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Saturday, 19 July 2014

Manchester Basks (with a little help from Italy and Spain): Birra Moretti's Gran Tour, the Appleton Rum Bus and Evuna Make for a Perfect Summer Night

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Manchester, whilst clearly lovely, didn't really do SUN with any great aplomb - particularly if that sun is of the very hot variety. Well, I take it all back. Last Thursday was hot, sticky and sultry, and this is how a gloriously sunny Manchester made the best of the weather:

First stop, Birra Moretti's Gran Tour at the Old Granada Studios. There's still just about time to snap up tickets to this small but perfectly formed event, which has set up residence in the Old Granada Studios until tomorrow (Sunday) and offers a celebration of authentic Italian food via a food-based tour of regions such as Naples, Lombardy, Puglia and Sicily. I am wildly suspicious of anything marked "authentic" and am happy to acknowledge that Birra Moretti would not be everybody's first choice of beer (although I rather like it), but the streetfood traders for this event do genuinely seem to have been selected with great care, and each was offering excellent (and interesting) food. I very much enjoyed the arancini (risotto balls) from the Arancini Bros., the deep-fried meatball calzone from Cheeky Italian, the ricotta and sour cherry gelato from Gelupo, the gnocchi with slow-braised pork shoulder from Pasta e Basta, and last but not least, the torta fritta with Guanciale (a sort of savoury doughnut puff topped with cured meat) from the magnificently moustached Gurmetti. I didn't have time to try the ravioli from Cooking Cooks or the Porchetta from Forza Win, and was cruelly denied Pizza Pilgrims by an untimely oven fire, so it is your DUTY to go along tomorrow and try them for me. £10 gets you a beer and two dishes.

Next up, the Appleton Rum Bus on Great Northern Square. This seems to me like a fine idea - it's a bus, and it's full of rum, specifically rum-based cocktails designed by those nice people at West Didsbury's Violet Hour, and it's decided to park up in Great Northern Square for the next month. The bus itself seats 16, but obviously everybody at Thursday's launch was sitting outside - the place has a nice atmosphere even if the bar is a little high and the menu a little limited. I tried a Jamaican Mule, a Rum Punch and a Mai Tai (the one I didn't try, the Rum & Raisin Dream, is cream-based, and sounded a bit rich for me) - these are priced between £6 and £7 but come in generous cups and appear to my untrained eye to be on the strong side. Perhaps best not have three next time - I barely resisted the urge to keep shouting "PEEP PEEP! ALL ABOARD!" as it was.

Final destination, Evuna. Obviously I wasn't, ahem, at all hungry after all the food I'd put away earlier, but it seemed wrong not to take advantage of the balmy climes and sit outside a little longer, particularly as there was a table free outside Evuna on Deansgate, beckoning us enticingly. Evuna has always been reliable but seems to have upped its game a little - the four dishes we tried were all utterly (and in the case of the Iberico Black foot pig and the guest tapas of pork chop with broad bean sauce, breathtakingly) exemplary. No pictures (dark; tired; greedy), but I really need to go back and have a proper explore of the Evuna menu very soon.

Obviously, since then we have had thunder, lightning and apocalytic, end-of-days weather - but now the sun is peeping back out and quite frankly I'm ready to do it all again...

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Love Withington Baths and Drunken Butcher's Summer Banquet at Withington Leisure Centre, in which ZUMBA is Replaced with BEEF

Regular readers of this blog, who know of my reputation as an elite, finely honed athlete, will not be surprised to learn that I spent a good portion of last Sunday at a local sporting facility - Withington Leisure Centre or, as it is more affectionately known, Withy Baths.

Of course, I was there to eat and drink, not exert myself in any other way. I do actually really like swimming but dislike getting my hair wet or water in my eyes, and therefore have to swim in the manner of an old lady or a small dog with my head held high above the water - eating and drinking is something I am far more skilled at. Still, Withington Baths is an important and well-used local facility that finds itself with something of an uncertain future - it was granted a two-year stay of execution last year thanks to overwhelming public support, but is under threat once more with the planned opening of the new Hough End facility in 2015. Now, the Love Withington Baths campaign aims to highlight how this beautiful old building could be used for far more than just sport and could become an important part of community life once more, offering facilities such as a cafe, workspace, art and craft space, children's parties and so on.

Which brings me on to last Sunday's Summer Banquet. Only local dynamo Sian Astley - pictured here during her welcome talk - would have the vision and enthusiasm to transform the Zumba room to a pop-up restaurant offering a five course, sit-down menu for 40 people, but that's exactly what she did. Not alone, of course - a host of local traders showed their support for this worthy cause, with Sian from Flower Lounge providing the beautiful table decorations (one of which I bought to take home, where it is still lovely nearly a week later), Kate from Reserve Wines offering wine tastings and Sarah from Cocoa Cabana showing us how to make Manchester Tart truffles (stickiest hands I've had all week).

