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Friday, 19 February 2016

New Guest Blog Post, in which Matt celebrates 20 years of Chorlton's Lead Station

I’ve lived in Manchester on and off for about 12 years and my first flat happened to be in Chorlton. During our initial trip down Beech Road, we first remarked that it was very different to anywhere else in Chorlton, and I piped up with ‘Looks like this is the Chelsea of the North’ (I’ll let you make your own minds up on this one). I’m a little bit addicted to eggs and, needing some kind of breakfast, on our meandering we came across the Lead Station. There was a whole leafy street to explore but we thought if we were going to spend a lot of time eating around Chorlton we might as well start here, particularly since its former-police-station location is so unusual and so inviting. Now it was 12 years ago but from what I remember the food was good and when I was asked to go back there for the launch of their 20 year cookbook, I first thought, ‘Blimey where has the time gone’ and my second thought was ‘Why the hell haven’t I been back here for 12 years?’ (Now after writing this I remember my City-loving friend and I stopped off for lunch last summer, but still, the point remains.)

Anyway, enough of this nostalgia. I arrived for the 20 year celebration dinner and cookbook launch and was greeted with a really tasty mini fish and chips in a small cone. I love canapes and this really hit the spot - to be honest I could have eaten at least 8 of them. We all sat down in the back room and were greeted by Nick, the Lead Station’s owner. The menu looked appetizing and we got to choose from a selection of starters, mains and puds - for my first course I went for Grilled Goats Cheese with Sesame Seed & Balsamic Beetroot. Beetroot and Goats Cheese is a magical combination (which I probably eat 3-4 times a week) and it was nice to see it was on a measured piece of toasted bread - this is a classic way to serve it in France and I was glad to see it here as I don’t find it in many places. The sesame added a nice balance to the rich, earthy beetroot. I did manage to pilfer a little morsel of the Crab & Prawn Spring Rolls which were plump and meaty, and the Vietnamese Dipping Sauce was really moreish.

Any dish that has peas, pea puree, or any pea combination I will always order, so I couldn’t resist the Seabass & Scallops with Pea & Mint Puree with Pea Shoots. I’m not sure about you but I like the roe from the scallops being included in the dish, as they give a slight saltiness to the plump, sweet pan-fried scallops. The sea bass was perfectly cooked and the very generous portion of scallops was a lovely match paired with the creamy, rich pea puree. A big dish in every respect so I think it could have done with a little jug/helping of citrus buerre blanc to really marry the rich flavours. But all in all I’d order that dish again (and cook it as it’s in the new cookbook).

I love sharing food, maybe because I don’t ever want to miss out, so had a little taste of the Posh Shepherd’s Pie with Seasoned Greens (again from the cookbook). I’d have liked the potato a little crispier on the top but the flavours were rich and complementary, and I think that’s where the cookbook really stands out, it actually replicates the recipes from the Lead Station. A lot of places make a homage to their restaurant dishes but when you have a really good plate of food you want to create it to the exact recipe and this is where the cookbook really works.

Having a mild allergy to milk and cream (I’m ok with cheese and butter as the lactose is very much lower than pure milk and cream) I couldn’t really manage the puddings but was presented with a lovely board of classic cheeses instead - very thoughtful. The two pots of chutney were delicious and complemented the cheese very well. A delightful evening with fantastic food and good company, what more could you want on a crisp winter’s evening? The next day I delved into the cookbook.

What first struck me was the beautiful photography (I very rarely buy a cookbook that has sub-standard pics). The dishes looked inviting and immediately made me hungry - below you see a few of the dishes that really stood out for me. I’m not one for cooking massive breakfasts at home so would probably visit the Lead Station and take the breakfast firmly in hand, as well as this dish, and as a previously stated lover of beetroot, I think the beetroot risotto will become a staple dish in my household (apart from when I get in a cab and hot foot it down to the Lead Station, which will be happening on many more occasions than twice in 12 years). It's a really well-produced, useful book that will get regular use in my kitchen from now on.

- Many thanks to the Lead Station for the dinner and the book, both of which were provided free of charge for review purposes. For copies of The Cookbook please email Nick de Sousa has owned and operated The Lead Station at 99 Beech Rd, Manchester M21 9EQ since 2007, and it is the sister restaurant to its ‘young upstart’ little brother Tariff & Dale, located in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

The Manchester Cook Book: A Celebration of Mancunian Food and Drink

I have a bit of a problem with cook books. I own - probably - in the region of 100, and, even worse, I'm also one of those slightly spinsterish ladies who clip recipes from food magazines and keep them in a folder (OK, OK, multiple folders). I very rarely cook from them though, reading them for pleasure instead and then falling back on cooking the same old things every dinnertime, things that I can make up from whatever happens to be lying round the fridge. This is all well and good, but means that I don't ever bother making anything new - and thus, the arrival of a review copy of The Manchester Cook Book was a very fine thing indeed, forcing me to stop being so lazy and cook something different for once.

