Here’s to Allen Carr

The news of the rather ironic demise of anti-smoking guru Allen Carr was greeted with some sadness in our household.
Himself and I have been smoke-free for a number of years now thanks to the former convert. And I’m happy in the knowlegde that I may have helped him towards his multi-millionaire status as his “easy way to stop smoking” worked for us where plenty of others failed.
But what’s this got to do with food? you cry. Well apart from the fact that giving up smoking allowed us to truly enjoy our food and actually develop taste buds, Mr Carr’s methods also saved us from being the type of people in restuarants who prompt you to ask to be moved.
We both now cringe with embarrassment at the occassion in an Indian restaurant where we had determinedly smoked our way through a good many cigarettes, barely pausing to shovel down some overly spiced fodder.
Throwing down two plates of barely touched food, a man from a nearby table sparked a momentary halt in the puffing:

“I do hope my food doesn’t put you off your smoking”

he declared before storming out. Stunned, at the time we felt a bit affronted but since have often wished I could summon up the courage to deliver the same line with such effect.

Sundays, sickness and special times

There’s something so special about Sunday mornings. And this Sunday morning seems more special than most. Having spent the last two days in bed with no food, waking this morning to feel as right as rain – and particularly hungry – has made me appreciate the whole Sunday morning experience all the more.
The last two days have been a stomach-churning nightmare thanks to a hefty dose of food poisoning. It started on Friday morning with a particularly embarrassing vomiting outburst during an important work meeting and continued throughout the day and most of yesterday.

Lesson learned from this experience? When eating potentially dodgy takeaway food; if it doesn’t seem to be hot enough – it isn’t.

But that’s all behind me now and my super-happy Sunday started with breakfast in bed and the Sunday papers. Aaah, bliss! Catching up with the week’s events, apart from the fascinating spy poisioning story, I thought India Knight’s column in the Sunday Times was particularly timely. She’s so right.

Yes, sugar is the devil and it does seem you’ve got to devote your life to doing research in order to even find out what’s really going into your food.

On the subject of the quality of our food, BBC Radio 4 has been doing its bit today with the annual Food and Farming Awards 2006.
It aims to reward good practice in everything from dinner ladies to supermarkets and it’s good to see some local businesses have made it onto the list of nominees.
In the best local food retailer category, Warrington’s Northern Harvest and The Chadwick Family’s Emporium of Fine Foods are both nominated.

That’s chicken twice tonight

What is it about blokes? As has been noted on this blog before, men seen to come over all macho when there’s food on offer. Is it a hunter/gatherer thing?
Take this for an example;
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It’s two chicken dinners. Not content with ordering up half a roasted chicken with roast spuds, veg and gravy, my dinner companion felt the need to order two. All the meat and roasts came on this one plate, with all the accompaniments on another.
I then had the delight of watching him eat every last morsel – rather like a human pirhana. And just when I thought the ordeal was over, it was time to turn the chicken carcass.

“There’s always some excitment when you turn it over.”

Right.
The end result;
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And how did he feel? Click here to find out.
Need I say more.
Any doubts left about men’s eating habits – you only have to see this.

Ian’s established in Cambridge

When the maitre d’ approached me after a slendid dinner and asked if I would mind waiting for a short while because “the chef would like a word” I was a little concerned. I had visions of a wild-haired apparition wiedling knives and cleavers wanting to know just why I felt it necessary to leave the tiniest piece of lamb or drop of raspberry sorbet.
But my short wait was rewarded with a cheery smile from one of Manchester’s former top chefs – Ian Morgan of Establishment fame.
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Ian (pictured) had heard that we were visiting from Manchester and wanted to say hello from his new base in the kitchens of Hotel Felix in Cambridge.
Followers of gastronomy in our fair city will remembr that Ian left a year ago to an unknown future expected to be down south and, on Saturday night’s evidence, I can confirm that he’s doing some exciting cooking.
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We were treated to starters of venison carpaccio (pictured right)
and pot-roasted cinnamon quail. There were appertisers of lobster bisque with watercress which was frothy and light while still retaining that delicate watercress flavour alongside the more robust lobster.
A perfectly cooked sweet, scallop presented with an artichoke confit and main courses which just left us wanting more. lamb.jpg
My simple lamb with rosemary and dauphinois potato(pictured) was quite easily the most tender cut I have eaten all year and literally fell off the fork while Himself found the perfectly rare Glenlivet infused beef very much to his liking.
Desserts weren’t a disappointment either with his baked apple with ginger proving the perfect accompaniment to the winter theme and my chocolate souffle being more than moreish.
The setting was stylish too although the hotel had earlier in the day suffered a major power cut which threatened to cancel our meal. Thankfully emergency generators came to the rescue and we were indulged in style.
Earlier in the day we had set out to enjoy everything that the Loch Fyne Restaurant in Cambridge might have to offer for lunch. What a fine name in in seafood restaurants and what a disappointment. First of all there appeared to be a shortage of salad in the area – for near enough £14 a head, our crab salads had little more than a garnish of leaves and one cherry tomato each. Added to that, the crab meat was overly chilled and the whole experience felt like one of being processed – a bit like being in a fish plant really. Perhaps that’s the idea.
Anyway, I’ll be doing a full review of the trip to Cambridge in the M.E.N in the near future but in the meantime, if you want to reaquaint yourself with Ian’s exciting and fresh brand of cooking – he’s only down the A1.

