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Monday, 22 August 2016

Manchester Three Rivers Gin at the City of Manchester Distillery: New Premium Gin Celebrates Manchester's Past

Manchester is, of course, wonderful, as any Mancunian (adopted or otherwise) will be pleased to tell you with little or no prompting. I moved here at 17, lured by two revolutions: the Industrial one which I had learned about in History lessons at school, seduced by the march of progress in the form of canals, and railways, and the enormous belching mills and factories; and the cultural one that I had learned about by riffling through my sister's record collection, full of moody black and white covers and even moodier black and white songs. Nor have I have ever regretted moving here, despite sporadic accusations from other, lesser cities that Manchester's glory is all in the past, a relic from another time.

This is clearly nonsense, as one of the things that Manchester does best is combine past and present - as even a cursory glance at the city centre skyline will make abundantly clear. This approach is also very evident in the new City of Manchester Distillery, located underneath one of the railway arches in the Green Quarter and home to Manchester Three Rivers Gin. This is the city centre's first dedicated gin distillery in modern times and aims to blend a sense of Manchester's glorious history with the current renaissance in small batch gin - the name refers to the three waterways (the Irwell, Irk and Medlock) that played such a huge part in Manchester's development into the city we know today. All of this is celebrated in the video that visitors to the Gin Experience will be greeted with and which we watched at the recent press launch - a video that speaks volumes about the passion of Master Distiller Dave Rigby and which brought several tears to several eyes (must have had something in mine, I reckon).

Dave began his career as a university lecturer but now spends his time with his beloved custom-built 450l copper pot Arnold Holstein still, named Angel after the distillery's location in the shadow of Angel Meadow. He produces all the gin himself, and very good it is too - I've never been able to enjoy gin neat, but the inclusion of oats leads to an oily sweetness that makes Three Rivers palatable even on its own. Dave suggests serving the gin with cherries in order to pick up the natural sweetness of the gin, which combines 11 botanicals and derives its smoothness from vanilla, cinnamon, cardamon and almond as well as the oats. Three Rivers Gin is already available in a growing number of Manchester bars and independent and online retailers (Manchester House has it behind the bar and you can pick up a bottle at Hanging Ditch), but the distillery is also positioning itself as an interactive visitor attraction. The City of Manchester Gin Experience offers a guided tour of the distillery, four drinks (all gin-based, of course) and - best of all - the chance to create a bespoke 700ml bottle of gin to take home using the mini Alembic copper pot stills. I am, naturally, beyond desperate to make my own gin, but had to make do with eyeing up these cute mini stills and drinking a Three Rivers and tonic, pretending I'd just made it.

The experience is not cheap at £95, but this is a chance to see (and taste) a seriously good gin being made by lovely, passionate people who want to share their love of gin and of Manchester and its history. And any cultural experience that leads to going home on the bus carrying your own bottle of gin is absolutely fine with me.

- Full details of the City of Manchester Gin Experience are available through the Three Rivers website, and the distillery can be found at 21 Red Bank Parade, Manchester M4 4HF.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Restaurant Review: Artisan Kitchen and Bar, Spinningfields

Much as Spinningfields has grown and improved over the last couple of years, it still seems to me a place of extremes. There are some brilliant casual places - I like The Dockyard, and am excited about Beastro coming to The Kitchens - and an excellent high-end bar/restaurant in Manchester House, as well as a couple of great restaurants if you're feeling really hungry (Iberica, Fazenda) but which won't leave you much change from £50 a head (well, not if you're as greedy as me, anyway). Where it seems lacking is in those useful in-between places, somewhere to have a quiet drink without risk of Z-list celebrities and dancing girls dangling from chandeliers, somewhere to have a decent-value dinner without too much bling but without having to perch on a trestle table.

