherry, watching It's a Wonderful Life with a glass of port and, best of all, re-reading Dickens' A Christmas Carol every year (and let's face it, Christmas hasn't really started until you've seen the Muppets film version as well).

Joyous news then that this December brings with it the chance to combine these two great pleasures into one irresistible Christmas package. A pop-up theatre - The New Playhouse - has appeared (as if by Christmas magic) in the Great Northern complex on Deansgate, and is hosting performances of The Flanagan Collective's version of A Christmas Carol throughout the month. This is no ordinary theatrical experience though: our first clue comes as we are purchasing Prosecco from the bar area (so far so standard) and notice a door in the corner with a sign proclaiming this to be the residence of one "Scrooge and Marley". Before long, we are allowed to go through it, and find ourselves in Scrooge's very parlour - we take our seats in various locations around the room and the play, such as it is, begins.

I say "such as it is" because this is unlike any play I have ever seen. Yes, there is some fine acting, but the story of Scrooge is so well known that there really is no need to spell it all out for us - instead, we are immersed in an evening of songs, parlour games, dancing and - hurrah! - eating. A very fine meal of cold meats, bread, veg (LOADS of sprouts - Jacob Marley fetches me seconds) and a couple of splendid homemade pies is served up partway through, along with mulled wine and some Christmas pudding and mince pies for afters - no mean feat when there are over forty hungry people in need of refreshment. We pull crackers (I win a pirate eyepatch); we sing Christmas songs as Marley accompanies us on his guitar; we play parlour games, including a few rounds of "Who Am I" during which my friend, who has made the mistake of wearing an eye-catching festive jumper, predictably finds himself sitting in Scrooge's armchair asking us questions such as whether he's male or female (jury still out on this one).

Everyone loves it, and is more than willing to embrace the Yuletide spirit despite it only being the 2nd December. As well as all the silliness there is also some very imaginative and atmospheric drama, including a truly inspired moment when Scrooge breaks free from the theatre and runs round the Great Northern amphitheatre as we watch him from the window. The whole thing is performed by just two very talented men (although we obviously help a great deal, and there are several nice people who bring us dinner) - John Holt-Roberts as Jacob Marley and Al Barclay as Ebeneezer Scrooge (pictured above courtesy of James Drury). Both are thoroughly charismatic and engaging, and one of them can even do handstands, something that I don't recall from the book - clearly time I read it again...

- The Flanagan Collective's Christmas Carol runs until 19th December (I can only imagine how much better it gets the closer we get to Christmas) and costs £35 a head (including that mighty dinner) or £30 each for groups of 10 people or more - tickets are quite scarce now but can be purchased here. And if you're still in doubt whether you should book, take a look at these photos and think about whether you've ever seen people having this much fun at the theatre before.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

New Menu at SoLIta - Cheeseburger Spring Rolls Spawn a Dangerous New Obsession

So, another blog, another post in which I eat too much at SoLIta - you've heard it all before. This time though, I'm at the Didsbury branch, which Franco and co. thoughtfully opened just a hop skip and a jump away from my house earlier this year (Franco jokes I was listed in his business plan when outlining the viability of the Didsbury site - or at least, I hope he's joking). And this time, I've brought along a vegetarian.

We're here to try out the new menu, having respectively spent most of the week eyeing up photos on Twitter of the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls (me) and the Halloumi Burger (my fragrant date, who had never been to SoLIta before due to its rather meaty reputation). SoLIta Didsbury is based in what was Cibo on School Lane - a building scarcely recognisable from its previous sorrowful occupancy. Now it's all Stanley Chow artwork and neon signs, with a buzzy atmosphere that Cibo could only dream of and a fleet of young, chipper staff ready to ply you with the good stuff; in fact, it's very like the Northern Quarter outpost, only a/ better and b/ nearer home.

Obviously, for starters I have the Cheeseburger Spring Rolls. When you've essentially spent the day drooling over a photograph of something in a Homer-esque way, there's always a very real worry that reality will be a let down; not so here thankfully. These spring rolls are as ridiculous and as amazing as they sound - with burger steak wrapped in proper yellow plastic cheese wrapped in pastry and then deep fried, they are essentially the very greedy person's version of an enigma wrapped inside an enigma. Meanwhile, my veggie date has one of my most favourite SoLIta starters, the Lucky 7 - so called because of its layers of guacamole, re-fried beans, sour cream, salsa, cheese, lettuce, olives. She loves it so much she snarfs the lot - lucky only for some, it appears.