Food came courtesy of my old mate Iain, otherwise known as the Drunken Butcher, who had contemptuously farted in the face of the Baths currently having no kitchen facility and knocked up five glorious courses of cold food - to wit:

- Chilled pea and ham soup

- Salmon with cucumber and mint (cooked in Iain's sous-vide machine, which I covet most deeply)

- Beef with horseradish and potato salad (the most beautiful, pink Dexter brisket from Taste Tradition, whose meat is second to none)

- Cheshire Cheese with salad, pears and crackers

- Rose wine jelly with summer fruits

All of this was served on communal platters set down in the middle of each table, which meant the opportunity to meet lots of nice new people whilst politely wrestling over the last piece of beef. The food was all flawless, and ridiculous value at £20 a head including a welcome cocktail and water throughout the meal - it's little wonder that it was a complete sell-out.

If this is a just a glimpse of what can be done here, then the Love Withington Baths campaign is certainly one worth getting behind - I did ask Si when the next event was, but she looked a little as if she might cry so I'll allow her a week off at least before I enquire again. You can find out more about the campaign by following their Twitter feed @lovewithybaths or liking their Facebook page (where you can see a set of photos taken by a proper, skilled photographer rather than an enthusiastic girl with an iPhone). After all, there aren't many venues where you can pop upstairs to the loo and see loads of whippets in lycra busily working out in the gym whilst you contemplate the five courses you've just consumed...

Monday, 14 July 2014

New Guest Blog Post, in which a Hungry Boy is Beaten by the Splendid Sausage Waffle Menu

At the owner's own admission, The Splendid Sausage Company for its name alone gets more than its fair share of giggles. This light titter was shared by my friends when I explained that when I asked my step mother (by text on a new phone) if she wanted to be my plus one at a Splendid Sausage do, she didn't reply as, according to my father, she thought she was being propositioned for some weird "adult" gathering. Anyway, in light of her misgivings, I turned to another lady in my life and we went along to experience the new brunch menu.

Upon arrival, we were presented with options from the home grown cocktail menu, and the peanut butter based vodka cocktail was delicious. Not too nutty and went down a treat. The Lady enjoyed gin with elderflower as we waited for the splendour to arrive.

Our hotdog treats were all very different yet incredibly tasty, with the speciality of the day, "Uncle Sam", taking the prize for being most tasty and surprising. Not that "Chilli Dog" and "The King" weren't special enough, but the addition of a little spice in Uncle Sam pushed this out in front. The menu was varied enough for every taste to be catered for and the "Eggs Benedict" is a must try for those who NEED something mid - late morning, and for those who want to experiment with an alternative Sunday lunch, then for under £10, you should definitely give the "Sunday lunch" a whirl.

Then a treat. For a vodka fan, a really nice surprise. A sausage vodka. Yes, that's correct. Sausage. Vodka. Made by their own fair hands, this thrice filtered homemade beauty was a perfect end to the savoury part of the meal and well, I think you'll have try it to understand its flavour. You won't be disappointed.

Then came the waffles. Not for the faint hearted, those on diets or the lactose intolerant amongst you. Three varieties of waffles, all with different toppings and all with oodles of fresh cream and dairy. The waffles themselves were beautiful and fluffy and light, and I won't spoil the surprise of the dishes, but you might care to share if you're not overly keen on dairy. If you are, you'll be in heaven. My favourite was "Born in the USA" with its candied bacon and blueberries, but the "chocolots and lots and lots" was a very close second.

Overall, I enjoyed my visit to The Splendid Sausage Company, which is run by a down to earth local couple who have spent time finding the right local supplier of their very tasty sausages (Flixton) and who have done a great job of creating a menu that caters for all. It's priced appropriately and the atmosphere and vibe felt just right. I'll be back, especially for that Sunday Roast (maybe after Eggs Benedict).

Chris & Lady M

Gincident with The Liquorists: Boozy Jinks on the High Seas (/Manchester Ship Canal)

Now, whilst it might be a myth that antibiotics and alcohol don't mix, I have to hold my hands up right away and confess to not being on fully top form for my trip on the Good Ship Gin for this year's round of Gincident cruises with The Liquorists. I thought I'd made a pretty good effort by donning a jaunty skull and crossbones neckerchief, but knew from the second that Didsbury Girl, my fragrant plus-one for the evening, came sauntering towards Castlefield Basin sporting an eye patch clearly robbed from her young son's toy box that I was hopelessly out of my depth.

