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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.