I was impressed by the Manchester deli just opened by Lily’s, long time champions of Indian vegetarian food in Ashton-under-Lyne. When I first ate at the original mothership, named after the Sachdev family matriarch, it was very much a case of teeming thalis on formica top tables. Very much a cafe. The new generation have upped the style offering (check out the Ashton HQ murals) without compromising the food quality. Not that I’m ever likely to acquire a taste for any of their  mega-sticky mainstay sweets.

In its gleaming new Henry Street outlet offering takeaway and store cupboard staples (but alas no fresh veg or herbs) there are ranks of these technicolor treats above a counter of samosas, pakoras, bhajis and other savoury snacks that are more to my taste.

So I couldn’t resist picking up a couple of Gujarati samosas on a flying visit, but my focus was elsewhere. I’m well stocked with every variety of Indian spice, but it is a while since the Anardana jar has been refreshed. OK, not a phrase you hear everyday; let’s just call me a sub-continental completist.

I scanned the alphabetically arranged spice shelves in vain but no anardana in sight. What is this elusive culinary enhancement? It is basically dried pomegranate seeds ground into a powder to serve as an intense acidifying agent in dishes, especially those from the Punjab. The seeds and pulp are separated from the rind of the fruit and shrivelled in the sun for up to a fortnight, turning reddish brown. According to the great Alan Davidson in the Oxford Companion to Food, the best example comes from the wild pomegranate known as daru, which grows in the lower Himalayas.

I eventually sourced my anardana replenishment in the foothills of Levenshulme at the Noor supermarket, which stocks two rival brands. You could, of course, substitute Iranian pomegranate molasses, popularised by Yotam Ottolenghi, for the same effect.

Rival souring agents vary according to region. Kerala ha th pumpkin-based cambodge, while the Konkan area flavours its dal with kokum, but anardana’s main rival is Amchoor, which provides a sourer, resinous oomph to curries, chutneys and especially chaats. The base here is green, unripe, out-of-season mangoes, again sun-dried. then pulverised, with the advantage of adding no extra moisture to dishes. Like papaya, it can be used to tenderise meat. It is packed with potassium, magnesium, calcium and assorted vitamins. Whatever, use it sparingly.

Which brings us to a third ‘A’ that to me is a prime sensory component of Indian cooking but can overwhelm a dish – Asafoetida. The ‘foetid’ gives the game away about this gum extracted from a pungent variety of giant fennel. John O’Connell in his essential The Book of Spice describes it as smelling like “pickled eggs covered in manure”. The French call it merde du diable (devil’s dung). And yet… in its powdered form temper a dish with what the Indians call ‘hing’ and all that rankness dissolves. It recreates the aromas of onion and garlic, staples deemed impure by certain Hindu castes, so it is the perfect substitute. No Indian pickle is the same without it. Amazingly until recently India imported the entirety of its hing from colder climate countries such as Iran and Afghanistan. Now there’s an initiative to ‘grow their own’, according to a Guardian report.

According to O’Connell, there are strong Ayurvedic medical claims for asafoetida as both sedative and stimulant. A further plus is its ability to suppress flatulence. That’s the calling card too for Ajwain (or ajowan). It’s the prime constituent of Omum Water, the Sub-continent’s version of gripe water, once given to babies for colic, and has a range of antiseptic properties. I’m quietly addicted to it in spice mixtures, especially for dusting chaats (above, the moreish  Bundobust version. Known familiarly as the bishop’s weed, it’s an obvious cousin to fennel, cumin and caraway. https://bundobust.com

In the Noor Stores along Levenshulme’s global main drag ajwain was there in the spice section, neighboured by three varieties of anardana. Back of the net! And irresistible giant fresh pomegranates were also on sale for a pittance. The benefits (and excitement) of buying ethnic.

My favourite chaat recipe – Meera Sodha’s New Potato + Chickpea


75g pitted dates; 3tsp tamarind paste; salt; 2tbsp Greek yoghurt; 600g baby new potatoes; 2tbsp unsalted butter; 1tsp cumin seeds, roughly ground; ½tsp ground black pepper; 1tsp ground ginger; 1 green finger chilli, finely chopped; 400g can chickpeas, drained and rinsed; 1 large banana shallot, finely diced; juice of 1 lemon; large handful of coriander, chopped; handful of thin sev (fried chickpea noodles).


