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Wednesday, 30 March 2016

New Fruit & Veg Box Delivery from Creamline Dairies Brings Healthy Smugness and NO MUD to Kitchen

I've never really grown out of the excitement of things being delivered to my house, in a box. I order shameless amounts of cookbooks from online retailers, secure in the knowledge that they will be delivered to my house, in a box. It's only a matter of time before I subscribe to one of those monthly beauty boxes, and a monthly gin club delivery, and pretty much anything else that can be delivered to my house, in a box. It's no surprise, then, that over the years I have subscribed to several different vegetable box deliveries - but, whilst a box of kohlrabi and carrots is genuinely even more more exciting to me than a box of beauty samples, I have yet to settle down with the right one. Abel & Cole got a bit mean, and Riverford just got too muddy - I don't require my veg scrubbed to within an inch of their lives, but when the leek-to-dirt ratio tipped in favour of the mud, it was time to part company.

I was interested, then, to try a box of wholesome goodies from new kid on the block, Creamline Dairies. Well, I say new - this family-run, Stockport-based business was actually founded in 1945, and is one of the leading independent dairy companies in the UK, having recently acquired the North West local delivery business of Dairy Crest, and also delivers a whole range of storecupboard essentials for people like me who lack the organisational skills to visit a shop. What is new, however, is the Fruit & Veg Box delivery service - you order what you want from the website (which is attractively set out and easy to use), they procure it all for you from local farmers and suppliers, and then deliver it to your door for free. There are over 60 varieties of fruit and veg to choose from, with minimum order set at a tenner.

They sent me a mixed, mystery box to try, and thus my excitement was actually palpable as I lifted the lid (carefully heeding the warning on the box about the fresh, perky nature of the contents). Inside were lots of vegetably basics - a big bag of potatoes, carrots, a swede, a couple of enormous onions, lettuce, some cherry tomatoes, a head of broccoli the approximate size of my own, and NO MUD. Even better was the fruit selection: bananas, grapes, kiwi fruit, oranges, several different types of apple, plums and pears, each housed in a brown paper bag rather than yards of plastic and provided in the sort of sensible qualities that wouldn't overwhelm a girl who lives on her own.

I must admit, I do like the element of surprise in a random delivery of seasonal fruit and veg - it encourages me to try new things rather than just shove the same things in my basket every time (for example, I never normally buy lettuce but enjoyed the quick tea I was able to make with some elderly roast chicken thanks to its unwonted presence in my fridge). Creamline don't operate in this way - instead, you build your own box by just clicking on whatever you want, and you can either have a repeat order or place a completely new one each time. This is admittedly probably a better idea, although I do still applaud the sense of a box that simply makes the most of whatever is plentiful, fresh and available. Would I use the service again? Yes, most definitely - everything was of excellent quality (bar some plums that could have had a bit more flavour to them), and there really is no greater smugness than the health-giving presence of such a box in one's kitchen. Better for you than gin or lipsticks too (although I can't promise to give these up completely).

- order via the Creamline website here. I was sent this box for review purposes, but ate the lot (excluding the cardboard).

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

Opera North Bring Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte to Manchester's Lowry Theatre

It's been a while since I've been to see Opera North, and I've missed them. Anyone who thinks opera is pretentious, or boring, or po-faced upper class nonsense really needs to spend an evening with this most talented of companies, who never fail to entertain and who understand that great opera should be funny as well as beautiful. I also like that they don't do things by halves and seemingly have no aversion to making life harder for themselves - they tend to rock up at The Lowry from time to time with not one but three different productions, all in the same week.

Last week I saw the first of these, an English-sung performance of Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte. Now, most operas - at least the ones I have seen - are somewhat slim of plot, but this one is a pretty straightforward story even by opera standards. Don Alfonso is a philosopher who clearly has both too much time on his hands and an inherent distrust of women - to prove a point, he bets his two friends, Ferrando and Guglielmo, that their beloveds cannot stay faithful over the course of a day. During that day they must do whatever he says, and thus have to go along with the charade when he tells sisters Fiordiligi and Dorabella that their menfolk have been sent overseas on active service. Cue lots of caterwauling and posing mournfully but attractively on high-backed chairs by the two young ladies, who are quite obviously going to pass the fidelity test with flying colours. Well, they might have done were it not for Don Alfonso and their feisty lady's maid Despina, who orchestrate a (not very) cunning plan in which Ferrando and Guglielmo dress up as two handsome strangers and put their seductive powers to the test.

