Thursday, October 29, 2009

To the USA...

I've embarked on a dig through some old cassettes in the basement, the latest fruit of which is Leonard Cohen's 1997 album The Future. The CD's down there somewhere, too, but the relative inconvenience of tape – no simple track-skipping here – means I'm listening to the whole thing for the first time in years. Currently playing is one of its key tracks, Democracy, in which the Canadian posits the emergence of a new order in typically deadpan fashion. Democracy is coming to the USA, he sings, 'on a visionary flood of alcohol'.

Substitute 'large aeroplane' for 'visionary flood of alcohol' and 'Hale and Hearty' for 'democracy' and you have a fairly accurate picture of our movements next month, when tools will be downed for a final trip to New York before the baby comes. Among the manifold attractions will be fine restaurants and, if not a biblical tide's worth of booze, a renewed chance to enjoy some decent American brews that usually only make it across the Atlantic in a crate.

It's reasonably easy to order something reliable from Chicago's Goose Island or NYC's own Brooklyn Brewery in a British bar; pick your spot and you'll also find bottles from some of the 1,000-odd small breweries that have set up in the US in the past 30 years. By happy coincidence, however, our local shop sells six-bottle carriers of the one I'll be drinking on the first night. Happy, and bizarre, given the brewery's size: I can't remember ever seeing its beers in a supermarket or off-licence.

There really is nothing to dislike about a proper pint of Samuel Adams' Boston Lager, unless you're the kind of old colonialist who takes exception to the product of one of our finest exported processes taking its name from an architect of the American revolution (which seems unlikely). Full-bodied and richly malty, it's a long way from the bland fizz of the multinational big-hitters. I'd like to think it's what Barack Obama had in mind when he floated a bit of 'bar-stool diplomacy' at the White House this summer. What Len would make of that is anyone's guess.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Book: Easy Tasty Italian by Laura Santtini

Laura Santtini's first book, Easy Tasty Italian, has been the subject of much excitable foodie chatter of late. That's partly because her PR is the Twitter-friendly, proactive Sarah Canet, and partly because when a chef is blonde, smiley and had just launched a range of edible glitter products at Selfridges, she's likely to get some attention.

It was by neither of these routes that I came across a copy of the book. I'm staying with my friends Natalie and Tom this week. They've just moved into a new house a Rohan jacket's throw from Epping Forest, and Tom had bought Nat a copy as a little new-home love token. He's a football journalist, nothing to do with the thrilling world of food media and its zeitgeists, but picked the book up because it looked unusual and contained the recipe for Alfredo sauce, a key component of many of his favourite meals.

To make Laura Santtini's Alfredo sauce, the cook (that's Nat) must heat 300ml of double cream with a whole packet of unsalted butter, stir in the cheese, and add nutmeg and another 100ml of cream. Last night we had it with grilled chicken, mash and green beans, and Nat added mushrooms and peas to the sauce to create the illusion of added vitamins. She's got a marvellous palate, the sauce was a triumph, and it went impressively solid in the fridge.

Tonight, we will have it with spaghetti and salad, and because Tim regards pasta and strong cheese as The Food Of The Devil, I intend to relish every mouthful. Buon Alfredo, as I'm sure Alfie's mother said when he was young and wont to experiment with butter and cream*.

*Apparently the Alfredo comes from a Roman restaurant called Alfredo alla Scrofa, which means 'at the sow's', but let that not detain us.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Taps me up

Taps, the new bar at the Great Northern, doesn't give much away. Certainly not beer; you pour your own from the taps that are installed at each table, and with pricing done by tenths of a pint, an amateurish pour is money down the foamy drain.

The food offer is a bit of a mystery, too. In a big brown bar off Peter Street, clean in a corporate way with a wipe-clean A3-size menu, it's not immediately apparent whether an inventive selection is going to be the result of a quick flick through the Brakes catalogue, or some thoughtful home-cooking.

The first indicator that we might be in for a nice surprise came when I asked if they had any preg-safe factory-made mayo, all pasteurised and flavourless but perfectly adequate for chip-dipping. The answer was no – it's all made in house, from fresh eggs. Good Lord.

