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Monday, 28 December 2015

Cheese & Wine Tasting with Manchester Wine School: Being Educated Never Tasted So Good

Now, whilst it is not absolutely necessary to partner cheese with wine, it can't be denied that they make very happy bedfellows. Of course, it's not always practical to do so, tempting as it might be to whip out a nice Pinot Noir to go with the cheese butties you're consuming at your desk, but like some ever-so-predictable Pavlovian dog, I seem genetically pre-programmed to crave one when I have the other.

I was excited, then, to go along to the Cheese and Wine tasting session hosted by Manchester Wine School at Jury's Inn just before Christmas, in the hope of learning some new matches and maintaining a knowledgeable expression whilst simultaneously drinking as much as possible. I've met Lisa from Manchester Wine School before, through the excellent masterclasses she runs at the annual Three Wine Men Festival, but this was the first of her own events I've actually been to. She makes for a genial host, managing to be both knowledgeable and entirely normal, happy to chat about the wines that she likes and the best places to buy them; she'd also chosen some perfect wine and cheese matches. In fact, the hardest part of the evening was arriving slightly early and having to resist the plate of cheese that was already laid out so enticingly at each place. She started with a general discussion on how to taste wine, much of which I've heard before at other similar events, but she did genuinely tell me lots of things I didn't already know - she is brilliant on the different wine regions and how to choose good-value alternatives to the best-known ones (and has already emailed me some suggestions). She is also completely independent as she does not sell any wines herself - essentially, she shops for things she likes and then we drink it.

We tried six pairings during the two hour session:

1. Les Floriandes Touraine Sauvignon Blanc (from M & S) with Gorwydd Caerphilly (all cheese provided by Hickson and Blacks in Chorlton). This wine was my least favourite of the night - I find Sauvignon Blanc can be a little tasteless, and this one didn't bowl me over. The cheese, though, was lovely - I wouldn't normally buy Caerphilly but this one was creamy rather than crumbly and lacked the slight dryness that sometimes comes with this kind of cheese.

2. Mystery Hill Chardonnay (Ocado) with Aarenwasser. I'm very partial to Chardonnay, and feel it gets rather a bad deal sometimes at the hands of the wine snobs - I would certainly buy this soft peachy number if I could afford to shop at Ocado (although to be fair, the wine is a pretty reasonable £9.99). Another good cheese choice - a semi-soft Swiss cheese with a sweet nuttiness - and I'd surreptitiously eaten half of my piece before Lisa had finished talking.

3. Luis Felipe Edwards Viognier Reserva (Majestic) with Schlossberger. One of my favourite matches of the night. I actively seek out Viognier, and this aromatic, fruity version from Chile was no disappointment (and great value at £8.99). The cheese, another from Switzerland although this time a hard one, was a revelation - I shall definitely be purchasing this one, partly for the pleasure of eating it and partly for the pleasure of repeating the word "Schlossberger" many times over.

4. Callia Malbec (Majestic) with Oakwood Smoked. On to the reds with a nice fruity Argentine Malbec, partnered by Oakwood smoked Cheddar from Dorset. I'm not normally a fan of smoked cheese but the slight smokiness of the wine made eating this an absolute pleasure.

5. MontPierre Reserve Fitou (Sainsburys) with Cantal AOC. I do actually already buy this slightly flinty, good-value (£7.50) wine but had never had Cantal before - a hard French cheese a little like an earthy Cheddar. Another good match.

6. Sister's Run Barossa Shiraz (Tesco) with Cropwell Bishop Stilton. A good, hefty Australian Shiraz to finish - and as it was paired with the wondrous Cropwell Bishop this was unsurprisingly many people's favourite combination of the night.