This is where Artisan comes in. I wrote recently about how it had overcome an uncertain start to become a reliable, go-to place with good food, more-than-acceptable cocktails and great atmosphere (during the week, at least - I'm not really one for town on a weekend so cannot vouch for the Friday/Saturday crowd). We had a quick drink in the oh-so-cute Artisan bar underneath the main restaurant ahead of our whisky tasting at Manchester House last week; I like this little place, with its outside seating and relaxed atmosphere, particularly as it carries the same drinks list and offers as its big sister upstairs. We went back for dinner after the whisky tasting and were once again impressed by the new menu, which offered up lots of things we wanted to eat, although the starters were, for once, the weaker link. My prawns with roasted garlic, coriander, tomato, chilli and lemon were full of flavour, satisfyingly big and juicy and with just the right hit of chilli, but the dish seemed a little incomplete somehow - some substance and texture in the form of some bread (and to allow mopping up of the juices) would have improved this. Meanwhile, across the table the braised chorizo with cipollini onions, cherry tomatoes and super seeded toast was even better in terms of flavours but suffered the opposite problem - this simply didn't need the bread, which added a bulk and sweetness that jarred slightly with the rest of the dish. Predictably enough, I stole half the bread to have with my dish, and balance was thus restored.

Mains were very good. I had the 10 oz ribeye with french fries and roast garlic & herb sauce, an excellent value dish at £19.50 which was very well-executed - the steak had good flavour and was perfectly pink as ordered, and the fries were salty and moreish. The real revelation was the chopped salad with peanut dressing that I ordered as a side - I've never woken up the morning after a meal craving salad before, but I will have this fresh, crunchy, spicy, nutty joy every time I eat at Artisan from now on. My dinner date fancied a burger and was rightly pleased with his beef burger with bagel bun and french fries, a properly moist and pink burger with good texture and flavour and more of those addictive chips. They also knocked him up a tomato salad off-menu, just one example of some really excellent service throughout the meal.

Of course I didn't need dessert, and of course I had one. The sticky toffee pudding with vanilla ice cream was indeed very sticky (in a good way), and brought the meal to an accomplished end. All in all, it was another very enjoyable Artisan evening; the food is good, but it's the overall package that really works - I like the atmosphere here, with its slightly seedy red-hued lighting (I've left the photos their original colour so you can share the enticing murk), its loud-but-not-too-loud music, its comfortable booths and its open kitchen, and we drank a lovely rich Cabernet Franc Carmenere priced at £24 from a wine list that has loads of nice things under £30. The mixed reports that plagued Artisan when it first opened seem to be increasingly a thing of the past - for me, Artisan has definitely found its feet, and any restaurant that can make a salad sexy deserves all the plaudits I can give.

- Artisan is on Avenue North, 18-22 Bridge Street, Manchester M3 3BZ. Our restaurant food and wine were complimentary but we paid for all our drinks in the downstairs bar and I come here quite regularly as a paying customer.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Pulteney Pairings with Old Pulteney Single Malt Whisky and Manchester House

Whilst I'm perfectly willing to put the hours in to bring myself fully up to scratch, I'm still something of a whisky duffer. I only acquired the taste for it a few years ago and am best described as an enthusiastic amateur, happy to try new things but always slightly wary of accidentally getting one of those TCP ones that tastes like it belongs in the medicine rather than the drinks cabinet. When I mentioned I was going to a whisky pairing evening hosted by Old Pulteney, however, the reaction was entirely positive - everyone seems to rate this single malt most highly, with one trusted friend proclaiming it her favourite all-time whisky. Even better, the event was to be held in the 12th floor bar of Spinningfields's Manchester House (as you can see from the stunning views that greeted us on our arrival), with specially-created canapés served up by Aiden Byrne, one of my absolute favourites of Manchester chefs.

The event was designed to celebrate the forthcoming Bolton Food and Drink Festival over the August Bank Holiday weekend, where Old Pulteney are music and entertainment sponsors and where Aiden will be appearing in the Regional Chef's Kitchen, and certainly suggests that a trip to Bolton will be in order at the end of the month. We began with a welcome cocktail that tasted smooth and sweet but turned out to be fairly lethal, consisting of two parts Old Pulteney 12 Year Old and one part Stroma Malt Whisky Liqueur - anyone who thinks whisky is too harsh a drink would do well to adopt this as their starter drink (although perhaps only one at a time, whilst sitting down). The 12 Year Old, the brand's entry-level whisky, turned out to be just as easy to drink on its own, perhaps because it's matured in ex-bourbon casks and has a mellow sweetness as a result. It also has more than a whiff of the sea about it, a brininess picked up in an outstanding opening canapé from Chef Byrne - the Nori rice cracker with cured salmon and seaweed salad (including some little orbs of salmon caviar and an addictive wasabi mayonnaise) was a perfect match.