The beers supplied vary from table to table – a hen party near us had Duvel and Vedett flowing freely – and Tim poured both Amstel and a lambic which smelt, tasted and looked exactly like cherryade and was clearly there For The Ladies. It's difficult to leave the shiny, shiny beer levers alone when they're right in front of you, which is presumably why the concept of Taps, which started off in Leicester, has proved lucrative enough to extend to Manchester. There's table service for other drinks and bottled beers from a long list, but it is not a concept that has been thoroughly grasped. Our empties were ignored every time someone dropped by with cutlery, or my glasses of lime and soda, each more thrilling than the last.

It feels odd to be eating good, fairly interesting food in such a bland and beery environment, but eat it we did. From the tapas-cum-starter list, the mini venison Wellington (pictured), with a fat chunk of foie gras tucked inside, was cooked rare and came with mustardy devilled mushrooms. Soft shell crab, in a coconuty crumb, was good with a herb salad even if the fearsomely garlicky mayo didn't really match.

Tim's ribeye steak (it's the weekend, right, you can't have something interesting every day of the week) was decent enough, and a kilo pot of mussels with white wine and cream, although a bit shoddy on the debearding front, did the job nicely. It reminded me of moule frites at the Hopleaf, a proper beer-loving pub in a suburb of Chicago, where we were very glad that our friends Abra and Erik had made us take ID. At the ripe combined age of 66, we weren't going to be allowed in without it. Now that's something that wouldn't happen on Peter Street.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Slattery will get you nowhere

As soon as my mum walked into Slattery in Whitefield, she sniffed the air, noted the cakes, and observed quite rightly that it's a bit like a Mancunian Bettys. They're both family-run patissier and confectioners with a nice line in tea shops, and what Bettys have done for tea and coffee, Slattery have done for extravagant hand-decorated wedding cakes. The Scousers, including the Rooneys, love it.

As long as the trams are down, north Manchester remains hard to reach. After a rare vehicular visit to Bury to pick up some pre-loved baby gear from a friend whose eeny weeny bundle of biddable has grown with terrifying speed into a bright, lively six-year-old, I twisted mum's driving arm and we sped down Bury New Road in search of a nice quaint lunch.

We didn't get it. In principle and in practice, I have always been a Slattery fan – I love the idea of an independent cake'n'choc emporium and took a fabulous chocolate course there a few years back – but I'm sad to report that, compared to how it was in its prime, the upstairs tea room falls short.

Away from the pretty art deco table lamps, which distract the eye momentarily, the walls are shabby and scuffed, and a yellow 'mind the wet floors' sign had been left beyond its usefulness on a bone-dry floor. Our drinks arrived after our food, there was nowhere to put mum's tea strainer (I KNOW, the hardship), the chocolate discs served with tea were bashed about. My plate was dirty round the edges and a glass and teapot bore the scars of a losing battle with the dishwasher.

We had bagels, mine an American job stuffed with pastrami, cheese, pickles and tomatoes. Nice idea, but it was soggy on the bottom, and someone had applied a massive gob of mayo to the hole, so that it oozed through as I bravely attempted to lift it to my mouth. Service was polite but lacklustre.

Like the Bettys cafes, the Slattery tea room is regarded by its many customers as a massive treat. It was packed and buzzing, and people were still waiting for a table as we left. Madness.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Kitchen essentials

No.2: The Magimix Compact 3 Automatic 100 Multi Cuve

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Product placement comes early to the BBC

It's true that the tyre lads do a prestigious line in restaurant and hotel guides, but last night's Masterchef: The Professionals took the product placement a bit far. In an episode during which hangdog Ludo and sad-face Matt went their mournful ways about Jason Atherton's kitchen, Michelin was mentioned a total of 28 times in 43 minutes. Other guides are, as they say, available.

In other news, Gregg Wallace revealed a rather inconvenient aversion. 'I find raw apple not unpleasant but strange,' he said of Ludo's apple salad. Seeing as Gregg's main foodie qualification is that he's a greengrocer, we suggest he gets this seen to sharpish. In the meantime, Gregg, don't go near the fruit bowl.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Manchester Food and Drink Festival Awards

Lord, but the roads are quick at night. Mere minutes after leaving the Palace Hotel and the Manchester Food and Drink Festival awards dinner, I'm back at my desk with disappointment dwelling in my heart.

