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Friday, 19 June 2015

Secret Film Society - SE.01 EP.01 Whistle Down the Wind, Downham

I'm not actually a person who likes surprises. I like to know what I'm doing, and where and when I'm doing it - facts which I carefully record in an old-school diary, using my very best writing. So on the face of it, Manchester's new Secret Film Society isn't really for me, packed as it is full of the unknown; essentially, you pay for your ticket knowing only that you're going somewhere to watch a film and get fed. My friends are nothing if not persuasive, however, and thus I found myself loitering in central Manchester at 10.30am last Sunday, waiting for a coach to a mystery location and clutching a slip of paper instructing me (under pains of confiscation and - presumably - public shaming) to turn my phone to airplane mode. Scary days indeed.

Actually, it was all pretty exciting. The coach - full of excitable people with the air of a class released from lessons to go on a school trip - travelled north and it soon became clear that we were heading for Pendle Hill, famous in Lancashire and beyond for its witchy associations (and, hopefully, an ability to screen a film and provide a jolly good tea). More specifically, we were heading for the pretty village of Downham and its cute, bunting-clad village hall, where we parked up before being whisked off for a walk by a man wearing a top hat and cravat. This being England in June, it was quite cold and a bit rainy, but if anything this added to the atmosphere as we trailed after our extravagantly attired guide and listened to tales of witchcraft and persecution, all the while secretly wondering what we'd be having for lunch.

Lunch turned out to be splendid, all the more so as we felt we'd earned it after an hour and a half of tramping through long, damp grass. The caterers were your friends and mine, Bangers and Bacon, always ones to be relied on when one is is hungry and thus a very welcome sight indeed. The starter (bacon and chicken liver pate, ham hock terrine and bread) and main (giant Yorkshire pudding filled with Lancashire hotpot) were served before the film, at tables set up in convivial rows in front of the big screen, which meant that the only requirement to leave one's seat for the entire afternoon was to visit the bar where - astonishingly - wine was £2 a glass. The film, if you hadn't guessed by now, was the 60s classic Whistle Down the Wind, filmed in Downham and starring a dodgy-fringed Hayley Mills as a little girl who thinks Jesus is living in the family barn. This was enjoyable fare, with a pause partway through for apple crumble and custard - to be honest, I think most people were so full and tired and content by this point that it hardly mattered what the film was (that's what you get with a £2 bar).

Any downsides? Well, it sounds petty but the coach was quite spectacularly uncomfortable - I understand that it's tricky to fit 50-ish people on one vehicle but the seats were child-sized at best and necessitated some uncomfortable bottom overhanging that was neither dignified nor attractive. This can no doubt be addressed for next time though, and ultimately I don't think you can be too critical of a day that includes a coach trip, a walk in the rain, a film, a high quality three course lunch, a load of wine, and the opportunity for your best friend to repeatedly call you a witch. I'm still not a fan of surprises...but don't be too surprised if you see me again at Secret Film Society.

- Find out more about the Secret Film Society (although they're quite mean, and won't tell you everything, no matter how many times you ask them) via their Facebook page here. I was invited along as a guest but only asked to provide honest feedback.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

The Grill on the Alley, Manchester: Superb Steak and Surprisingly Fabulous Fish

When you're booked in for dinner at The Grill on the Alley and your friend suddenly announces they've given up meat for two months, it's hard not to feel somewhat annoyed. After all, Grill on the Alley is known for its steaks - some of the finest in the city - and was surely crying out for a meaty re-visit in the face of stiff new competition from an array of newcomers (including the mighty Hawksmoor). Despite an initial urge to ditch the original plus-one and take a more carnivorous alternative, The Awkward One assured me he was still eating fish and that this would be a good opportunity to see what the place could offer besides steak - and thus kept his place by the skin of his teeth.

Turned out to be a good move. After a quick round of emergency bread (with chorizo butter, which was every bit as exciting as it sounds), we shared two fish starters: the Torched Mackerel with gem salad and pickled vegetables, and the Prawn and Avocado Salad with Marie Rose sauce (as a true 70s child, the latter choice was quite obviously mine). These turned out to be good sharers - mine (which I'd rather laughably ordered as I'd seen the word "salad" and thought it might not fill me up too much before my steak) was essentially half an avocado filled with prawns and a thick, creamy sauce, and though delicious would have been very rich had one eaten it in its entirety. The perky mackerel dish with its grilled gem and nicely acerbic pickled vegetables was just the job to cut through the comforting blandness of the avocado dish and was also very beautiful to look at (until we divided it down the middle). I reckon some will question whether these dishes are cutting edge enough for 2015, but as far as I'm concerned, when food looks and tastes this good I have no problem with tradition.