Next up was the Old Pulteney 17 Year Old paired with chicken liver and wild sugar parfait, tobacco-scented chocolate and spiced plum purée. This was a bold combination that really worked, with the sweet richness of the parfait dish providing an interesting foil for the spicy heaviness of the whisky (a taste which I ineptly summed up as *technical whisky jargon klaxon* "feisty"). So rich was this dish that when offered a second helping (which I automatically said yes please to) I was unable to finish it, a hitherto unheard-of event, ever. Brand Ambassador Andy Hannah had, of course, left the best until last, and we finished up with the Old Pulteney 21 Year Old, which was awarded "World Whisky of the Year" in Jim Murray's 2012 Whisky Bible. It's fairly easy to see why - this whisky was soft, and smooth, and sweet, and smoky, and I would have a tot of it every night before bed for the rest of my life if only I could afford to. This mighty dram was paired with a dainty spoon of poached lobster with smoked apple purée and vanilla oil, which perfectly picked out the sweeter notes in the whisky. The whole point behind the "Pulteney Pairings" idea is that the distinctive flavours of each whisky make them perfect for food matching, rather than just thinking of whisky as a pre- or post-dinner drink, and the whole evening has certainly inspired me to look beyond my traditional guilty accompaniments of cheese on toast, crisps, or similar.

The Bolton Food and Drink Festival takes place from 26th-29th August, with The Old Pulteney Drifter - a bar made from driftwood, shaped like a boat to reflect the brand's roots by the sea in Wick - open throughout for dram sampling. Aiden Byrne will be doing two demos at Chef's Quarter at The Vaults on Monday 29th - most of Manchester remain amazed that he and Manchester House have yet to be awarded that elusive Michelin star, so he's well worth going to see. Also, full credit to him for good-humouredly talking to a girl full of whisky about cheese for the best part of half an hour - I promise not to bother him again during the festival.

- Manchester House is at 18-22 Bridge Street, Spinningfields, Manchester M3 3BZ, and Bolton Food and Drink Festival (the largest Food and Drink Festival in the North West) takes place at various locations across Bolton. You can find out more about Old Pulteney here. This was a free event but I am a regular paying customer at Manchester House and will certainly pick up a bottle of Old Pulteney in the near future.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Baked Camembert with Garlic and Rosemary: A Not-Quite Recipe with Lactalis

The International Cheese Awards at Nantwich is amazing. It's the biggest cheese show in the world, and is quite simply a cheese-lover's paradise. The inherent problem with the show, however - and I hate myself for admitting there even exists such a thing - is cheese overload; you eat cheese samples for a full, glorious day, and then get caught up in the whole excitement of the day and bring a load home as well. This leads to a fear of one's own fridge, which one barely dares to open for outright terror of the cheese mountain that looms there, growing ever more pungent by the day.

This is where helpful, cheese-loving friends come in handy. I brought back a bag of goodies courtesy of Lactalis, who are the largest dairy products group in the world and who had a ridiculously successful time at this year's International Cheese Awards, winning a total of 22 awards including nine golds. Three of these golds were for the Président range that you will all be familiar with, and as I ended up with two of the whole Camemberts, I elected to bake them whole and serve them up with bread for dipping. Thus I offer this up not as a recipe but as a suggestion really, and to commemorate how much I enjoyed the whole thing.

First, look in your fridge and locate a suitable cheese item. Ignore the rest of the cheese for now, even though it is glaring menacingly and appearing to multiply before your very eyes. Remove the whole Camembert from its waxy paper and put it back into its box, on a baking tray. Lightly score the top with a knife in a criss-cross pattern and then smother it with whatever pleasing ingredients you have to hand. I finely chopped a couple of garlic cloves and a sprig of rosemary, and then drizzled over a little garlic oil and a splash of white wine. Add salt and pepper and pop the whole thing in the oven for about 20 minutes or so - it should be obvious when it's ready as the cheese will have melted but won't yet be at the point where it's leaked all over your oven. Serve with crusty bread - the first of these I did served four as a starter, the second served three as part of a BBQ; but I could, to be honest, eat one of these to myself if absolutely required.