Despite the apparent best efforts of everyone at the Festival, the food and service at the Palace were absolutely shocking. If that's what they do to impress Manchester's hospitality high fliers - not to mention the Hairy Bikers - I dread to think what's on the menu at the annual industry bash for, say, the people who make plastic, or sell air conditioning.

Nevertheless, some joy was available. As ever, I was on the judging panel for the awards and although not all my first choices picked up gongs, it's lovely to see some hard graft, clever thinking and good cooking being rewarded. And the winners are:

Retail outlet: Barbakan, Chorlton
Healthy and sustainable: Gabriel's Kitchen
Coffee bar and casual dining: Folk, West Didsbury
Family friendly: Dough (presented, masterfully, to strains of Kylie and Robbie's Kids)
Wine list: Gaucho (presented by Corrie's Anthony Cotton, who said "I'm going to burp, sorry. After one bottle, they all taste the f*cking same")
Bar: Apotheca
Pub: The Lass O'Gowrie
Newcomer: Damson, Heaton Moor
Chef: Ian Matfin, Abode
Restaurant: The Modern

Henrietta Green, who was sitting next to me, rather sweetly enquired who Noddy Holder was when he took the stage to give the lifetime achievement award to George Bergier. Quite rightly, the silver charmer got a standing ovation as he extolled the virtues of education, service and product knowledge. Perhaps he could take The Palace in hand.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Brimful of Asher

I am currently hunkered down under the twin weight of tonsilitis and a nasty cold - that's what you get for spending a couple of days in London - but back in the halcyon days when eating didn't feel like swallowing knives, I was a judge at Jane Asher's Home Baker of the Year competition.

I'd previously interviewed Asher (pictured left in hat) about the competition at her Chelsea cake shop. It's surprisingly small and un-fancy, although presumably the va-va-voom factor increases when Nigella Lawson, apparently a regular customer, drops by for some wafer roses.

To enter the competition, amateur bakers submit their cake recipes and the top five are selected to take part in a live bake-off, held this year at Poggenpohl's super-smooth Deansgate showroom. The top prize is £25,000 worth of Poggy kitchen, and it's a nice thought that at least one of them will be going to someone who cooks in the oven rather than using it to store their cashmere jumpers. So it was no surprise to find that competition was fierce, although it was a shame that one of the disappointed runners-up circulated afterwards, bitterly suggesting that there had been a coup.

In fact, there was nothing of the sort. The judges - including Jane, Andrew Nutter, telly lady Lucy Meacock, Karen Barnes of Good Housekeeping, Lucy of Lucy Cooks and me - gathered around the cakes, ate them, and decided which one we liked best. A fruity Bakewell tart and a really good carrot cake were both lovely but flawed in some way, so after much deliberation we chose Helen Roscoe's Lancashire Belles, choux puffs filled with home-made parkin ice cream and drizzled with chocolate. The choux, ice cream and other frills were all very nice, but it was the parkin - gingery and oaty and fabulous - that clinched it.

Two more things that are fabulous: Andrew Nutter's chef's jacket, which is appliqued with blue diamante, and Boots' packs of 30 nasal strips. Drugs are limited when you're pregnant, so thank God for the glamour of the anti-cold sticking plaster.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

I can't go back to Sainsbury now...

Wide aisles, fruity beers and – bit of a clincher, this – a new deal to feed four for a tenner. But what would John Shuttleworth say?

Monday, October 05, 2009

Let us now hail... Culinary alcohol

Here's a sight to gladden the heart – or possibly stop it. This is one of the well-stocked ingredients shelves at Cocoadance, the Peak District chocolate-maker featured in a recent Hale and Hearty post

There wasn't time to talk drink then, perhaps because I wasn't doing the writing. But Cocoadance returned to mind after a weekend celebration that involved, among other things, a skittles marathon, some old-school desserts, this marvellous cake and much West Country beer. Chocolate and what might generously be called the more refined tipples didn't get a look in, which is probably par for a birthday bash in honour of two merry widowers with a combined age of 150. 

It wasn't always this way. Samuel Pepys was apparently as devoted to the restorative powers of drinking chocolate – at the height of its imperial period as medicinal marvel – as he was to the transformative powers of drinking colossal quantities of what might generously be called port. The best part of two centuries passed before Fry's sold the first bar, at which point finding a preservative became paramount. And so began the journey that brought booze to soft centres.