Still, any Liquorists event is worth making an effort for, and Gincident is one of my favourites on their boozy calendar - a lovely jaunt down to Media City on a barge which has essentially been filled with gin and a selection of nice, cocktail-loving people, listening to Tom pontificate and run through his amazing repertoire of accents whilst sipping on cocktails in the manner of a lady. So whilst I may not have managed all of the following, I did at least try...

Welcome drink: a lovely long G & T, made with Caorunn gin, Fevertree Elderflower Tonic Water and a slice of red apple. This was pretty much the perfect start: I tried some of this Scottish gin recently but didn't have any apple to hand - it really did complement the other flavours though, meaning I will have to have a serious rethink on my policy of not ever having any fruit in the house.

Cocktails: you can't say Gincident isn't great value - we had five full-sized cocktails during our voyage (as well as another G & T when we got back to Liquorist HQ at Redbank), and these were they.

1. Opihr Pegu Club - Opihr Gin, apricot brandy, fresh lime and orange bitters. This one was a little strong for me (a fellow salty seadog said it put her in mind of one of those pomanders old ladies hang in their wardrobes) and reminded me of an orange cordial that had been made by a rather heavy-handed person. We agreed a splash of Prosecco would turn this into something far more refreshing (although sadly none of the four ladies at our table had any in their handbag - rather remiss).

2. Blue In Bloom - Bloom Gin, blue curaçao and egg white. I was a little put off by the colour but actually really enjoyed this one - its slight sweetness went perfectly with the spicy curry that was served up alongside it.

3. Message Gin A Bottle - Martin Miller gin, Sicilian lemon juice and a splash of crème de violette. This was a little like an Aviator and I quite liked it, although wasn't entirely sure about drinking from a blue plastic bottle. I suppose it would at least protect your drink if you were forced to walk the plank for some misdemeanor or other (like, for example, not having emergency Prosecco in your handbag).

4. Savannah Collins - Whitley Neill gin and Rooibos iced tea. I didn't like this one, because I don't like Rooibos tea, but everyone else did. In fact, I swapped mine with Didsbury Girl for her...

5. Abbey Martini - Tanqueray 10, fresh orange juice and Martini Rosso. This split the room (/barge) more than a little, but I liked its bitterness and felt it would be an excellent way to ward off scurvy should the driver take a wrong turn and accidentally extend our voyage.

Food: dinner came courtesy of street food traders The Holy Basil, who had somehow knocked up some pretty impressive boxed Thai food, including the sticky rice and fragrant curry that went so well with the Blue in Bloom.

So all in all, not my favourite line-up of Liquorists cocktails (down to my personal taste rather than the quality of the drinks) but great fun all the same. The company was great, Tom is an excellent host, and it's easy to imagine you are bravely sailing the high seas...until you spot the Blue Peter studios through your rain-lashed Manchester barge window.

More details about Gincident 2014 can be found here. I was invited as a guest and was not asked to pay for my ticket.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Bloody Mary Brunch at Beef and Pudding: Long-Awaited Official Sanction for Booze at Breakfast

I must admit, it's taken me a fair old while to come round to the concept of brunch. As someone who is almost permanently hungry, brunch appears to have two serious drawbacks: firstly, it requires the user to delay the first meal of the day by a number of hours; and secondly, it seems to sanction the omission of an entire meal altogether - breakfast + lunch = two meals, whilst brunch = just the one.

Recently, though, I have been drawn to this most cocksure of meals by the brunch menus at a number of Manchester restaurants, most notably SoLIta and Beef and Pudding. The latter have now stepped up their strong-arm tactics with the introduction of the Bloody Mary Buffet: in other words, the already pretty tempting brunch menu but with the addition of virtually compulsory alcohol. We went last Sunday, and didn't even make a pretence of food being our primary intent; instead, we headed stright for the bar where an array of ingredients awaited the talented mixologists amongst us. Into my glass I lobbed celery salt, bacon salt, horseradish, Worcestershire sauce, bottled tomato juice, freshly-squeezed tomato juice, ice, a healthy glug of Woodford's Reserve, a slice of gherkin and a dainty bacon garnish. It was amazing, and I am clearly a champion amongst Bloody Mary makers, even if it may seem a little to the untrained eye as if I just got carried away and didn't know quite when to stop.