The two hours passed very quickly - this was an extremely convivial evening with two long communal tables populated with nice people genially sharing out any of the leftovers in each bottle of wine and trying to eat their cheese in a polite manner. The night was good value at £30 a head (wine quantities were generous, and although I could have managed a little more cheese, I always can and am therefore not necessarily a reliable yardstick) and I would certainly go to more of Manchester Wine School's events - Lisa offers a mind-boggling array of options including eight week courses, corporate events and WSET qualifications (full details here on her website). After all, what could be better than spending a day drinking wine and quite legitimately label it educational? Lifelong learning has never been so much fun.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Festive Crafternoon Tea with Vintage Afternoon Teas and French Knots Craft Studio: Wonky Robins ALL THE RAGE

It is absolutely not a case of false modesty when I say that I cannot sew. I'm reasonably certain that there is a vital link missing between my brain and my fingers: the link responsible for carrying out crafty activities such as knitting, and crochet, and threading sewing machines, as well as more practical things like wiring plugs and, erm, linking sausages (as Bobby's Bangers Sausage School will confirm). So whilst I liked the look of the Christmassy collaboration between the lovely Zoe from Vintage Afternoon Teas and the equally lovely Jo from French Knots Craft Studio, I did not initially think it was for me, due to the inclusion of an alarming interlude where one would make one's own robin decoration for the Christmas tree. Still, as Zoe helpfully pointed out that what I lack in needlework skills, I more than make up for in cake-eating ability, I enlisted the company of a friend who can sew and set off to a village hall in Dunham Massey to make my very own wonky robin.

And unbelievably, thanks to Jo's patience, the robin wasn't even that wonky - a minor miracle considering that large quantities of mulled wine appeared the moment we sat down at the long communal table covered with pretty scraps of material, buttons, needles and myriad different coloured threads (note to self: it is apparently easier to thread a needle after two glasses of wine). We began by cutting our robins out of felt using the templates provided, and then had free rein to decorate however we saw fit; I actually really enjoyed cutting out little pieces of material and amateurishly applying them to my robin, for whom I felt a shameful fondness as soon as he began to take shape. Jo and her team of helpers were on hand with lots of advice and encouragement but - hand on heart - the only bit I had to have help with were his legs. I found the whole process exhausting (I am not good at concentration, and people were laying out an afternoon tea behind me) but am genuinely both proud and fond of my little bird, seen here below with his new best friend.

Then - hurrah - it was teatime. Vintage Afternoon Teas have been around since 2010 and specialise in providing (you guessed it) afternoon teas for events from weddings to hen parties, and won "Best Event Service" at the National Vintage Awards in 2014. It's fairly easy to see why - everything is homemade and served on beautiful vintage china (I wanted the teapot, but had neglected to bring a large enough handbag), and Zoe's idea of serving size is clearly similar to my own. The finger sandwiches - turkey and stuffing, Brie and cranberry, smoked salmon and cream cheese, egg mayonnaise - were nice substantial affairs, and my friend and I, both experts on the matter, deemed the egg sandwiches amongst the very finest of their ilk that we have ever been pleased to consume. There was a scone each with jam and cream, mince pies (I took mine home, lest I burst), florentines, a show-stopping mulled wine bundt cake and a spectacular red velvet cake which I was too full to partake of. Tea was kept generously topped up throughout and Zoe had even helpfully brought plastic bags to allow the greedier amongst us to take the leftovers home.

In short, the whole thing was marvellous - a properly festive, good-value occasion (£30 per head) where, for once, I actually exercised some skills other than those required for stuffing my face. I would go out of my way to attend another event where the Vintage Teas were catering and, even more terrifyingly, I am seriously considering attending another of Jo's sewing workshops. Now I've mastered the art of the wonky robin, the world is surely my oyster.

- You can find out more about French Knots Craft Studio here - Jo runs a whole raft of classes from her studio in Sale - and more about the Vintage Afternoon Teas here (sign up to the newsletter and Zoe will send you the recipe for the mulled wine bundt cake, which you can then make for me).

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Pier Eight Bar & Restaurant, Salford Quays: The Lowry Theatre Finally Gets the Restaurant it Deserves

I've long been an admirer of the Lowry, which I consider to be an excellent example of a modern, purpose-built theatre - two differently sized performance areas with very comfy seats, in a super-stylish building with great views and convenient parking. They also have Lowry paintings there, and an interesting programme of high-quality productions, and a ruinously tempting giftshop. What the Lowry hasn't had - until now - is a decent restaurant, the sort of place you make time to visit before a show because you want to eat there rather than being forced from necessity to forage for food before embarking on a three hour opera; indeed, I must confess to more often grabbing a burger at the nearby Lime rather than eat in the Lowry's own restaurant.