A Vienesse Whirl or the politics of envy

Just recently I been fortunate enough to have a whirl around Vienna. And I’m angry. This very short trip to the grand old city quickly showed up some home truths – we in Britain have lost our way with food. Maybe it’s not just food – in just two hours I discovered litter-free clean streets, no beggars, streetsellers, scallies or yobs, trains that are clean, cheap and arrive early and then leave exactly when the clock strikes the timetabled second. There was also good service, friendly (and thankfully multi-lingual) assistance and more culturtal events that our own dear City Life could ever hope to publish details of.
But I digress. Back to the food. Austria is undoubdtedly a country with a culinary pedigree and I couldn’t help but notice its sweet tooth.
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There’s chocolate and cake shops galore. Some are on the kitch side of things with their iced gingerbread and brightly coloured confectionary, some are bargain counters of sugary delight, most of gateaux of all shapes and sizes, some look austere and serious while others have an air of exclusivity but all offer sensuous delights.
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It was all too much to resist.On a stroll through yet another litter-free park full of art, I was pulled towards a modernist cube of white and glass where I could glimpse a counter heaving with pastries, sweets and cakes. As I went into this small eaterie i was surprised to be greeted by the smell of cheese.
It wasn’t some stinking-in-the-celler musty, old smell but a fresh, evocative scent of the fields.
The menu informed me that this place had an amazing 120 cheese varities on offer and it seemed to specialise in dairy delights. Never before have I seen a list of the types of milk available by the glass. There was milk you might expect, such as full-fat but there was also buttermilk and even horse mare’s milk as well as rice, oat or soya types.
gateaux.jpgBut I had called for cake and plumbred for this cranberry concoction. It was perfect with the tartness of the cranberry stopping the sweetness of the cream becoming too cloying and sickly. It all went down a bit too quickly as well!
I later considered these delicacies which were offered in an eaterie that was neither expensive or exclusive in any way and wondered why Vienna wasn’t full of hugely obese people with so much sweet temptation on offer.

I didn’t see a single melted candle body oozing from leisurewar and brushing pastry crumbs from its nylon shirt during my stay.

Not one, OK I wasn’t there long but I guarantee one would waddle into view within 10 minutes wherever I went in Manchester. So there must be something else at play here. And that’s what made me angry. For while policitians of all shades may attempt to bully, persuade and hector the population into healthy eating, they have suceeded in making good food the preserve of the well-off.
What has happened to our ability to enjoy something simple and well-made? The wholesome and the hearty? Where would you go to enjoy a glass of milk? How many varities of cheese do they sell at your local cafe?
As we all seem to be following the US into a high-carb, high-fat, pile-it-high culture of cheap food and then perversly accommpanying it with a multi-million £/$ fitness industry, isn’t it time for a re-think?
Just why can’t proper food be cheaper? Why can’t small traders survive? Why can’t we sustain an entrepreneurial culture of expertise instead of exploitation?

After all, what’s the point of triving to be an economic superpower if we can’t even afford to feed our citizens?

And I don’t mean merely sustain, subdue and sate into a lifetime of sugary sloth and surgery. No I mean feed – the body and the soul.

Name that pudding

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What on earth is this? If anyone can name this well-known dessert then I will treat them to one today! This delight was served up in a put in East Yorkshire (where I am visting once again) last night.
As a further clue, the recipient of the dish could only manage

“it’s quite lemony”

to describe what he discovered after sifting through that sea of squirty “cream”.
Answers below please – and come on show some imagination.
BTW, the hundreds and thousands aren’t part of the classical interpretation of this sweet favourite.