Most of the bottles in Cocoadance's stash contain culinary alcohol. These are super-proof bottles of popular brands, prized for their familiar taste and practical potency, plus the odd wildcard: that Lajita is a hefty mezcal, complete with worm. 

The daddy of the set, though, is the plastic pot far right. It might look like something sold alongside the charcoal briquettes on a petrol station forecourt, but this is Etilfrutto: a formulation supplied by industry wholesalers Keylink. It's flavourless, it's colourless, and it's 80% ABV. Not one for the vicar, then, but more than enough to get a chocaholics' party started. Even if you are better off with the finest ale known to man.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Riemenschneider: 'Too many balls'

Michael Riemenschneider. Pic: Martin O'Neill

When Michael Riemenschneider arrived at Juniper in Altrincham, some people were excited. When it closed not long afterwards, some people were not surprised. But rumours of the fain-daining chef's return to God's own region have been swirling thickly, and it has been confirmed that he's now in charge of the food at all three of Contessa's Wirral hotels, with Scouse wedding favourite the Hillbark, near Frankby, his focus.

The hotel's restaurant, The Yellow Room, is being refurbished, and soon anyone who liked Mr R's langoustines with pearl barley at Juniper will probably find them on the menu down Frankby way; he's bringing his signature dishes with him. Meanwhile, he has an explanation for his swift departure from Altrincham. "It's a fair criticism to say I took too much on," he says. "We created a real impact on the table but I was juggling too many balls."

If the Hale and Hearty piggybank will stretch to it, we'll be on the Wirral – oh joy! – before long to see what the crack is now he's put the balls down.

Man cake: DONE!

We've had babycakes, now it's time for mancakes. Tim's dad is celebrating his 70th birthday tomorrow night and this cake is what 80 of his nearest and dearest will be nibbling at one of North Somerset's premier village sports clubs, with a pint of Butcombe on the side.

It's much easier to produce something pretty and cute for a christening or girl's birthday than it is to come up with a manly cake which doesn't rely on a comedy golf theme, so I went for simple and colourful. Even this required a visit to our local cake decorating shop for supplies, and apart from eating the sponge offcuts slathered with raspberry jam, this might be my favourite part of the process.

Sugarcraft shops, where they bake on site and decorate behind the counter as well as selling bits of specialist kit, have a lovely sweet smell and a language all their own. You can have a half-hour conversation about guide sticks, edible glue, drums and dowels, and charmingly, everything still seems to be calculated in inches.The staff tend to be highly skilled and very helpful, and if they're not, you just go somewhere else next time. I could have spent hours looking through the spools of ribbon and little pots of glitter, but I had a cake to make.

If you have a fancy for cake fiddlings but don't know where to start, have a look at Peggy Porschen's website and her first book, Pretty Party Cakes (the new one, Cake Chic, isn't nearly as good). Her designs are ridiculously chic and accomplished, so much so that I've never attempted more than a few of her decorated cookies. But her recipes and quantities for good base cakes and instructions on filling, stacking and icing are immensely useful, right down to the boring stuff like covering the cake board (which I didn't do properly for this one. Fule!).

PP, as I like to think of her, has also let me into one of the professional cake decorator's biggest secrets. Even under a thick mantle of icing, there's no way a sponge cake is going to stay fresh and moist for the many hours between baking, filling, decorating, transportation and the big do. The solution is to give the sponge a liberal soaking with sugar syrup, flavoured with vanilla, lemon or booze, before you put it all together. It's this discovery that means I'll be able to hang around at the party rather than scampering off, shamefaced, while everyone wonders why that nice-looking cake tastes like sawdust.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Parental advisory: explicit cake

There's a celebratory cake to be made by tomorrow afternoon, and the Hale and Hearty baking drawers have been turned out in preparation.

The hunt for decorative inspiration is weirdly addictive: visit the website of a random cake-maker and, as the old Black Flag track so memorably put it, let your fingers do the walking.

But there is intrigue closer to home. Such as, what kind of cake is it that requires a topless female figurine with luxuriant strawberry-blonde hair and moveable arms?