The Lactalis range also includes the Seriously Strong products (which now has a Caramelised Onion variety in the spreadable tubs - see here for a lovely suggestion from Good Egg Foodie on what to make with this) and Galbani Mozzarella, which I like to slice up over the top of a tomatoey pasta. I'm also (almost) looking forward to going back to work so I can use this lunchbox. Lactalis gave me these to celebrate their new products and their success at the awards, but one or more of these items tends to end up in my basket at the supermarket anyway - I might leave it a while before I buy any more though, at least until the salad items rumoured to be somewhere in the fridge have been uncovered.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

A Brief Paean to the Joy of Meat: Beastro Preview at Manchester's Spinningfields

My sincere and uncomplicated love for a good sausage has been oft documented on this blog, particularly the superlative charms of the Bobby's Banger. And over the last year or so, James, Richard and Heather have been slowly but surely extending their sausage empire to include two outlets at The Kitchens in Spinningfields, a butchers and countless pop-up events, as well as purveying their porky wares at the festivals and markets where we all fell in love with them in the first place. And unless you've been living under a rock, or particularly outsized piece of black pudding, you'll know that they were recently announced the winners of the year-long competition to find the most successful restaurant at The Kitchens. This means that the existing units, Bangers and Bacon and Well Hung, are closing for a short while before re-opening as Beastro, a new restaurant that will occupy the space previously given over to the three outlets on the left hand side of the development - exciting times.

I was invited to a preview of what to expect from the new menu when Beastro opens (or, a chance to drink lots of wine in the old premises before the refurb starts). It's all you would hope for from this talented trio (James is a butcher, Heather is from a family of bakers, Richard is a chef) - good quality meat cooked and served simply and with flair. The evening began with some giant-sized canapés (the highlight being the steak and fried egg on a spoon, a sport at which I feel I would have excelled had it featured in my school sports day) and a few words from Richard, who you see here pontificating about something or other. There were also excellent cocktails, so that we didn't really have to listen to Richard.

The first dish proper was a plate of short rib bon-bons served with sweetcorn purée, something of a Bangers and Bacon classic, and dispatched with appropriate speed and enthusiasm. Perhaps the classiest dish of the night was the scallop with cod, fondant potato and shallot purée, which was swiftly followed by lamb loin with Bury Black Pudding and minted peas, carrots, potato and pancetta - both dishes proving that Beastro can do dainty as well as eminently satisfying. The main course was oxtail and pearl barley risotto with roast beetroot, a deceptively simple dish given astonishing flavour by a stock that had been simmering all day, and well complemented by the earthiness of the beetroot (although this kind of smearing across the plate is perhaps a bit dated, and not really my thing). There is no picture of dessert as I was gassing to James in the kitchen by this point, but it was a beautiful little glass of watermelon layered with strawberry jelly and cream. It's also worth noting that Beastro aren't just about the meat, and went out of their way to produce interesting vegetarian dishes for the non-meat eater at the preview.

This is obviously not an unbiased review, as James, Richard and Heather are my friends, and some of the nicest people I know. However, if the new restaurant is as good as the preview night suggests then Beastro will be a raging, swaggering, meaty success - and it's absolutely nothing more than they deserve.

- Beastro will be at The Kitchens, Irwell St, Manchester M3 3AG - follow them on Twitter (@beastromcr) to find out exactly when we'll be able to get our hands on their meat.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Restaurant Review: Pier Eight at The Lowry, Salford (plus some exuberant singing at HMS Pinafore)

Back in December I reviewed Pier Eight, the new restaurant at The Lowry, and trumpeted loudly about how much I liked it. I've been back this week in order to try the new menu, and find to my relief that I still like it - if anything, even more than before, despite some streamlining to the menu and more limited pre-theatre options. Sometimes a simplified menu is a very good thing, and this proves to be the case here - we ate at 5.30 ahead of seeing the all-male cast performance of HMS Pinafore (more of which later), and whilst I was initially a bit disappointed that the full menu wasn't available, the fixed price option they run between 5 and 7pm on the night of a show turns out to be excellent.