Thankfully, that's all changed now with the opening of Pier Eight. This is the Lowry's new bar/restaurant area, and they've worked wonders with the old space, borrowing some of the outdoor area and creating a new venue with its own separate entrance that should lure in locals, shoppers and workers as well as theatregoers. The menu is a total and utter charmer - not exactly groundbreaking, perhaps, but full of things I would like to eat and which show a real understanding of how to combine ingredients to good effect as well as a few touches of finesse here and there. We'd spent the morning Christmas shopping at the Lowry Outlet Mall, and the boyfriend's reward was a mighty starter of black pudding, crispy egg, tomato chutney, creme fraiche and celery salad - an absolute steal at £6. I appreciate it's not difficult to fry sliced black pudding, but the quantities were generous and the perfectly runny egg encased in crisp crumb coating elevated this dish to something really quite classy. That said, there was a great deal of chutney, and while its sweetness went well with the richly savoury black pudding, some of it did prove superfluous. Meanwhile, I had a most elegant dish of scallops with cauliflower purée, bacon, lentils and smoked red wine sauce, which was as dainty as the black pudding was hearty - two plump scallops beautifully cooked and served with a deeply earthy little pile of lentils. I would never have thought of serving scallops with a red wine sauce but it really worked.

The mains were similarly well-balanced in terms of flavours and textures. One of the features of the menu is that the meat dishes tend to include two different cuts or techniques of the animal in question; thus my fillet steak came with a hefty cube of falling-apart-tender braised blade as well as bubble & squeak, artichoke purée, buttered spinach (cunningly disguised as a sprout) and braising sauce. I would have liked my steak a little rarer; when I ordered, I was asked if I was happy for it to be served pink, suggesting that some of their previous clientele prefer a more well-done steak, and I would indeed have liked it even more pink. Still, next time I would simply emphasise this when ordering. To recover from his meaty starter, my lunch date chose Scottish salmon with parsley crust, rosti potato, white beans, celeriac, cockles and shallot cream sauce, another interesting dish that benefitted from its thoughtful partnering of ingredients, particularly the shatteringly crisp fish skin with its fresh green crust again the rich creamy blandness of the beans.

We were very full by this point, but the cheeseboard was quite simply irresistible: Lancashire Bomber, Garstang Blue, Lincolnshire poacher, poached pear, celery and biscuits is my idea of a quality selection - three excellent British (and mostly local) cheeses served at the correct temperature in generous wedges with crackers and more of that lovely tomato chutney we met during the starter course. I've never been beaten by a cheeseboard before, but the generous quantities defeated our enthusiastic joint effort; you will believe me when I say I've rued the cheese I couldn't eat every day since.

Overall, we were impressed. The staff are young and friendly and enthusiastic about the menu, and the views from our table across to the War Museum were most impressive (and it was an unseasonably sunny day, hence the slightly phallic shadow cast by the crispy egg). We thought prices were very reasonable, and although we had the car and therefore weren't really drinking, the wine list offers plenty by the glass and the glass of Chardonnay I had was very good value for something that slipped down so easily. We're already planning our next visit - and I reckon if I'm good for an entire visit round the Imperial War Museum I reckon I'll have earned crispy egg AND cheese...

- Pier Eight Restaurant is at the Lowry Theatre, Pier 8, Salford Quays M50 3AZ. They offer a bar menu and fixed price menus as well as the a la carte that we tried.

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Paul Hollywood: Making Bread So I Don't Have To

There are plenty of foods with which I cannot trust myself to behave, but bread ranks amongst the very highest. My weakness for decent dough is potentially catastrophic, and has to be kept in check through a complex balancing act of abstinence and concession; I once did the Atkins diet for two whole weeks before acknowledging it really wasn't for me, recognition coming when I fell firmly off the no-carbs wagon and rampaged around the house with half a loaf of wholemeal clamped between my rabid jaws. Now I permit myself good bread as a regular treat, and often wish I was the type of person to whip up a batch of baked goods every morning, being a firm believer in the superior scent, taste and texture of bread fresh from the oven.