For mains, I went for the Limousin fillet steak from the Best of British menu. This was not a cheap option at £35, but the restaurant are very proud of this grass-fed, 100% pure breed French option, and seem keen to promote it - no doubt aware that steak provision in the city centre has stepped up a notch in the last twelve months. And yes it's expensive, and yes it's not local, but this was one of the best steaks I've eaten in a good long while - a generally lean cut with a slight marbling of fat that meant that even the fillet cut (sometimes so perfect in texture but so lacking in taste) was packed with flavour. Meanwhile, the non-meaty one was enjoying his Sea Trout with asparagus, roasted cherry tomatoes and bearnaise sauce (£16.75) - a beautiful dish offering a substantial piece of fish, perfectly cooked and very much complemented by the well-rounded flavours of the rich yellow sauce surrounding it. The waiter had recommended he order a side to supplement the dish but in the end the extra chips we ordered weren't really necessary - he found the fish substantial and "meaty" enough in its own right (and enough to keep him away from my steak - a fairly remarkable feat all considered). We also ordered a side of Summer Green Vegetables (I'm all about the health) which were nicely varied and cooked al dente, and a jug of Chimichurri sauce to go with my steak - this latter was exceptional, and at £2 a go I'm tempted to order its fresh, garlicky goodness to go alongside every course next time I eat here.

The only moment of uncertainty with our meal came with desserts. No issue with my cheeseboard, which I had initally considered a little expensive at £9.75 but which turned out to be a shining example of its ilk - three excellent specimens (Butlers cheddar, Lancashire Blue and Crottin goat’s cheese) simply presented in generous portions with crackers and a chutney and made short work of. The one we were less sure of was the Champagne Sorbet - another simple dish (and good value at £4) but one which initially seemed full of discord - a saucer of fizz containing a scoop of slightly acerbic sorbet which appeared at odds with each other, distracting from each other's flavour rather than enhancing. We ignored it for a while while we ate the cheese and then went back to it - finding it much improved once the sorbet had melted a little into the fizz and essentially turned it into the world's poshest coke float. To wash all of this down we had a bottle of Cuma Argentine Malbec from a wine list to which I am very partial, offering as it does lots of very good options around the £20-25 mark. This wine coped perfectly with both the fish and the steak, and was also organic and therefore good for us.

On last week's performance then, Grill on the Alley is very much on form. Service was helpful and non-intrusive, and the fact that the place was pretty much full on a Wednesday night speaks volumes about how well regarded it is amongst Mancunians. It remains one of my favourites despite the wealth of choices now available, and although some options on the menu are not cheap, you get what you pay for - my Limousin steak was every bit as good as the spectacular one I had at Hawksmoor not long ago. And before certain people say "of course you liked it - it was FREE" I'll point out that a/ I've eaten here as a paying customer many many times and b/ we bumped into a friend who had ordered and loved every mouthful of her (paid-for) Limousin fillet. A little competition, it seems, is a glorious thing - and as for the brave pescetarian? Already counting down the days (and hours, and minutes) until Limousin Day.

- The Grill on the Alley is at 5 Ridgefield, Manchester M2 6EG; tel. 0161 833 3465. We were invited by the restaurant and were not asked to pay for our meal or our drinks.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Cuban Mojitos with Havana Club Rum: Where To Get 'Em and the Perfect Recipe

As confessed in my last post, I am really quite wary when it comes to cocktails. But one that I do like is a mojito - a long, sharp, simple drink traditionally made with only five ingredients (white rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water and mint) and therefore (in theory) easy enough even for a cocktail duffer like me to make. All too often though, the mojito is presented in some kind of adulterated form, with all sorts of unnecessary nonsense thrown in - presumably in the name of "innovation" or to appeal to sweeter palates. Now Havana Club - one of the world's best-selling rum brands - are on a mission to teach us how to make the perfect mojito without any of that frippery, and have been travelling the country looking for bars that make the real deal, the kind of mojitos people actually drink in Cuba (although I'll have to take their word for this). Surprisingly, there are only four Manchester bars that have made it on to the Havana Club Certified list - Gorilla, Cloud 23, Neighbourhood and Guilty by Association.

As I was unable to attend a recent mojito masterclass at Gorilla due to being at a glamorous and glittering event elsewhere*, Havana Club kindly sent me my own mojito-making kit to try at home, complete with recipe card, two jaunty tins and a bottle of Havana Club Anejo 3-year-old. Here's their recipe, along with what I hope are helpful additions.