For main, I have The Schnitz - a previous special that proved so popular it's muscled its way onto the new menu (and deservedly so - chicken breast schnitzel topped with home smoked shredded bbq chicken and apple slaw and then served with fries is fairly hard to say no to). I'm a sucker for any form of fried chicken anyway, and it makes a nice change from the ubiquitous pulled pork to find it topped with shredded chicken rather than pig. It's the apple slaw that really makes the dish though, adding a freshness and crunch that works well against the sweetness of the bbq sauce. The Veggie has the Hallou Me? Burger - charcoal grilled halloumi, Portobello mushrooms, red pepper and house sauce; she enjoys it, but feels it would benefit from a lightly toasted bun. To be fair though, she has to order it without the mushroom as she is allergic (yes, I know, a veggie allergic to mushrooms - it's a wonder she manages to eat out at all), and thinks that the dish would be fairly perfect had she had this element. On the side we have some cornmeal fried jalepenos and some deep fried pickles - the latter are particularly magnificent, and are fought over to such an extent that we have to actually cut the last one in half.

We are full by now, but share a dessert in the form of the Peanut Butter Chocolate Fudge Brownie served with Oreo ice cream. They know we want to share and helpfully cut the brownie in half before it arrives - either they are exceptionally thoughtful here or (perhaps the more likely) they simply witnessed the unseemly pickle tussle and wish to avoid further public disturbances. The brownie has an excellent texture, managing to be both light AND sticky - our only comment is that we could both handle a bigger hit of peanut butter (but then again, we are both the kind of people who eat it directly from the jar when we think no-one is watching). I do still mourn the deep-fried coke, but feel that I can bravely make do with this until Franco sees sense (/caves to pressure) and brings it back.

Any drawbacks? Well, I honestly think the portions are on the big side, but as the vast majority of the population have better self control than I do, they would probably just stop eating when they were full. Someone also commented via social media that they thought SoLIta prices a little expensive, but I'm not sure this is fair criticism - everything at SoLIta is big enough to share, and the burger prices have actually come down a pound or two thanks to the restaurant passing on discounts from suppliers. And yes, we didn't pay on this occasion, but I estimate that I have been to SoLIta NQ maybe twenty times as a paying customer and to SoLIta Didsbury already about five, so I am more than happy to part with my cash here. And even The Veggie says she wants to go again - high praise indeed, although I doubt very much I'll ever convert her to the delights of the cheeseburger spring roll...

- SoLIta Didsbury is on School Lane, M20 6RD; tel. 0161 434 4884.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Bangers and Bacon's Chef's Table at Guerrilla Eats: Street Food Gets Classy

OK, look - I'll keep this brief, as it's essentially me talking about sausages again and I can already hear some of you sighing at the prospect of more of my porcine wittering. I do think I get special dispensation with this one though, as this is no ordinary sausage post - this is the amazing Bangers and Bacon five course Chef's Table feast at Guerrilla Eats, on for four Saturdays only and therefore pretty much the hottest ticket in town.

It seems remarkable that no-one had thought of taking the concept of the Chef's Table - where diners sit alongside the kitchen so they can watch the chef(s) prepare and serve their food - out of the fancy restaurant and into the street food arena before now. It's an idea that makes perfect sense and was even better in practice when it debuted last Saturday night in a drafty Ancoats warehouse, where six of us sat at a proper table with a proper tablecloth and with proper crockery and proper cutlery and had the following:

- Pig, Pickle and Pate Platter. So, the first of five dishes, billed as "slightly smaller than courses" - and a clear indication that, with each board serving two people, Bangers and Bacon have a fairly generous definition of portion size. They bought a couple of new smokers recently and frankly can't leave their new toys alone, hence this generous platter of smoked meats, pate and - best of all - bacon jam. This was quite simply the best bacon jam I've ever had - it had all the flavour you'd expect from the purveyors of the best bacon in Britain, but with a looser, meatier texture than many I've tried. They should take it as a compliment that I left with the half jar we couldn't eat in my handbag.

- "Spaghetti", Pumpkin and Smoked Bacon Chowder. A more sensible portion size this time - a dinky little glass of beautifully smoky, creamy soup that went down a treat. Personally, I would have left out the little chunks of pumpkin "spaghetti"; otherwise, I would happily have this every day (or at least until every single button had popped off my trousers).