Of course, one may now cheat in this regard, through the purchase of part-baked bread that can simply be thrown in the oven for ten minutes or so and then whipped out again to triumphant effect. Paul Hollywood - the silver fox of Great British Bake Off renown - has thrown his hat into this particular arena (there must be a joke in here somewhere about a bun fight) and launched his own range of part-cooked rolls bearing his name and, presumably, his seal of approval. I always wonder just how much involvement celebrities really have with the ranges they endorse, but the Paul Hollywood bread rolls are certainly very nice - I tried the whole range, which at present comprises flour-dusted wheatsheaf crusty rolls, a mixed pack of poppy and sesame seed topped rolls (3 of each) and a mixed pack of multiseed (linseed, sunflower, millet and sesame seeds), 3 blended and 3 topped, all in packs of six. These are apparently developed from Paul's own special recipes, and each uses a slow fermented starter (a blend of flour, water and yeast) which has been fermented for several hours before being added to the main dough and which apparently delivers a richer flavour. Whether this is true or not, I really cannot say - I consider myself lucky if I can find some yeast in the cupboard that has an expiry date within the last five years - but I can observe that the packaging keeps them fresh for ages and that ten minutes in the oven produces some pretty decent rolls that are crusty on the outside and soft and doughy within. As you can see, I employed my rolls for a range of sophisticated meal options, including an excellent fish finger butty and a bacon, mushroom, rocket and blue cheese birthday breakfast made by a passing boy who is now very securely in the good books.

Would I buy them again? Maybe, yes. I'd like a bit more versatility in the range - the rolls are all the same size and shape - but I think these are decent value at £1.49 a pack and are a useful thing to have knocking around in case of emergency bacon sandwich cravings, which may well have passed in the time it would take me to produce a vague equivalent. These were sent to me for review/greed purposes but are available from most major supermarkets.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Posh Pickles and Preserves: Christmas Comes Early

Much as I love Christmas, I've always been of the school of thought that it shouldn't really start before December - all this Christmas-in-November business has always felt just a little premature, like eating all the chocolates from one's advent calendar and then suffering from a potent mixture of shame and gluttony. Every year it gets harder to resist though; take last Saturday morning as an example. I was already vulnerable, having forbidden myself to watch The Muppets Christmas Carol on the Sky Christmas Channel, and when the parcel of Christmas goodies arrived from Cheshire-based Posh Pickles and Preserves it really seemed a sign that I should wait no longer.

I'm an absolute sucker for festive food. I love all the flavours of Christmas and would eat them all year round if I could - sprouts, chestnuts, cinnamon, booze-steeped fruits...I honestly get excited just thinking about such things. And as if decreed by fate, the first jar out of the box was the Mulled Wine Christmas Punch Preserve, a loosely-set jam made with plums, apples, red wine, orange juice and peel, and a whole host of Christmassy spices; in short, it was my idea of heaven, and I'd like to pretend that I didn't eat a good portion of it straight from the jar with a spoon. Other Christmas treats included the Cranberry Sauce with Juniper Berries and Ruby Port, a nicely tart preserve which again was strong on festive flavours like cinnamon, cloves and ginger, and the Strawberry and Champagne Celebration Jam - like the Mulled Wine Preserve, this was an example of that rarest of things, a jam with booze that you can actually taste. I include a photograph here, not so that you may scoff at the unimaginative way in which I consumed this jam, but so that you may admire its beautiful scarlet hue.

Posh Pickles & Preserves began life in 2005 when founder Stephanie Bath was undergoing kidney dialysis, and has gone from strength to strength ever since, winning the Prince’s Trust Award for Business Success in 2006 and Outstanding Business Achievement Award in 2007. Steph clearly has a nose for an interesting flavour combination (as well as a liberal pouring arm with the booze) - I've tried her pickles before, and was particularly taken with the Bloody Mary Chutney, a winning combination of tomatoes, Bloody Mary spices (chilli, Tabasco, Worcester sauce) along with a good glug of vodka that was quite honestly made to go with cheese. Also very versatile is the bestselling Vietnamese Lemongrass and Chilli Relish, a punchy sauce that I found useful as a cooking sauce and marinade as well as a pickle; be careful though - this one is very garlicky and is therefore not recommended for potentially romantic occasions.

As well as approving of these interesting flavours, I like that neither the jams nor the chutneys are too sweet. The Sweet Mango and Cheshire Apple Chutney is not remotely cloying thanks to the inclusion of generous quantities of chilli, mustard seeds and ginger, and was very happy made into a wrap with some cold roast chicken, rocket and mayonnaise. The Raspberry Jam is satisfyingly pippy, and the Sticky Pear and Ginger Jam is well-balanced and tempered with a hint of lemon. I plan to buy a large jar of this latter item and make some kind of interesting cake with it, as I think the flavours would work perfectly.