As plots go, it's a deliberately sparse one. There's much to be enjoyed along the way - there are some surprisingly funny lines (often at the expense of female honour - even the name of the opera suggests that we're all the same) and the performances are flawless as usual. All but one of the cast are Opera North regulars, and we particularly enjoy the bumbling charms of Nicholas Watts and Gavin Ring as they haplessly attempt to both resist and seduce each other's girlfriends. The staging is also effectively handled, although understated by Opera North's standards - a one-room setting (the sisters' home) that contracts and expands like a vice to reflect the stifling nature of the situation and which cleverly uses doors and lifts to represent different elements of the seduction process. In other words, Opera North do nothing wrong. This just isn't one of my favourite operas - the music is beautiful, with its repeated motifs and stunning arias, but the story just isn't quite enough for me, and words that sound seductive in Italian don't always convey the same mystery and beauty when sung in English. The questions raised over sexual morals in this closed, claustrophobic world are interesting ones, but the distress of some of the characters - particularly Fiordiligi - under the manipulation of Don Alfonso is a little too discomfiting for me.

That said, there are few better ways of spending an evening than in the company of Opera North. They are young, enterprising, sexy and talented - and anyone who still thinks that opera is for the elite may like to know that later in the evening I found myself discussing just how poorly Fiordiligi had been treated with the lady herself (Maire Flavin) on Twitter. I'm already looking forward to their return - keep an eye on their website for news of upcoming productions. Just don't blame me if you end up speaking to everyone in song the next day...

- photos courtesy of Opera North: all photo credits Tristram Kenton.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Vino & Spuntini: Or, Wine & Food Pairing at Veeno Manchester

There is a school of thought that there is no such thing as coincidence. I am quite happy for this to be so, as if there's no such thing as coincidence then the invitation to a wine and food pairing evening at Veeno which arrived a couple of days after a friend and I had been talking about going anyway was nothing less than a sign from above, telling us it was OK to go out and drink wine on a school night.

Thus sanctioned by higher powers, we take our places with around 20 other bloggers for the "Vino & Spuntini" Classic Winetasting experience: six wines from the family vineyard in Sicily, each paired with a different appetizer, including a sweet wine and dessert to finish. This is, of course, a marvellous idea - wine makes me hungry (well, even hungrier than I normally am anyway), and I'm a big fan of the Italian way of eating, where little plates of tempting snacks are considered de rigueur when consuming any form of alcohol. The Veeno way turns out to test one's will power to a quite extraordinary degree though - the snack platters you see here (each one shared between four of us) arrive at the start of the evening and it is UP TO US to control ourselves and resist each item until its wine-matched partner turns up. We do well at this, but it takes some effort, and we note that elsewhere on the table others have not paced themselves with such care (and have indeed wolfed the platter as soon as it arrives).

The first pairing is the house white with bread and olive oil. The olive oil is exceptional, amongst the best I've tasted in this country, and I note with some interest that it can be purchased in the Veeno shop. The wine, a light number made from the Catarratto grape, is nothing special though - the waitress cheerily suggests that it's so light it's a bit like water, and whilst this may be a fine quality in the balminess of an Italian summer, it's perhaps not the first thing one would look for in a wine on a brisk March evening in Manchester.

The next wine is billed as "our fruitiest" and is much nicer than the first - a fresh, peachy number from the Inzolia grape that copes well with the olives and tapenade that accompany it. Then we're on to the reds, and "our smoothest", a blend of Frappato and Nerello which is a good match for a feisty Salame Milano. I enjoy the classic Sicilian Nero d'Avola and its partnering with Parma ham, and likewise the final red, a classy Cabernet Sauvignon served with Parmigiano Reggiano. This is billed as an elegant pairing and indeed it is, although the way in which we fall upon the pieces of (excellent) Parmigiano after we have been looking at it for the best part of an hour is perhaps less so.

To close, we have a small shot of Marsala Superiore Riserva, a sweet dessert wine served with homemade Tiramisu. I ask to forgo this course as a confirmed coffee hater; instead they kindly bring me some very good lemon sorbet, a nice touch on a set pairing menu. The Marsala goes down a treat, and I am pleased to recall that I have a bottle of this in my booze cabinet at home which has been waiting for some time for me to find a use for it (a use which, I now realise, is simply to be poured into a glass and consumed).

Overall we have a very enjoyable night. Veeno is a friendly little place with a great atmosphere, and whilst I wouldn't order all of these wines on their own, most of them stand up well to their food pairings, which are well-chosen and of good quality. The Classic Winetasting that we try is priced at £19.90, which seems good value for the amount you get - I would certainly go again. Veeno Manchester is part of a small chain of wine cafes founded by Nino and Andrea, who opened the Manchester branch in 2013 in order to spread their love of Italian food and wine - a noble cause that I, for one, am happy to throw my weight behind (as long as it involves perching on a bar stool eating breadsticks).