*waiting in at home for a plasterer

Step 1: Squeeze the juice of half a fresh lime into a glass and add two teaspoons of white sugar. Stir with a spoon or swirl the glass around until the sugar is dissolved. I thought I knew better here and used only one spoon of sugar, but I then had to go back and add some more so that just shows you how much I know.

Step 2: Tap two whole fresh mint sprigs on the back of your hand to release the fragrant aromas. I grow mint in my garden all year round for the sole purpose of making emergency mojitos, and can confirm that the tapping motion is also very useful for dislodging small, slumbering insects who have hitherto resided on your mint leaves. Gently muddle (press) the mint a few times with the end of a wooden spoon.

Step 3: Fill the glass with ice. As you can see, I fell down a bit here and didn't have quite enough ice to reach the top. Use the bottle cap to pour four caps of rum over the ice (I must confess to doing this bit freehand), then top up with sparkling water.

The result was lovely (once I'd gone back and added the sugar that should have been there in the first place) and although I've done it in a normal glass here for viewing purposes, I shall be using my Havana Club tins next time. As drinking a mojito in the garden is almost certainly the nearest I'll get to being in Cuba for the forseeable future, it's nice to know I'm doing it right (although I consider further practice is the very least I can do).

For rather better instructions than I've given you here, visit the Havana Club website - if you sign up to their newsletter there's a chance to win your own mojito-making kit as well. Havana Club sent me the kit free of charge but asked only for honest feedback - I can confirm that the three-year-aged rum goes perfectly in a mojito and that the recipe is so foolproof even I can successfully recreate it.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Cocktails in the City, Manchester 2015: Something for Everyone, Even Me

I've mentioned before that I'm not a massive fan of the cocktail in its most general terms. There are some that I like very much - the heady, smoky bourbon affairs that I had recently at The Smithfield Social; the sharp, nicely acidic Mojitos that I whipped up at home last night (more of this another time) - but on the whole, I've had too many bad ones to fully trust the cocktail, being all too familiar with the crushing experience of handing over £8.95 for a sickly sweet concoction that does nothing other than give me a headache and make me feel a bit sick.

All of this perhaps explains why I hadn't been to Cocktails in the City before, a drinks showcase that hits Manchester on an annual basis and brings a number of bars and brands together under one roof. What lured me in this time was the presence of some of my favourite bars coupled with some of my preferred spirits - if you're going to trust anyone to make you a decent cocktail, it might as well be the likes of Harvey Nichols, Hawksmoor and Smithfield Social. This year's venue was in The Great Northern, a cavernous upstairs space that normally hosts events such as Beat Street; we went on the Friday night, and it was utterly, totally packed (a little too packed for me at first - I did feel a little like a confused, 95-year-old interloper until I found my bearings i.e. first drink). Easy to see why though - it's only a tenner in (which also gets you your first cocktail and a booklet of all the recipes) and then additional drinks or food tokens are an extra £6, which seems reasonable for the kind of bars and brands that are here, and there are all sorts of demos and competitions going on as well. The event was a sell-out, with 1,600 people through the doors over both nights and - apparently - a total of 5,203 cocktails consumed (I like how pleasingly precise this figure is, and that it would have been under 5,200 had I not gone).

Our visit was something of a flying one as we were on our way somewhere else, but we sensibly found time for a "Runnin' Wild in Florence" with Wild Turkey at Smithfield Social, a "Botanical Garden" with Botanist Gin at the Second Floor Bar at Harvey Nichols (the addition of thyme was a masterstroke), the scarily blue but surprisingly palatable "Rum 'n' Ginger Sherbert" with El Dorado Rum from Mojo and - my personal favourite - the "Appleton Estate Mai Tai" at Hawksmoor. I genuinely enjoyed ALL of these, so there is perhaps hope for me yet. I did, however, rather ineptly manage to avoid trying any of the winners (apart from one second place), which were later announced as follows:

Best Cocktail (selected by The Drinks Enthusiast Dave Marsland and World Best Bars editor Sasha Filiminov) was Cane and Grain with Old Forester for the "Old and Wild Spiced Smash". The Fitzgerald came second with the Chambord "Smoked French Manhattan" and third was Cloud 23 with Tanqueray No.TEN for "Up, Up and Away". The best Best Stand (voted for by the exhibitors) was won by Mr Coopers with Portobello Road Gin, and the Consumer Vote (voted for over the two nights by handing over a token) saw Elixir & Tonics being the people's favourite with Harvey Nichols and Under New Management coming 2nd and 3rd respectively. It seems clear that next year, I will simply have to try them all.

- apologies for the appalling quality of the photos, which look like I was in some kind of disco - we can perhaps charitably call them "atmospheric". We were given free tickets for the event but paid for our additional drinks.