I've always wanted to be the sort of woman who makes her own jam and chutney but, quite frankly, I'm not and never will be; luckily, Steph is, and makes these lovely things in small batch pans so that we can pretend that we did it instead. Posh Pickles also donate money to the National Kidney Federation - a charity close to Steph's heart - from the sales of their chutney, so really, it's a moral duty to purchase it if we are to consider ourselves community-minded citizens. The full range is available from their website - I suggest you have a look and treat yourself to some Christmas cheer immediately even if it is still November.

- Steph sent me some mini jars to try but was very clear that I was under no obligation to write anything nice about them (or indeed, anything at all). They really are nice though.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Robert Owen Brown and Inca Pop-Ups Join Forces at Manchester's Proper Tea

It's little wonder that Manchester still can't get enough of the Pop Up, whether this be a one-off supper club or full-on restaurant. I've never been completely convinced by street food, thanks to the whole eating-whilst-standing-up-and-often-as-not-in-the-pouring-rain thing, but can fully understand that opening a permanent restaurant is a financial commitment beyond most people's reach, particularly with rents and rates in Manchester requiring a pretty sharp turnover right from the off. Common sense, then, to make use of an existing venue in order to spread the costs, a little like a foodie time-share - and that's exactly what happened last Saturday night, when a room full of people were able to sit comfortably in the beautiful Proper Tea and enjoy an excellent one-off menu from Robert Owen Brown without worrying about getting coleslaw in their hair or rain in their shoes. The supper club had originally been planned to take place in Chapter One Books in the Northern Quarter, but a last minute glitch meant Proper Tea stepping in to save the day, and whilst I was sad not to eat surrounded by books, the new venue was pretty much ideal (long walk to the toilet aside). Anyway, my friend had brought me along the Hawksmoor at Home cookbook for a birthday present, so I was able to pretend I was indeed in a bookshop, albeit one with a very small stock selection.

I previewed the menu here a few weeks ago, and it didn't disappoint - although I had warned a trepidatious boyfriend, a first time visitor to a Robert Owen Brown event, about the likelihood of the presence of animal unmentionables that didn't in the end materialise. Instead we were treated to a sophisticated succession of courses showcasing the pleasures of game - the rabbit consomme was a simple yet delicious clear stock peppered with chunks of meat and crunchy mini dumplings; the pigeon was cooked pink and served thinly sliced with sweet chestnuts and crispy parsnips that really complemented its rich flavour; and the roast partridge sat happily on a bed of wild mushrooms and caramelised onion. The dark chocolate tart could have been a little more bitter for me, but I don't really have a sweet tooth and in any case was saving myself for the final course of the night - the white port-soaked Garstang cheese was everything I hoped it would be and more, and the sweet waffles with which Rob served it were a revelation. And just when I thought I couldn't eat any more, the lovely Claire from Inca Pop Ups (who knew it was my birthday) appeared with a plate of cakes and everyone sang to me - just the perfect end to a fab evening. Mention must also go to Nic from Reserve Wines, who had chosen some great drinks for the evening - we really enjoyed a Rioja priced at a very reasonable £15 a bottle.

This is the first event I've been to organised by Inca Pop Ups but I will definitely be going to more - it's always a pleasure to see Rob but as well as his cooking the evening was really well organised and offered very good value for money. Keep an eye on Eventbrite for their forthcoming events - the next is on the 28th November and features another collaboration with Rob, this time in Alderley Edge. I can't go to this one - but with a menu including a "bird in a bird, in a bird, sat in a pear tree", it's frankly your duty to go along and take a few photos to share with the rest of us...

Wednesday, 11 November 2015

The Cake and Bake Show Returns to Manchester for 2015

As we approach the season when it becomes perfectly acceptable to consume baked goods at any and indeed every meal, it seems only fitting for the Cake and Bake Show to take up its annual Manchester residency in its new time slot and location. The four day celebration of all things cake kicks off tomorrow at EventCity, and promises a whole range of well-known faces - including new national heroine Nadiya Hussain, who so recently made us all hungry every Wednesday evening on the Great British Bake Off. Other celebs hovering round the cake this weekend include Gregg Wallace (no surprise there then), Lisa Faulkner, Rosemary Shrager, Phil Vickery and Eric Lanlard; truth be told though, stellar as the line-up invariably is, I rarely see many of the demonstrations as I'm too busy wandering round the exhibitor stalls (sporting, of course, a cross-body bag in order to leave both hands free for sampling).