Prepare the date and tamarind chutney first. Blend the dates together with the tamarind paste and a pinch of salt and 100ml of water, then leave to one side.
Mix the yogurt with a couple of tablespoons of water until you can drizzle it using a spoon, then leave to one side. Wash and boil the potatoes for 15 minutes, until they are tender and a knife can slip through them easily. Drain, tip out onto a plate, and crush them slightly with a fork or the bottom of a sturdy cup.
Put the butter into a wide-bottomed frying pan over a medium heat. When melted, add the ground cumin seeds, black pepper, ginger, chilli, and ¾ teaspoon of salt. Stir, then add the potatoes. Leave the potatoes to crisp and char for around 5 minutes, to heat through. Toss together and throw in the chickpeas, shallots, and lemon juice. Then add the date and tamarind chutney. Stir to mix and take off the heat.
Serve warm in individual plates or bowls with a couple of dollops of yogurt, a scattering of coriander and sev. (I sprinkle over a couple of teaspoons of chaat masala spice mix. You can make your own (amchoor, coriander, cumin, black pepper, kala namak, cinnamon, ginger). I bought a packet from Lily’s.

From Fresh India by Meera Sodha (Fig Tree, £20)

Chinatowns, I’ve done a few. From London’s Gerrard Street main drag to the more atmospheric San Francisco neighbourhood to Manchester’s own compact quarter. I’m an astrological dragon, so the Dragon Parades are for me; less so the waddling Lion Dances that come out of the woodwork during Chinese New Year.

This year’s animal is the Tiger, roaring into the limelight from February 1. In Manchester the focal point of celebration is an arty sculpture in St Ann’s Square, made from wood and recycled materials, that’s more Tiggerish than tigerish but hey we don’t want to scare the kids. For full details of the city’s Year of the Tiger schedule visit this link. (alas, due to Covid precautions, the customary parade and fireworks finale will not be taking place on the closing Sunday, February 6)

The beautiful tiger installation for St Ann’s Square, Manchester

Contrary as ever I chose Leeds, which lacks a designated Chinatown, for my advance  gustatory celebration and, to coin a phrase, the fortune cookie favours the brave. Wen’s was just splendid, earning its Tiger stripes with a flourish.

The interior is not dramatically changed from its 30 year spell as Hansa, serving Gujarati veggie food cooked by a groundbreaking female team. When inspirational founder Hansa Dhabi finally retired from the restaurant, Wen’s added their own distinctive stamp in 2019.

I could have been forgiven for thinking it was the Year of the Horse as the first thing I spotted on entering the cosy North Street restaurant was a Western saddle propped in a corner. Chao Wen, front-of-house, confessed it was a whim buy on a trip to a Manchester emporium. It signalled no equine purpose in this keen bodybuilder’s life, he assured me. Whatever, it alerted me to a distinct shift from the regular ‘go for a Chinese’ template. 

Witness the soundtrack of loungecore piano treatments of Christmas carols. Well, have you ever tackled a jellyfish salad to the tinkling strains of In The Bleak Midwinter? And who would have thought a selection of Mother Wen’s homemade fried dumplings would have brought such tidings of comfort and joy? She cooks in the basement with her husband. The two of them, both from Shandong, once ran a small restaurant in Beijing. What they certainly bring to their Leeds venture is the same no-short-cuts search for authenticity, even if the Chinese menu does roam regionally with Sichuan to the fore. Hence my Kung Po Chicken (£10.60), startlingly well balanced despite the considerable quantity of dried chillis and citrussy sharp sichuan peppercorns involved with the generous portions of marinated cubed chicken and peanuts. I’ve cooked the dish myself but never got near this quality. Thanks to Steve Nuttall of Wayward Wines and Anja Madvani of Leeds Confidential for that particular recommendation.