We began with a sneaky additional bread course as I was starving, and in danger of eating my napkin in an unseemly manner. The bread was very good - three different types, including a cumin crispbread and a superlative walnut loaf - and some perfectly soft and salty butter (you get more than shown here - I did say I was hungry). For starters I had the scallops with pea purée, samphire, runner beans, sun dried tomato pesto - two beautiful fat scallops, well-seared and seasoned, and nicely offset by the sweetness of the pea purée and the brackishness of the samphire (one of my very favourite things). The pesto was presumably there to add some sweetness but wasn't needed and found itself a little overwhelmed by everything else - still, a very good dish though. The roast and pickled beetroots with beetroot jam, preserved pear, sorrel leaves, whipped Lancashire curd and powdered rosemary oil sounded fiddly but actually worked perfectly - a really well-balanced and interesting dish offering different textures and a ludicrously wonderful sweet sticky sauce that got me caught running my finger round the plate.

Mains kept up the standard, and provided the perfect summer accompaniment to an unusually sunny Salford. My roasted sea trout, steamed mussels, samphire, gnocchi and watercress sauce was a great example of a simple, elegant dish, despite a couple of blips - the mussels were initially forgotten and had to be brought separately, and the samphire had been substituted for fennel without warning. No real matter though - the mussels were brought swiftly (and the dish was indeed much augmented once I'd tipped them on) and the aniseed flavours of the fennel went perfectly with the trout. Also, these were the best gnocchi I have had anywhere. The lamb rump with crushed new season potatoes, warm pea salad and salsa verde across the table was both beautiful and generous - two large pieces of off-pink meat with a well-seasoned crust (although we added an extra grind of salt just to add a little more texture), with the warm pea salad and the salsa verde bringing a freshness to the dish that is often lacking with lamb.

It's an unwritten rule when reviewing that you should choose different things in order to try a variety of dishes, but neither of us has a sweet tooth and both went for the selection of British farm house cheese with poached pear, chutney, celery, oat biscuits and knacker bread (which, I now learn, is the proper name for the crispbread we had earlier, and is a much better term). Often a pre-chosen cheese board has one duff option amongst its wares, but not here - all three were excellent and included Garstang Blue and a lovely smoked Brie. Interesting accompaniments too. Drinks-wise, we chose an Argentine Torrontes from a decent and well-priced menu, and thought it great value for £17. The set menu itself is also good value at £22 for two courses or £27 for three - beware though that many of the options (including the scallops, lamb and cheese) carry supplements ranging from £1 to £5, so you could easily end up spending quite a lot more. Still, this is very reasonable for cooking of this standard, and the service struck the right balance between professional and chatty - I will definitely be back.

And as if that wasn't enough excitement, it was time for HMS Pinafore. I've never eaten at The Lowry before seeing a show, and normally end up sprinting full-pelt through the Outlet Mall with about 30 seconds to spare before curtain-up, so to be on-site, relaxed, full of dinner and in good time was quite a revelation. HMS Pinafore surely needs little introduction - it's one of Gilbert and Sullivan's best-known operettas, ostensibly dealing with the thorny issue of love between different social classes but essentially just an excuse for men in vests to hurl themselves around a stage having a lovely sing-song. And what a lot of vests there were - this is an all-male cast, and features some quite astonishing performances in the female roles as well as some great staging and set-pieces involving bunk beds, torches and creeping up behind the audience (me) to see if they can make them jump (yes). A quick chat during the interval with the elderly couple sitting next to us suggested that this slightly unconventional production isn't for everyone, but I loved every second of it and didn't really want it to end. It's on until tomorrow (Saturday) so do go if you get the chance - if not, I'm happy to come round and perform a selection of my favourite songs in my best baritone. Full details here.

- Pier Eight is at The Lowry, The Quays, Salford M50 3AZ. We were invited in to review and so dinner and the show were complimentary but this has not affected my opinions.