This seemed a good time to soak up a little of the booze with some food. The brunch menu is available 10am - 1pm every Saturday and Sunday and seems specifically designed to mop up stray alcohol; there's not much here that's dainty. Mother Liz - last Sunday's guest of honour - went for the smoked haddock kedgeree at £7.95 and found the flavours perfect: buttery rice, subtle curry spicing, generous pieces of flaked fish and a beautifully rich duck egg. She did however find the rice a little on the stodgy side, and I had a similar textural issue with my Brunch Pud. This sounded unbeatable on paper - a mini version of their famous suet pudding filled with black pudding, fairground onions and pulled ham hock, served with curry sauce and topped with a fried duck egg and smoked bacon. This was almost perfect - except that the top crust (or the bit on the bottom as you look at the picture) was overdone to the point of being inedible. I think was was purely due to it hanging around for a while, but it had dried out to the extent that even picking it up in my fingers and gnawing at it in an unladylike manner proved fruitless.

However, the third diner at our table couldn't have been more spoiled. I have no doubt that a vegetarian with allergies both to dairy and to duck eggs is likely to strike fear into any restaurant upon arrival, but our ridiculously helpful waiter patiently put together a plate of vegetarian, dairy-free items and even produced a couple of poached chicken eggs despite them not being on the menu (they arrived separately after this picture was taken, rather than being special invisible eggs).

Overall then, a few tweaks needed with the food but an utterly splendid concept all round and another step towards converting me to the brunch concept. I'm already trying to talk Dave Mooney into offering an all-day booze buffet, morphing seamlessly from Bloody Marys to wine to sherry as the sun progresses further over the yardarm...a Leo Sayer at its very classiest.

- You can read the rest of the brunch menu here. We were invited as guests of the restaurant but complicated matters by being three people rather than two, so the short answer is that we paid for some of our food and some of our drinks but not all.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

New Guest Blog Post, in which the Erstwhile Mr Liz Gets Groovy with Jay and Silent Bob

Right - I know you've not seen him for a while, but fear not - the erstwhile Mr Liz is back, for one night only, and undertaking an important cinema assignmennt...

It's been virtually twenty years since Kevin Smith’s directorial debut Clerks introduced the world to Jay and Silent Bob – hereon in called J&SB. The stoner slackers have since gone on to be an American cultural phenomenon appearing to a greater or lesser extent in a further six films, an animated TV series, various music videos and a series of comic books.

After a near eight year gap Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes return the characters to the screen in 'Jay and Silent Bob's Super Groovy Cartoon Movie', based upon a short story written to accompany the 2001 film Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (J&SBSB). It features Jason Mewes’ debut as a producer in a film that he arbitrarily decided would have a budget of $69,000 not so much because he thought that’s how much it would cost, nope just because he thought it would be a funny number to make a film with.

In the new film, that successfully riffs on a number of classics such as Tim Burton’s Batman, Back To The Future and Star Wars, the lovable stoners are about to take part in a Captain America style medical experiment in order to gain the necessary super powers to become crime fighters in real life. Through an aversion to needles they back out at the last minute and instead buy some lottery scratch cards. One ten million dollar lottery pay-out later our dysfunctional duo set themselves up as crime fighters protecting Redbank, New Jersey aided and abetted by author Neil Gaiman’s turn as Albert the man servant.

As any comic book aficionado knows, every superhero needs a collection of supervillains to pit their wits against and J&SB do not disappoint in this respect. Here the potty-mouthed principals of the picture have to deal with such evil doers as Cock Knocker, Dick Head the Teutonic Todger (Ralph Garman channelling his inner Arnold), Lipstick Lesbian, Newsgroup and The Diddler. Many of the cast will be familiar to fans of Kevin Smith’s previous films and includes such luminaries as Eliza Dushku (J&SBSB), Smith’s real life partner Jennifer Schwalbach-Smith (J&SBSB, Zack & Miri) and Stan Lee (Mallrats) along with a few additional unexpected cameos, including a welcome return from someone who ‘wasn’t even supposed to be here today’.

Incidentally, ensure that you watch until the very end of the credits for a special surprise.

But the film was only half of the evening.

Following on was a live recording of the podcast ‘Jay & Silent Bob Get Old’ alongside a question and answer session with Kevin and Jason. The podcast was primarily a discussion about recent events combined with questions from the audience allowing Kevin and Jason to express opinions on pretty much any subject you could care to name in an entertaining and often profanity strewn manner. I should state that Kevin is most definitely not as silent as the ‘Silent Bob’ moniker would suggest and the pair waxed lyrical on all subjects ranging from a flatulence strewn anecdote of a five hour journey up the M6 from Bristol to Jason Mewes activities on a Parisian hotel balcony with his wife via Kevin pushing the boundaries of a non-disclosure agreement he signed during a recent trip to the set of the new Star Wars film.