The exact format changes every year, but you can find a full list of exhibitors and visiting experts here on the Cake and Bake Show website, and read all about the 2013 show here. One of the highlights of this year's show looks to be the story book cake display created by food artist Jacqui Kelly and featuring life-size characters including my own personal favourite Paddington Bear. You may wish to enjoy the photograph shown here of Jacqui's beautiful cake - or indeed go and see it for yourself - before I run into it face first on Saturday and consume half a sugar bear quicker than you can say Aunt Lucy.

- The Cake and Bake Show is a great day out for those of a greedy and/or excitable persuasion, and this year looks to be even better value as your Cake and Bake Show ticket will also gain you entry to the Ideal Home Show taking place concurrently. Adult tickets will cost £15 on the door - for full details check the website, as certain concessions are available. SEE YOU BY ALL THE CAKE.

Monday, 2 November 2015

New Guest Post: A New Look for Manchester's Walrus and Tusk Bars

Sometimes, real life (and the kind of employment that actually pays the mortgage) gets in the way of lovely blog events. I'm very lucky, then, to have several excellent guest bloggers who are happy to take one for the team and drink wine on my behalf (although this feels less lucky when said guest blogger sends you photos of his o'er-flowing wine chalice whilst you are still at work). Still, it's fitting that for this, my 600th post, I hand the reins over to the fragrant Chris, who has been having a lovely time at the re-launch of Walrus and Tusk in the Northern Quarter...

As the NQ appears to go from strength to strength and with the whole area appearing to have a renaissance over the last 6 months or so (in my humble opinion), it makes sense for Walrus and its next-door neighbour Tusk to continue to keep themselves fresh.

So as autumn sets in, it was nice to pop along tonight to the unveiling of their half a million pound relaunch, yes, that’s right, £500,000! With such a generous spend on another relaunch, you maybe thinking that it has changed its target market and is looking to a different clientele, and based on the plush new interior, you could think this to be true.

The new theme of copper and wood (and plush leather booths) does give it a wow factor. The booths are incredibly comfortable, especially when looking out into the dark night at the flame throwers who were called into action for last week's launch party (and cuddling a new cocktail), and are perfect for groups of 4-6 or maybe a couple more if we are getting intimate! This, coupled with the extensive spirits, bottled beers, ales and cocktail menu, makes Walrus a great venue to kick your night off.

If you were to invite Walrus into your itinerary, you would be pleasantly surprised with the prices too. The food menu is very reasonably priced and is perfect for small bites, sliders, sharers and, for those thin-crusted pizza lovers, a decent range of pizzas. My personal favourites were the breakfast pizza and the chicken burger (£9.95). There is also an impressive range of classic “mix ups”, or cocktails, including The Bohemian Mojito (spiced rum and ginger) and my favourite of the night, The Solero (vodka based with passionfruit, vanilla and mango), both £7.50. Draft beer isn’t on offer at Walrus, but there’s plenty of branded bottles beers and some unique ales offered, so you wouldn’t go without.

There is a definite look and feel of style in the design of Walrus, and not a theme that is currently repeated within the ever changing NQ. Offering such a simple [yet tasty] food menu, and a perfect place to start your night out, I just hope that with such a large spend on Walrus and Tusk (much darker and moodier (in a good way)), it manages to be a success.

- Walrus is at 78-88 High Street, Northern Quarter, Manchester M4 1ES.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Brick or Treat and Spooky Seas: Half Term Fun at Legoland Discovery Centre and Sea Life Manchester

By and large, I am not envious of people who are parents. It does have to be said, though, that there are some pretty amazing things out there for kids to do, and I am occasionally envious of these. So here's guest blogger Tim to tell us about two frankly brilliant places to take your children this half term...