Wen’s was bigged up too, I discovered from a framed cutting on the wall, by Observer critic Jay Rayner in September 2020. He was rightly effusive about the house ‘dumplings in gossamer skins’. He’s aware how many Chinese restaurants buy them in. Wen’s menu offers five varieties, ranging from £5.80 to £6.90 for a half dozen – minced chicken, spicy minced beef, minced pork, king prawn and mixed seasonal greens. I had a selection (doubling up on the beef) and they were remarkably juicy inside the lightest of dough casings, their bases crisply crusted. Next time I’m heading straight for Mrs Wen’s hand-pulled noodles Dan Dan style. Think minced pork and oodles of chilli oil.

As for that marinated jellyfish with shredded Chinese leaf (£7.90) which kicked off proceedings, I chose it out of curiosity, expecting yet another Chinese riff on texture (think pig’s ears, rooster combs and chicken feet). It was a delightful surprise, dried strands rehydrated and delicately dressed in chilli oil, soy sauce, sichuan peppercorns and garlic, I suspect. Tigers are fine in their place; why can’t there be a Year of the Jellyfish?

Wen’s Chinese, 72-74 North Street, Leeds LS2 7PN. 01132444408.

I’ve been poorly since Christmas. I wasn’t alone. Most of the immediate family succumbed to ferocious head colds. All Covid tests negative, so that was something. Debilitated, my to-do-list groaned, but the time out also made me consider my mixed feelings about ‘supporting hospitality’ when there was still a pandemic minefield to be negotiated. 

My own blog (for that is what it is) is all about quite niche foodie avenues. Able to afford? Well, just, prioritising food sources rather than affording fancy clothes or most other commercial imperatives. But still able to choose. Not waking each day wondering how to get by. As so many are. There is first hand evidence every week at the local food bank where my wife works.

And then, among the squalid Tory party ‘Big Dog’ squabbles, comes hard factual evidence of this inflation-driven issue, putting so much into perspective. I’ve always respected the breadline frontline reports of Jack ‘@BootstrapCook’ Monroe, yet her latest informed research (queried by some online but I believe her Asda shopping based data) shook me to the core.  As did her message – why is the mainstream media not bringing these horrors to our attention? Her Tweet thread details the horrendous rise in the cost of living for the poorest among us. On social media it has understandably gone viral with 15 million views and counting. Let me add my support to this stark outline of a humanitarian crisis on our own doorstep.

Jack Tweeted: “Woke up this morning to the radio talking about the cost of living rising a further 5%. It infuriates me the index that they use for this calculation, which grossly underestimates the real cost of inflation as it happens to people with the least. Allow me to briefly explain.

“This time last year, the cheapest pasta in my local supermarket (one of the Big Four), was 29p for 500g. Today it’s 70p. That’s a 141% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households. This time last year, the cheapest rice at the same supermarket was 45p for a kilogram bag. Today it’s £1 for 500g. That’s a 344% price increase as it hits the poorest and most vulnerable households.

“Baked beans were 22p, now 32p. A 45% price increase year on year. Canned spaghetti was 13p, now 35p. A price increase of 169%. Bread. Was 45p, now 58p. A price increase of 29%. Curry sauce. Was 30p, now 89p. A price increase of 196%.A bag of small apples. Was 59p, now 89p (and the apples are even smaller!) A price increase of 51%. Mushrooms were 59p for 400g. They’re now 57p for 250g. A price increase of 56%. (This practise, of making products smaller while keeping them the same price, is known in the retail industry as ‘shrinkflation’ and its insidious as hell because it’s harder to immediately spot.) Peanut butter. Was 62p, now £1.50. A price increase of 142%.

“These are just the ones that I know off the top of my head –  there will be many many more examples! When I started writing my recipe blog ten years ago, I could feed myself and my son on £10 a week. (I’ll find the original shopping list later and price it up for today’s prices.) These are just the ones that I know off the top of my head – there will be many many more examples! When I started writing my recipe blog ten years ago, I could feed myself and my son on £10 a week. (I’ll find the original shopping list later and price it up for today’s prices.)

“The system by which we measure the impact of inflation is fundamentally flawed – it completely ignores the reality and the REAL price rises for people on minimum wages, zero hour contracts, food bank clients, and millions more.