- Trio of Snags Du Jour. As the good folks at Bangers and Bacon are also Team Bobby's Bangers, a sausage course was no surprise. What was surprising was the daintiness and finesse of the whole thing - Richard trained at some of Greater Manchester's best restaurants and his fancy-dan background was clear to see in his exuberantly cheffy piping of three different types of mash. The garlic mash came with an equally garlicky Toulouse sausage; the sun-dried tomato mash with a lovely fennelly Italian; the plain mash with my all-time favourite banger (the Christmas one with the bacon, sprouts and chestnut); and the whole lot was served with a punchy red wine jus. Lovely.

- It Mush Pea Love. A pared down version of my favourite Bangers and Bacon dish: fresh, minty peas (I'll overlook the fact that this token healthy element was clearly at least half butter and cream), mixed with bacon and topped with beetroot crisps, served on a crouton. I'm not too proud to admit I ate the leftover mushy peas out the pan; as I already had a half-eaten jar of bacon jam in my bag by this point, pretensions to decorum seemed pretty futile.

- Treacle Bacon and Chocolate Brownie. I wasn't sure whether I would like this - and it turned out to be the highlight of the night. A gorgeously sticky chocolate brownie containing chewy chunks of sweet bacon and served with a fruit coulis and a marscarpone cream, this would have been worthy of any posh restaurant - and once again, the presentation was beautiful (until I mauled it).

The Chef's Table has three more Saturdays to run and is selling out very quickly, despite the fact that they've now put on two sittings to accommodate demand. Future menus will vary slightly, but the price remains at £15 a head - frankly ridiculous for five exquisite courses, so I suggest you handle their tips jar with generosity. And before accusations of blogger bias start up, yes James, Heather and Richard are my friends, but we paid for our places and I wouldn't have written this had I not genuinely loved it. Add the fact that Guerrilla Eats run a pretty well-stocked bar and that the DJ was playing Stone Roses and New Order, and I'm not sure it could be bettered. Keep an eye on their twitter feed @bangersandbacon for links to ticket sales - and be quick about it if you want to bag a seat at the best bargain of the year.

- Guerrilla Eats currently reside at Blossom Street, Manchester M4 5AF.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Opera North's La Traviata at The Lowry: Passion in Paris (via Salford)

Now, whilst I am painfully aware that I am no longer in the first flush of youth, I do still consider myself at least relatively young. I have never been on a cruise; I do not own a tartan shopping trolley; and I do not (yet) say "aaaaaaah" after my first sip of a cup of tea. I do, however, like the opera - something which still prompts some surprise in those who clearly regard opera as the preserve of the posh and the elderly rather than someone who is prone to drinking too much Prosecco and falling over on a night out. The always-magnificent Opera North are on a bit of a mission to prove that a night at the opera is a wonderful thing no matter what your age, and specifically set out to attract a new audience in the spring with La Boheme (a huge success - more than half of the Leeds audiences were new to Opera North). That mission continued this week at Salford's Lowry, with another crowd pleaser set in Paris and perhaps the best-known opera of the lot: Verdi's La Traviata.

As is typically the case with opera, the story is a straightforward one: girl meets boy and sings a beautiful duet with him (in this case, it's a courtesan named Violetta and a handsome young man called Alfredo); circumstances break them up (here, it's Alfredo's father, Giorgio, who convinces Violetta to leave Alfredo as she is besmirching the family name and preventing his daughter's chances of marriage); love wins through (hurray!); then finally a heartbreaking ending (I hope I'm not ruining any surprises when I suggest you take note of the nasty cough Violetta has from Act One). The story isn't the point really - and indeed, its simplicity is a blessed relief for those of us whose Italian is a bit ropey and who would rather not bother reading all the subtitles that pop up on the screens in front the stage. The brevity of the plot leaves you free to listen to the beauty of the music - and La Traviata is packed full of familiar tunes that pretty much everybody will know, most notably perhaps "The Drinking Song" (which someone was rude enough to point out on Twitter that I was bound to know).

Being Opera North, the staging is slick and modern and clever, from the lengthy trip round Violetta's lungs at the beginning to the breathtaking night sky that provides the backdrop to a glorious party near the end. The cast are as good as we have come to expect from Opera North, with Hye-Youn Lee particularly charismatic as Violetta and putting in an extraordinarily powerful vocal performance that I failed utterly to reproduce in the car on the way home. The only thing I didn't like about the whole production was the fact that there were two intervals. This broke the performance up too much for my liking, although to be fair there is no obvious halfway break due to the second of the three acts having two scenes. Still, it did provide double the amount of opportunities for the consumption of wine, so it's a very minor quibble.

Next time Opera North are back in Manchester it will be with something a bit more cheery - Mozart's Marriage of Figaro. Keep an eye on their website for further details - and don't forget to leave your shopping trolley at the back...