- Veeno Manchester is at 2, Albert Square M2 6LW. This was a press evening where we were not asked to pay for our food or drink, but at under £20 I would have happily forked out anyway.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

Yu Chinese Restaurant, Alderley Edge: not just for whippets and WAGs

For me, one of life's greatest pleasures is to have a few drinks on a Friday or Saturday night and then go for a banquet at my (pretty good) local Chinese restaurant. When funds are more limited, I am equally happy to pop to my (pretty good) local Chinese takeaway and have a classy sofa picnic in front the telly. In other words, Chinese is not necessarily something I would associate with "fine dining", but more a case of snarfing as many prawn crackers as I can in the shortest possible space of time without making the corners of my mouth sore or getting crumbs on the carpet.

Yu in Alderley Edge is a whole world away from this. It's hidden away behind Piccolino's, with only a small sign alerting you to its presence behind a big wooden door with an ornate knocker that you don't actually have to use (thankfully - I had visions of someone sneering superciliously at me through a spyhole and sending me packing for not being Alderley enough, a very real possibility when I compare myself to the whippet-like girl in tiny dress and monster heels who shows us to our table). The website has no prices on it, a worrying prospect for us out-of-towners and something that, to be honest, would have put me off of booking were I not here to review. In other words, we are suspicious of Yu, and feel we might not belong here.

Actually, we really enjoy it. The decor is bling but beautiful - clusters of blue lights made especially for the restaurant in Egypt hang above each table, making our spot feel both cosy and intimate despite the restaurant being pretty empty on a wet Wednesday night (although they ARE responsible for some interesting shadows in the photos). The manager, Kostas, is friendly, guiding us through the menu (which this time has prices on, some of them eye-wateringly high) before giving up on our indecision and simply choosing for us. We also meet Vinny, one of the two brothers who own and run the restaurant (brother Victor is busy head cheffing in the kitchen) - but more of him and his portable cocktail station later.

We share three starters between us - the soft shell crab special, the duck spring rolls and a portion of sui mai. I'm a sucker for soft shell crab and this is excellent - the batter is light and crisp, the crab satisfyingly chewy and the accompanying crispy noodles a nice foil for the spiciness of the chillies and onions scattered over the top. The spring rolls are each the approximate size of a small bungalow and are packed with dense, gamey meat - in fact, they're almost too meaty, but I consider this amongst the very finest of life's faults, and we enjoy them very much. The sui mai are fine but actually not as good as the (admittedly excellent) ones from my local takeaway.

Next up, we share the restaurant's "signature dish" - Deconstructed Crispy Duck and Pancakes. I imagine this one is likely to divide opinion, with mutterings along the lines of why mess with a classic - and its £28 price tag is pretty hefty even taking into account that this dish takes more than 24 hours to make. I actually rather like that it's a bit different though - you can have crispy duck any time (and I frequently do), so this take on it made a pretty exciting change (and yes, I know I need to get out more). The platter is filled with different ducky parts - thinly sliced breast, shredded dark meat and small curls of crispy skin - along with spring onions and cucumber in Yuzu and a lovely thick Hoi Sin sauce, and we like the fact that you can vary the contents of each pancake (well, in theory you can - we just shove as much of all of it in as we can, a fact made embarrassingly clear by the number of pancakes we have left over).

We are pretty full by this time, and have a short break before sharing another dish as a main - Wok Seared Ribeye with Honey Glazed Satay - and a side of pak choi. The beef dish is a good balance of sweetness from the honey and heat from the chillies, and, like the duck spring rolls, is generous with the meat (although at £31, you wouldn't want anything less). The pak choi is the best I've had, although it cruelly exposes my lack of skill with chop sticks, and the waitress is kind enough to say nothing as she wipes the splatters from the table afterwards.

For dessert, my date goes for the coconut and ginger ice cream (his face visibly drops when the waitress brings two spoons, assuming - correctly - that I won't be able to resist). This is delicious although quite straightforward, and provides a suitably refreshing end to the meal. I am too full for my own pudding and am given something MUCH better instead - Vinny sets up a cocktail tray at our table and whips me up an excellent smoky old fashioned whilst I look on and ponder the fact that this might just be the most exciting thing that has happened to me all year (yes, again - need to get out more). Vinny is apparently keen to get his tray out as often as possible, although I'm guessing that the place is too full of WAGs at the weekend to allow for such theatrics.

Overall, we are impressed, and we agree that we would come again (if only for Vinny and his tray). The food is mostly very good, although some of it IS very expensive and I would order carefully from a menu where the most expensive dish (the Gordon Ramsay-approved Wagyu beef) comes in at £69. Still, any remaining doubts that Yu is a little too pretentious, a little too Cheshire, are expelled by Vinny's offer to make me fishfinger butties next time I go; after all, it's possible to have too much fine-dining.

- Yu is on London Rd, Alderley Edge, Cheshire, SK9 7QD. We did not pay for our meal but that has not affected my review.