“But I guess when the vast majority of our media were privately educated and came from the same handful of elite universities, nobody thinks to actually check in with anyone out here in the world to see how we’re doing. (Fucking terribly, thanks for asking.) Every time there’s a news bulletin on the rising cost of living, I hope that today might be the day that that some real journalism happens, and someone stops to consider those of us outside of the bubble. Maybe today might finally be that day.

“And just to add: an upmarket ready meal range was £7.50 ten years ago, and is still £7.50 today; a high-end stores ‘Dine In For Two For £10’ has been £10 for as long as I can remember; my local supermarket had 400+ items in their value range, it’s now 91 (and counting down) The margins are always, always calculated to squeeze the belts of those who can least afford it, and massage the profits of those who have money to spare. And nothing demonstrates that inequality quite so starkly as tracking the prices of ‘luxury’ food vs ‘actual essentials’. To return to the luxury ready meal example, if the price of that had risen at the same rate as the cheapest rice in the supermarket, that £7.50 lasagne would now cost £25.80. Dine In For £10 would be £34.40.

“We’re either all in this together, or we aren’t. Now, picture if you will, the demographic of the voter who has kept the current party in power for the last 11 years. Imagine the Chancellor having to explain to them that their precious microwave dinner now cost almost four times what it did yesterday. The Prime Minister claiming that he’s cutting the cost of living while the price of basic food products shoot up by THREE HUNDRED AND FORTY FOUR PER CENTis the one I’m properly angry enough to riot over.”

Jack, I’m with you on the barricades.

Check out the December 2021 Food Foundation report on food insecurity.

Cheshire’s Arley Hall grounds have been hosting Harry Potter: A Forbidden Forest Adventure. My family went on a chilly Potter pilgrimage to the attraction; I dog-sat and kept the home fires burning. Next day I paid my personal homage to a hero of my own… with strong Arley links.

OK, I didn’t follow Elizabeth Raffald’s 1769 recipe for Mac and Cheese. Not because it is no longer serviceable but because I sought the more luxurious cosseting Nigella Lawson brings with her Crab Mac ’n’ Cheese from her wonderful Cook, Eat, Repeat (Chatto & Windus, £25). Poor relation of the lobster variant? Think again, a long as the crab element’s a super fresh mix of white and brown meat it knocks the claws off the rival combo.

Picture above, full ingredients and method to follow, but back to Mrs Raffald (or Raffauld). I first came across her when primordial Northern Quarter pioneers, The Market Restaurant, named a private dining room after this formidable woman, who became such an entrepreneurial force in 18th century Manchester. A previous Nigella tome might have tilted at irony in its How To Be a Domestic Goddess title, but that fitted Raffald like a leathern glove as fledgling housekeeper at Arley Hall, outside Nantwich.

The 800 original recipes she developed there – including a precursor of the Eccles cake and the first written recipes for piccalilli and crumpets – were the base for her classic, best-selling The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), which rivalled contemporary Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, published 20 years before. Both seminal cookbooks were revered in the 20th century by Elizabeth David and Jane Grigson, whose own cookbooks influenced the Market Restaurant’s bistro offering.

Since the dawn of time (or should that be cheese) there had been global dishes that paired dairy and pasta, but it took the Doncaster-born 26 year old to pin down To Dress Macaroni with Parmesan Cheese. All the elements are in place

The Stars and Stripes flies proudly on the Mac and Cheese Club of America site

“Boil four ounces of macaroni till it be quite tender and lay it on a sieve to drain. Then put it in a tossing pan with about a gill (ie a quarter of a pint) of good cream, a lump of butter rolled in flour, boil it five minutes. Pour it on a plate, lay all over it parmesan cheese toasted. Send it to the table on a water plate, for it soon gets cold.”

Parmesan, imported from Italy, was then a luxury item. A century earlier, as the Great Fire of London threatened his home, my beloved Samuel Pepys buried wheels of parmesan along with other treasures.

By the time Eliza Acton’s 1845 book Modern Cookery for Private Families (superior to Mrs Beeton) came along the familiar béchamel sauce version had consolidated the dish’s popularity and Cheddar and Gruyere now contended for the gloopy cheese element in what was universally known as Macaroni Cheese.