- photos taken from the Opera North website - photo credit: Richard H Smith.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Grandad's Sausages: Putting the Bang into National Sausage Week

Right - no sniggering at the back, but it's National Sausage Week, and the excitement generated on Twitter about this simple fact is the type of thing that makes Britain great: even normally high-functioning highbrow folk have been enjoying a meaty innuendo or two in celebration of banger week. My love of sausages is well-documented - I was the first graduate of the Bobby's Bangers Sausage School, and often man the Good Ship Sausage on their behalf at Levenshulme Market, where appreciative crowds jostle to admire my meat-handling skills - but whilst a good banger is a thing of utter joy, a bad one is a sorrow indeed. As Nigel Slater once said, there's no joy in a dry sausage - nor in a limp, flaccid one or a nasty flabby fatty one (those last words are, perhaps obviously, mine rather than Nigel's). I was forced to buy supermarket sausages the other week (mentioning no names *whispers* Debbie and Andrew's) and they were terrible - so much fat came out of them, they set the grill on fire and I had to be quite extraordinarily brave to avert a major catastrophe.

So when Grandad's Sausages asked if I'd like to try their sausages, I said yes (obviously), but not without some trepidation - although to be fair, any company with the slogan "putting a smile on Grandma's face for over 50 years" doesn't really need to enlist the help of local bloggers in stirring up a flurry of sausage innuendo. Grandad's Sausages (@GSausages) is a locally-based family business from sunny Bury, now run by brothers Matthew and Michael in memory of their Grandad Bernard, who founded the company more than 50 years ago (and was presumably the reason for Grandma's cheerful demeanour). They also make terrible banger-based jokes on Twitter, where their avatar is a pig in a top hat - if you can find anything here not to like, you're made of sterner stuff than I am.

Anyway, there are ten different flavours and they sent me a party pack of seven to sample: Traditional British Pork, Olde English, Lincolnshire, Cumberland, Pork & Welsh Leek, Pork & Somerset Apple and Pork & Fiery Chilli. Being a single girl of, ahem, modest appetites, I've not tried them all yet - but the ones I've had so far have been suitably meaty with a good strong flavour and not too much fat coming out during cooking. You see the Pork & Leek and Pork & Apple here - and yes, that IS a sexy bed of sprouts they are reclining on. I look forward to trying the rest - and whilst I remain a Bobby's Bangers girl through and through, there's always room for a bonus banger in my fridge.

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Seventh Annual Didsbury Beer Festival Returns to St Catherine's

There are certain events in the Mancunian calendar that I consider to be totally unmissable. Didsbury Beer Festival is one of them, and whilst beer festival cynics (and it saddens me that these people even EXIST) may claim that such an event is essentially a cold, drafty tent full of people of a certain age wearing anoraks, I would like to temper this slightly by pointing that the tent is practically on my doorstep and is filled with lots of lovely beer and that, actually, that's a pretty nice coat I'm wearing. This year's festival is, unbelievably, the 7th; I have attended them all except one, and it was a pretty major trauma that kept me from going that year - the embarrassing number of Didsbury Beer Festival branded pint glasses in my kitchen bears (beers?) testimony to my devotion to this particular cause.

Last night was the first of the three-day festival, and I paid a flying visit to sample a couple of ales and conduct a bit of a recce ahead of a more serious assault on the Saturday sessions. There seems to be more beers than ever, many of them local - I had a half of Ginger Marble from Manchester's Marble Brewery (I always start with this as it's one of my favourite ever beers: a big, spicy, swaggering beered-up version of the cockiest gingerbread man imaginable) and then a half of Funky Banana from Holmfirth's Nook Brewhouse (terrible name; great beer - light, refreshing and slightly sweet).

The festival is on again tonight between 6 and 11pm (entry £5) and tomorrow between 12 and 5pm (£3 entry) and 5 and 11pm (£4 entry). There is live music both nights and always a lovely atmosphere - it's also obligatory to have a portion or two of chicken curry and chips from the legendary St Catherine's hatch in order to soak up all that beery goodness. The full beer list is available on the DBF website and there is also a pretty good selection of ciders and perries for anyone who didn't make themselves ill on cider for their 18th birthday and not been able to face it since. I will be spending my time until Saturday afternoon persusing my copy of the beer brochure and idly circling the ones I want to try whilst pondering my generosity - over the last six years Didsbury Beer Festival has raised over £75,000 for local charities. This year's deserving causes are Visioncare and The Wellspring, both offering help to homeless and other vulnerable members of society - so really, it's our duty to go along and drink beer. See you there...