Jason Mewes acts as a foil to Smith’s discussions and often had the audience in hysterics with his actions as much as his words while also offering moments of extreme intimacy when discussing his well-publicised battles with drugs and alcohol (at the time of writing he’s been clean and sober for four years and one day) along with the support that Kevin has given him in overcoming his demons.

Generally you’ll get Kevin Smith or you won’t. Personally I’ve always felt that I have a lot in common with him, after all we’re approximately the same age, have a great love of comic books, have both worked in convenience stores at various times in our past and the Star Wars Trilogy remains a great part of our lives. OK, so maybe I was a bigger fan of Judge Dredd than Batman but that can probably be excused especially as at one stage in the evening Kevin Smith sang about what he would have been like had he been a Mancunian in the early 80’s rather than a New Jersey native. Although it must be said his accent, at this point, owed more to Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins than any Mancunian I’ve ever heard.

So overall a fantastic evening and I’ll certainly be first in line to buy the film once released in the UK later this year, but I do accept that his humour may not be to everyone’s taste. If you get the opportunity to see them live or on one on the multitude of DVD releases in this format then I whole heartedly suggest that you take it, however for those of you who may be a touch unsure you may want to try downloading some of his free podcasts first. You may end up loving him, you may end up hating him, but you certainly can’t ignore him.

More information on Kevin, Jason and the rest of the ViewAskew team is available on or you could just follow their twitter feeds @ThatKevinSmith and @JayMewes for film updates and details of their latest podcasts.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Guest Blog Post, in which Elixir Manchester Lure Olivia into their Garden of Earthly Delights

Last Friday, Elixir on Manchester's Deansgate hosted a fun packed gathering full of VIPs and celebrities alike. When I was asked to cover this event, initially, my thoughts were sensible and responsible… “I better not, I’m getting married in 4 weeks and there’s a lot to do” and “this is the first weekend I have had some free time in ages, I better get organised” … of course, this thought process lasted for all of like 3 seconds… “I’m in, yeah why the hell not, how many sleeps?! *highlights date in diary*

I decided it was probably about time I asked my husband-to-be to something, so I asked if he’d like to come along and spend some very rare time quality time with me. His response?... a firm YES, he even used the term ‘excited’, a term which rarely passes his lips (other than if it's to do with sport). I do fear that it wasn’t the proposal of spending time with me, but the irresistible invitation to a magnificent garden-inspired party that caused this reaction.

So, along we went and boy are we glad we did…

On arrival, I stepped into the garden and adorned myself with daisy chains as we were greeted by some of the lovely staff of Elixir. We were then lucky enough to begin our night by sampling some of the cocktails in the 'Starchaser'… An awesome campervan which turned out to be extremely popular, so popular in fact that some tourists on a passing bus couldn’t resist the opportunity to get their cameras out and snap away at the shiny red mobile. And it certainly caught the eyes of passers-by on the pavement as they looked on in awe of the campervan and what we were drinking in this beauty…

Forget Me Not- a delectable concoction of Violet Liqueur, Lavender Syrup, Cranberry & Lemon accompanied by a chilled Prosecco miniature. You get a full miniature bottle of Prosecco with this for £10.50, great value for a cocktail with enough Prosecco for a second glass!

Jasmine Cascade- a fragrant potion of Bloom Gin, Green Chartreuse, Jasmine Syrup, Lemon, Apple & a Sprig of Rosemary, infused over cascading dry ice & billowing Jasmine essential oil.

And so it was time to leave the campervan and go and see what this fun packed gathering was all about. We managed to bag ourselves a booth and within minutes we were chilling out to the party vibes and were faced with even more exciting garden-themed cocktails…

Flutter Bye- Served on a mini lawn with edible butterflies and a gorgeous chocolate ladybird. Another cocktail from ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ menu, containing Stolichnaya Citrus Vodka, Elderflower & Rose Liqueur, Egg White & Apple Juice.

Rambling Bramble- Everyone loves a good bramble but this is not just any bramble, it comes with its very own mini bottle of Chambord!

Pure white Grain Spirit, Juniper & Sage Syrup, Lemon Juice & a float-your-own Chambord Miniature, finished with a Bramble Jelly Skewer.

The Bee Keeper- A refreshing combination of Gin, Apple Liqueur, Honey, Apple & Lemon Juice garnished with an Organic Royal Jelly injection.

I just love how all the cocktails on this menu are a little different and include something which make them so individual, from miniature bottles of Chambord to mini edible beasts. The new floral themed cocktail menu is exciting and unique, so, if you’re out and about this weekend, be sure to take some time to check Elixir out!