That was certainly still its name in the 1930s when an affordable mass-produced version from KRAFT featuring processed cheese and dried pasta was vital in keeping poverty-stricken Americans fed during the Great Depression. It was well suited to war time rations, too, and later student self-catering. So Mac and Cheese inexorably became a Yankee institution. 

These days the dish can benefit from hipster twists, but it has more obsessive manifestations as I discovered when I checked out the Mac and Cheese Club of America Facebook group.

Take, for instance a recipe for ‘The KRAFT Macaroni & Cheese and Spam Hot Dish’, a bake whose ingredients list includes a Mac ‘n’ cheese pack, frozen peas, condensed cream of celery soup and sliced luncheon meat. Then there are Mac pizzas and burgers and a Mac ready meal that I wonder would be welcome in the Bible Belt – ‘Mac & Cheesus: The Dine Divine’, ready in 10 minutes.

Such a dish would surely have appalled Elizabeth Raffald, who (in a generally very practical book) proposed a second course of a lavish dinner to include ‘roast hare, transparent pudding covered with a silver web, snowballs, moonshine, rocky island and burned cream, mince pies, creerant with hot pippins, crawfish in a savoury jelly, snipes in ditto, pickled smelts, marbled veal, collared pig and potted lamprey, vegetables, stewed cardoons, pompadour cream, macaroni, stewed mushrooms and dessert’.

Not that food was the entire compass of this lady’s life. Born in Doncaster in 1733, she died, apparently of exhaustion, at the age of 48 in 1781 after 18 years in Manchester, where she bore 16 children as well as founding a domestic servants’ employment agency, launching a prototype deli/catering operation and running two pubs plus a cookery school.

Nigella Lawson’s Crab Mac and Cheese

It’s good to see Nigella still around at 62, as life-enhancing as ever in her best book in years, Cook, Eat, Repeat, from which this recipe comes.

She says: “The combination is just sumptuous, like a cross between a mac’n’cheese and a bisque. I stray further from tradition in that I use pasta shells rather than macaroni, and I don’t scatter more cheese on top and brown it in the oven. I find a freckling of Aleppo pepper more than makes up for the familiar heat-scorched finish.” In my version I used rigatoni


100g Gruyère, 15g freshly grated Parmesan, 15g plain flour, ¼ tsp ground mace, ¼ tsp smoked sweet paprika, ⅛ teaspoon Aleppo pepper or hot smoked paprika, plus more to sprinkle at the end, 250 ml full fat milk, 1tbsp tablespoon tomato puree, 30g unsalted butter, 1 fat clove of garlic, ½ tsp Worcestershire sauce, 200 grams conchiglie rigate pasta,  100g mixed white and brown crab meat.


Grate the Gruyère into a bowl and add the Parmesan. Mix the flour with the spices in a small cup. Pour the milk into a measuring jug and stir in the tomato purée. Put a pan of water on to boil for the pasta.

Find a smallish heavy-based saucepan. Over lowish heat, melt the butter, then peel and mince or grate in the garlic and stir it around in the pan quickly. Turn the heat up to medium and add the flour and spices. Whisk over the heat until it all coheres into an orange, fragrant, loose paste; this will take no longer than a minute. It soon looks like tangerine-tinted foaming honeycomb. Take off the heat and very gradually whisk in the tomatoey milk, until it’s completely smooth. Use a spatula to scrape down any sauce that’s stuck to the sides of the pan.

Put back on the heat, turn up to medium and cook, stirring, until it has thickened and lost any flouriness; this will take anything from 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in the Worcestershire sauce.

Take the pan off the heat and stir in the grated cheeses. Put a lid on the saucepan, or cover tightly with foil, and leave on the hob, but with the heat off, while you get on with the pasta. Add salt to the boiling water, then add the pasta and cook according to the packet instructions. When the pasta is just about al dente, add the crabmeat to the smoky cheese sauce, then once you’re happy that the pasta shells are ready, lift them into the sauce, reserving some pasta-cooking liquid first, and drop the shells in. 