Certain principles of mine have been realigned after becoming a parent. Some were strengthened; spending money, for example, requires a more disciplined approach, as does alcohol consumption. Certainly on weekdays. Other principles might, for the sake of my child's pleasure and sleep, benefit from a little loosening. Take Zoos; any qualms about the wellbeing of proud, exotic, noble giant cats born and raised in Lancashire captivity are put aside in favour of my daughter's spellbound smile. My objection to clothes produced in ethically questionable conditions has retreated at the advance of a toddler's growth rate and tendency to return from nursery covered in paint, mud and spaghetti hoop juice. Concessions must be made to ensure a bundle of joy's happiness. And cleanliness.

So it was that I, amoral and standard-free parent of one, found myself journeying to the Trafford Centre on a Saturday morning. Another principle forgotten. Another "I'll never do" done. And why? For the entertainment of my two year old daughter and her best friend. Truthfully, there are few better reasons.

Our first port of call was Sealife, Manchester's primary (I think only) centre dedicated to the wonders of marine biology. I've always found it a bit strange that Manchester, a city that resorted to building a huge canal to bypass the fact it was very much inland, should host a Sealife centre. We've actually visited it before and enjoyed it but wanted to take the opportunity to go back with our daughter a little older and to check out the Halloween displays which form part of this week's Spooky Seas event.

The experience began with a lovely talk and display about turtles and the conservation efforts around them. The scene was beautifully lit, with effects that enchanted the girls and made them (even more) excited for the day ahead. The bulk of the centre is, of course, based on various tanks full of weird and wonderful fish. Now, even though the girls didn't (and still don't) know their stingrays from their sticklebacks, they charged about enthusiastically and did spend lots of time observing the amazing creatures on show, faces pressed against the glass, genuinely intrigued. Our toddlers were too young to fully appreciate the scope of fish on show, and the educational accessories, but they really enjoyed the environment and the older children there were obviously fascinated by the place. As well as the fish, stingrays, crabs, seahorses (the girls' favourites) and sharks, there were Halloween themed colouring activities, a spooky, I'm a Celebrity inspired tombola, generous goody bags and a soft play area that went down very well. The staff were great, very enthusiastic and welcoming and in all Sealife is a place well keep going back to, confident that our daughter will be more engaged each year. Until she reaches the age where everything is rubbish. But I don't want to think about that right now.

Legoland is just a couple of doors down the way and was very popular, with queues coming out of the door at 10.30am. We'd never been before and didn't really know what to expect, besides Lego. The start of the visit was similar to Sealife - you have your photo taken and then proceed to a short talk by a young, enthusiastic and fun expert. This was less esoteric than its marine counterpart and offered kids the chance to shout, jump up and down and get a free Lego brick. Ticking many boxes.

The next step was a ride. It's a bit like a ghost train except you're taken through a castle landscape that's being attacked by orcs, giant trolls and some resurrected skeletons. Fear not though, your train is equipped with laser pistols with which you are able to fend off said green skins. It's fun, it really is and, to my slight surprise the girls weren't scared but at the end simply yelped the affirming word "Again!"

We pressed on though, through a Mini-World exhibition that, while impressive, was not really suitable for our girls. Certainly not at that time when they just wanted to climb into the display, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the mini-Eiffel Tower my daughter darted towards. Older, more rational children were much more suitably appreciative.

The main room of Legoland boasts several activities, such as go-karts and another soft play area that our two darted for feverishly. By this stage they were in that familiar toddler state: tired, shattered, mardy but having so much fun the suggestion of going home was met with howls and sitdown protests. As a result we missed out on many of the activities available but there was a great buzz about the place, with kids clearly having a huge amount of fun. It was the kind of place you could easily spend a day in, with several hours worth of play arenas to choose from and a restaurant at hand. There was also ample seating for adults, which I imagine was entirely necessary given the cheerful chaos of the room.

Ultimately the fun was all too much for our little ones, who we coaxed back to the car via the Legoland shop, nude statues, fountains and a tasty round of croissants at a nearby cafe. Predictably, they weren't long in the car before they were asleep in their seats, sprawled out, gently snoring, perhaps dreaming of boisterous Lego orcs or serene seahorses. Either way, it was the sleep of satisfied children and not for the first time since becoming a dad, my hitherto held principles had been disproved.

Spooky Seas and Brick or Treat are both on until November 1st at Manchester's Trafford Centre.