Lunch break: Barburrito

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Fancying a change from the old routine I decided to go down Mexico way.
It’s always struck me as odd that Manchester doesn’t really have many Mexican-style restaurants. There was the (frankly nasty) El Macho in Portland Street but even that seems to have hung up its sombrero now.
As a style of food goes, Mexican food would seem to be a winning offering – relatively cheap to produce, offering healthy options with all those beans, popular being spicy and plentiful so why the lack here when other cities seem to support several?
Whatever the answer, it was welcome to see the Barburrito Mexican Grill sign in the revamped Piccadilly Gardens.
I’ve met quite a few people who talk about this place with an enthusiastic zeal usually reserved for supermarket bargains and the outfit was recently named as the city’s Newcomer of the Year so I was looking forward to seeing what the fuss was about.
From the outside, largely because of the name and the signs, I had decided it was a sit down restaurant but once inside it was obvious this is a south American take on a sandwich bar.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The offerings of quesadillas, nachos, salads and, of course, burritos seemed vast. I finally settled on a large vegetarian burrito (£4.15) while Himself tucked into a version with braised pork (£4.50). Not content to leave it at that, we also had some nachos and guacamole and he, of course, took advatge of its licence by ordering up a beer with lime.
The most notable thing about it was the freshness of the ingredients and I was impressed with the variety of the different fillings – beans, salsa, mushrooms, onion, the list goes on – it’s amazing how much a flour tortilla will hold!
Neither of us managed to finish it all which probably means the small option (at a lower price) would have been the sensible choice.
Service is fast and the experience turned out to be a good lunch-time call. Being close to Rice, which also does fast and fresh, it seems the gardens is becoming a good place to go for inexpensive but interesting lunchtime options.
Plus: Fresh ingredients, lots of choice.
Minus: Not a lingering lunch ambience.
Value: Good value with plenty on offer for under £5.

Oh Jamie, what have you done?

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School dinners are in crisis again – but this time it seems that Jamie Oliver is to blame.
After singling the dinner ladies out for serving up childhood obesity, it seems the celebrity chef’s campaign to get children eating more healthily has led to a drop in school dinner take up.
According to a study by the BBC schools in 35 areas (59%) said the number of pupils eating school dinners had gone down and, of those 71% believed Jamie Oliver’s campaign was a reason.
Two-thirds said children did not like the new, more nutritious menus.
But these headline figure may mask a deeper malaise – what are parents doing about this? After the unedifying scenes of parents selling junk food to their soon to be not-so-little darlings through the school gate, it makes you wonder what delights these parents are now providing to the truculent Waynes and Perrys who are turning their snouts up at “proper food”.
A nutritious home-prepared pack –up perhaps? Or a relinquishing of parental responsibility by handing out some cash to go to the chippy, newsagent or local greasy spoon?
You do have to feel some sympathy for the plight of the dinner ladies, Jamie Oliver and the rest of the do-gooding school campaigners because you can take the junk out of school but it won’t make a jot of difference unless the message is carried into the home as well.
* For more on this, have a look at The School Dinner debate.

Good week for….wine drinkers

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For anyone who enjoys a drop of the red stuff there’s some good news this week. A study in America has revealed that a substance in red wine could hold back the effects of ageing and fight the ill effects of high-calorie diets.
The news we’ve all been waiting for?
It is reported that obese mice given the compound Resveratrol, plentiful in red wine, lived longer and had healthier hearts and livers.
Trouble is that when scaled up to human levels, it would apparently be the equivalent of 100 bottles of wine a day.
But fear not, the other big news this week is that scientists at Newcastle University are on their way to growing livers. Cheers!

Cooking in the past

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If anyone has any clues what Jolop and Purl ashes are, then you could help to solve a cooking mystery from the 1800s.
Reader Eliza contacted me about a labour of love which has led her to scan every recipe in a book she inherited from her grandmother’s grandmother into her blog at http://elizabethridings.blogspot.com/.
She believes her relative, who lived in Shakespeare Terrace in Newton Heath, ran a cake shop in Miles Platting or Newton Heath – and she would like to know more..
She explained: “I’m scanning it recipe by recipe – Mainly because it entertains me but also because I haven’t the faintest idea what else to do with it!

“Your readers may be able to tell me who Hiley, Foster, Bamber and Metheringham were! .. and maybe what Jolop and Purl ashes are in a Parkin recipe. …and maybe how to cook them. Any recipes with 40 eggs or 14 lb of treacle can’t be all bad.”


So if you can help, please post your comments below and I’ll make sure they get passed on.