The Manchester Cook Book, written by Kate Eddison and in support of Hospitality Action, is the latest in a series celebrating regional food and drink - Sheffield, Nottingham, Derbyshire, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire are already available, although the Manchester one is, of course, the most important. It offers us a foreword by Aiden Byrne, over 55 recipes from some of Manchester's best-known pubs, restaurants, delis and food producers, and some truly stunning photography of our fair city and its cuisine. The book offers a pleasing range of difficulty and poshness levels, including tricky-looking recipes from 63 Degrees and a beauty from Manchester House that seems to require handfuls of straw; I must confess though that I tried out a couple of the easier recipes - both of which were very quickly knocked up after work and were easily adapted to what I happened to have in the fridge (which, as you will see, largely consisted of chicken and rocket).

First up, I made the Hot Coronation Chicken, from a recipe provided by Palate in Chorlton. I blame my age for the fact that Coronation Chicken remains one of my very favourite things (preferably as part of a buffet spread that also involves vol-au-vents), and this hot version is quite ludicrously easy (particularly as I ignored its breezy instruction to "make a timbale with the rice" and instead opted to "make a pile"). I added some mushrooms, and found that my tastes required a little more lime than the recipe suggested; I also substituted the mange tout for some of The Great Manchester Rocket Surplus. Otherwise, I promise I cooked from the book, and the result will definitely become part of my repertoire.

The other recipe I tried was almost as easy, although did require a little planning ahead. I loved the Mojito Chicken when I had it at the launch of Mish Mash in Chorlton (yes, there are quite a few Chorlton establishments in the book) and was keen to recreate this at home - a keenness that was slightly frustrated by the fact that the chicken needs to marinate in its sexy bath of rum, sugar, lime juice and fresh mint for 12-36 hours. In the end I left mine for about 30 hours and it was totally worth it - all it required then was a quick flambé and it was good to go. I made the jalapeno salsa (verdict: new addition) but changed the other accompaniments slightly as I had no wild rice but did have a lot of tortilla wraps, avocado and (yep) rocket. I took the leftovers to work the next day and had them cold rolled up in another wrap; if anything, the flavours were even better than the day before.

This is a lovely book, and it's hard to imagine anyone in Manchester with an interest in food not enjoying it. It's published by Meze and costs £14.95 from the featured establishments, Waterstones and Amazon. Before you know it, I'll be Aiden Byrne*

*I'll be cooking Hot Coronation and Mojito Chicken dishes until the end of days.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Bella Italia Celebrate 15 Years in Manchester: Italian History, a Rainy Walk, and some Surprisingly Good Food

Every so often, an event comes along that allows you to combine several interests in an exciting and previously undreamed of way. To wit: this week's event celebrating Bella Italia's 15 years of Manchester residence, which exuberantly threw in any number of things to which I am partial. First, of course, food - and in particular Italian food. I am obsessed with all things Italy and am always happy to pop a few olives or a morsel of bruschetta in my mouth at a moment's notice - I must admit, however, that Bella Italia would not necessarily be my first choice (well, it might be now, but more of that later). Add in the prospect of three different courses at the three Manchester Bellas with a walking tour of Manchester with a focus on Italian history in between and you're on to a winner - I like history, and I love Manchester, and most of all, I have the greedy girl's fondness of a bit of a walk when I've eaten too much.

We begin at Bella Italia in the Arndale, where we are met by area manager Stuart, lovely PR Charli, our Green Badge Tour Guide Sue McCarthy, and a very welcome bottle of Prosecco. This is the venue for our starter course which, fittingly, is a selection of antipasti to share. Bella have been focusing on authenticity on their new menu and sourcing many of their key products (such as pasta, olives and olive oil) direct from Italy; easy to argue, perhaps, that this should have been done earlier, but the new approach is certainly visible in much of the attractive-looking selection laid out before us. We have one of each of the new antipasti boards: the Southern Italian Calabrese board (Calabria Pressed Spianata salami and soppressata salami, dry cured cappocollo ham, Buffalo bocconcini mozzarella balls, Pachino tomatoes, roasted peppers, ciabatta, grissini, rocket leaves and olives), the Northern Italian Alpino board (cured Speck ham, roasted herby Porchetta and classic mortadella alongside the same accompaniments as the previous board), and the vegetarian Legume board (as before, but the meat replaced with peperonata and tomato bruschettas, artichokes and roasted vegetables). Each of these would be between £11.45 and £11.95, and as each is easily big enough for two to share this seems good value, particularly as bottles of good quality olive oil, chilli oil and balsamic vinegar line the tables for extra glugging. My favourite of all the boards is the Legume selection, although I would like a little more salt on my bruschetta. We also agree that the Tempura prawns - wild king prawns in a light, crispy tempura batter and served with a garlic and lemon mayonnaise - are excellent; the calamari is unremarkable but perfectly acceptable (although perhaps a shade on the pricey side at £6.25).