- Didsbury Beer Festival is at St. Catherine's Social Club, School Lane, Didsbury, Manchester M20 6HS until Sat 1st November.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

'Tis the Season for Staying In - Preferably with a Holland's Hallowe'en Ghoul-ash Pie

Ah, Autumn. Yes, the sudden drop in temperature has been a bit of a shock, and no-one likes getting up in the morning while it's still dark - but there's still much to be welcomed in a season that allows you to pop the heating on, open a bottle of red and bring a blanket downstairs to put over your knees while you watch Strictly. You may have noticed from the lack of blog posts recently that it takes quite a lot to get me out the house at this time of year, but there are a few occasions looming on the horizon that I will make an exception for: Didsbury Beer Festival (more of which next week), Hallowe'en (if only to avoid the constant knocking on by trick or treaters) and Bonfire Night (the cat has assured me that if I pour him a small brandy before I go out he'll be fine on his own).

To celebrate two of these three auspicious occasions (I'm sure it will only be a matter of time before they create a special pie for Didsbury Beer Festival), Holland's Pies have sent out some recipes to promote their new limited edition seasonal creation. Now last time I wrote about this famous Lancashire firm I got some stick from certain quarters, but I care not - I love a pie, and as I generally can't be bothered to make my own I'm more than happy to eat one that I've located in the freezer. The new one sounds good, too - the ‘Ghoul-ash Pie’ has been created exclusively for Holland’s by celebrity chef Tom Bridge from The Great British Bake Off and features beef and paprika. For Bonfire Night they recommend the good old Potato and Meat pie and suggest you serve it with mushy peas - recipe below. You can even share your Hallowe'en or Bonfire Night photos on their Facebook page or Twitter feed for the chance to win either a Ghoul-ash Pie or a Bonfire Night party pack containing a Holland’s pie cosy to keep your pies warm (this is not normally an issue for me), hand crafted Holland’s mittens (I need these desperately) and a batch of Holland’s Potato & Meat Pies (ditto).

So, I'm happy to pretend that I'm off to some glamorous bar launch, but in reality I'm here in my pyjamas, eating a dish of mushy peas and planning which real ales I'll be going for first next week - and all the happier for it.

Mushy Peas

500g/1lb 2oz dried marrowfat peas
1 tbsp sugar
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Soak the dried marrowfat peas the night before cooking in a bowl of cold water. The next day, rinse the peas under cold running water and place into a large saucepan. Add boiling water to cover the sugar and salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste. Boil gently for about 20-30 minutes, or until the water has evaporated and the peas have turned into mush.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Harvey Nichols Manchester Taste on Two: Christmas is A-Coming and the Blogger is Planning to Get Fat

One of the very nicest things about the run up to Christmas is the sudden proliferation of lovely things in the shops. Suddenly it seems like an excellent idea to pick up a small sequinned shrug, which admittedly offers no protection against the Mancunian elements, and team it with a sparkly hairgrip or two and an oh-so-cute bag which is too small to actually carry anything but which will be just right for any party one might get invited to.

And the Christmas food is even better. Monday evening saw the Taste on Two event take place at Harvey Nichols Manchester, a mini festival to showcase some of the goodies to be found in this most tempting of food halls - and whilst not specifically a Christmas event, I sampled many things that I can confidently say will contribute to my annual festive weight gain. Being Harvey Nics, the evening started with a cocktail and, more unexpectedly, the tying on of a rather desirable Harvey Nics apron, causing me to fear an imminent involvement in some kind of butchery class that thankfully never came. Instead, I wandered round a selection of tasting tables trying out a number of premium food and drink items, including Joe & Seph's amazing gin flavoured popcorn, Yee Kwan Ice Cream, Booja-Booja truffles and Manfood boozy jams (which I heartily regret not buying a truckload full of).

We also enjoyed demos from Tickety Brew, Woodall's Charcuterie (with cheese matches from Burt's Cheese), Harvey Nichols Wine Shop and Grey Goose Vodka, who showed us how to make three different Martinis and then - even better - permitted us to neck them. I had to drink a very great deal of both the wet and dry Martinis in an attempt to find a preference (the difference is in the amount of vermouth added) and still can't be completely sure without further testing.

At the end of a splendid evening I left clutching a quality goody bag which - along with the apron and the generous food and drink samples - made this a great value event at £15 a ticket. A lovely night - and I'm hoping to find more than a few of these choice items under my Christmas tree come this December...