So far, so good - although to be fair, any Italian should be able to get this kind of thing spot on and the mains were always going to be the real test. These are served at the Deansgate branch, so we gamely don our hats and coats and follow Sue out into the Manchester drizzle for the first leg of our tour. Sue is one of the guides at Tour Manchester, and she expertly regales us with interesting stories as she leads us round some of Manchester's most and least salubrious spots - the Town Hall looks stunning all lit up for Chinese New Year, but my favourite place is St Mary's Church, the "Hidden Gem" of Mulberry Street, founded in 1794 and thought to be the oldest post-Reformation Catholic church founded as a church in any large English city centre. Sue tells us a great story here about a Victorian police officer called Jerome Caminada who once solved a crime by sitting inside a grand piano in which he had bored peep holes, a perfectly acceptable modus operandi that should be brought back to modern policing in my opinion.

The walk goes all too quickly and the welcome at Deansgate is a warm one - this is a more traditional, Trattoria-style branch and I prefer it to the Arndale outpost. The food is quick to arrive and - frankly - surpasses my expectations by some considerable distance; so much so that I would actually find it hard to pick a favourite. We have, in order of appearance: Gamberoni (spiralized ‘Spaghetti' made from carrot, golden beetroot and courgette spirals with king prawns, garlic & chilli in a spicy pomodoro sauce), Amore Formaggi (super cute heart-shaped pasta parcels filled with four cheeses, in a basil pesto sauce topped with semi-dried Pachino tomatoes), Beef and Red Wine Ravioli (shredded beef and red wine filled pasta parcels in beef ragĂș sauce topped with rocket leaves), a mighty Lamb Shank slow-cooked in a garlic, red wine & rosemary sauce and served with mashed potatoes and green beans, and finally a Carne Mista pizza topped with spicy pepperoni, smoked ham, pancetta and Calabrese salami. It's hard to find much fault with any of this - some find the Amore Formaggi a "bit too cheesy" (although I love the contrast between the rich cheese and the fresh basil) and the lamb shank has quite a lot of skin on it, but everything is beautifully cooked (the ragu has clearly been simmering for many hours), the pizza is lovely and crisp and very generously topped, the prawn dish is real winner and has finally encouraged me to get my own spiralizer out its box, and the pasta (all bought from the Agnesi family, Italy's oldest pasta makers) is excellent. The staff know we are coming and we do have the area manager sitting at our table; still, whilst I would be interested to come back in less exulted company and see if the food is as good, I can only judge on what we have on the night and it's fairly flawless and very strong on flavour.

A shorter walk this time, up to the Piccadilly branch for desserts. We are met with an array of riches that includes samples of all the flavours of gelato (chocolate, honeycomb, vanilla, strawberry, tiramisu, bubble gum), the Limoncello Meringue Pie and a board of Shot Desserts (Tiramisu Mousse, Strawberry Cheesecake, Mini Pannacotta, Amaretto Chocolate Pot and Banoffee Pie). I'm not much of a pudding person but I enjoy all of this - the gelato (bought from the Callipo family Gelateria in Calabria) is properly rich and creamy, the lemon meringue pie is well baked with a nice contrast between the rich curd and the light meringue, and the little dessert pots (of which I snaffle the Banoffee Pie) are a great idea for people who only want a mini pudding due to excess greed elsewhere in the meal. We wash all this down with a shot of Limoncello because we are, of course, sunning ourselves on the Amalfi coast rather than sheltering from the rain in a dark corner of Picadilly Gardens.

Was it really quite like being in Italy? Well, the Manchester climate did its best to remind us where we were at all times, but clutching a bottle of Prosecco as a going-home present and with a tummy full of pasta and gelato and a head full of Italian legends, it was almost possible to forget I was on a tram and imagine myself in sunnier climes. Almost.

- Find Bella Italia at 92-96 Deansgate, 11-13 Piccadilly and Unit R8, Arndale Shopping Centre. Contact Sue and the other splendid guides via the Tour Manchester website.