Stir over lowish heat until the crabmeat is hot. If you want to make the sauce any more fluid,  add as much of the pasta-cooking water as you need. Taste to see if you want to add salt – the crab meat you get in tubs tends to be quite salty already.

Divide between two small shallow bowls and sprinkle with Aleppo pepper or hot smoked paprika.

I finally caught up with Roadrunner: A Film About Anthony Bourdain. It came out in America last summer and now you can hire it here on Amazon Prime. One review of Morgan Neville’s documentary said of the revered chef/writer/traveller: “He lived his life unabashedly”. Spot on. Essentially shy and lonely, Bourdain navigated heroin addiction, dispiriting decades as a jobbing chef, instant fame after the publication of his 2000 memoir Kitchen Confidential and the increasingly restless circling of the globe that came with his reinvention as an intrepid TV food explorer. It all ended with his suicide at the age of 61 in an Alsace hotel in 2018, from which the film draws harrowing conclusions.

I came late to his exhaustive series No Reservations and Parts Unknown, but during the claustrophobic lockdowns they became for me an obsessive beacon, putting into perspective my own wan travel and food excursions. They were always about far more than glossy travelogue and exotic cuisines. Take Season 4, Episode 8, where for once he went no further than Massachusetts. In it he relates the opiate shitstorm engulfing Middle America today to the substance abuse that first gripped him on Seventies Cape Cod.

As detailed in Kitchen Confidential, it all began for Bourdain – as a reluctant dishwasher – in Provincetown at the tip of the Cape. Before the decidedly heterosexual writer’s time there it had long been a refuge for every maverick under the Atlantic seaboard sun and contender for Gay Capital of America. That vibe has survived the desperate ravages of the AIDs era and the recent party-pooping of two pandemic years, which has shut or shrunk all of its extravagant celebrations. We just caught the tail-end of the last annual ‘Bear Week’ proper… 

After nine days of pink high jinks and endless bouts of cocktails and comedy the pool parties are winding down. Still there’s a raucous rendition of Mamma Mia from the super troupers in fishnets at the Crown and Anchor, while the Commercial Street main drag pulls in gays and straights alike with its trademark high season madness. 

Many of these visitors have driven up from Boston via the U6 W, 120 miles of creeping nose-to-tail, exaust-fest. We sensibly have taken the 90 minute fast ferry from Boston to Provincetown with IPAs on the poop deck and Minke whales across the starboard bow. $92 the round trip but definitely worth it.

What to expect on docking? If you’re not one of that gay crowd here to celebrate the hirsuteness of being a ‘Bear’? Certainly you’ll find a whole, different world from Boston’s combination of gleaming high rises and the brownstone historic haunts of leafy Beacon Hill.

First encounter is with a colourful replica galleon at MacMillan Pier. Then look across at the neighbouring Cabral’s Pier, where an old fish-packing displays an outdoor art installation of five large portraits of local Portuguese-American women. The Portuguese influence dates back to the mid-19th century when increasing numbers of fishermen from that seafaring nation settled where the shoals were, their families following.

But the first significant ‘invasion’ came in November 1620 as the Pilgrim Fathers on the Mayflower made their first landfall in the New World, prior to docking more famously at Plymouth down the coast. An understated park plaque marks the exact spot, but on High Pole Hill above Provincetown there’s a much larger tribute, the 252ft high Pilgrim Monument, hewn from solid granite. You can’t miss it. 

What would those hard-praying Puritan have made of the fishing town’s most recent claim to fame? It was back in the Sixties that Provincetown first saw the influx of a substantial (and increasingly affluent) gay community that colours its vibe to this day. The summer population is over 60,000 taking advantage of its abundant, clap-boarded boutique lodgings; in winter it shrinks to just 3,000 and reverts to feeling like the end of the Earth.

 Not quite like that in July. Still Commercial Street, however exuberantly awash with leather, drag, and Speedos, avoids the vulgar mayhem of, say, Beale Street in Memphis or Bourbon Street in New Orleans. That’s thanks to its strong feel of community both across Bear Week and the Carnival in  August and Family Week, the world’s largest gathering of families in the LGBTQ+ community (all going ahead in 2022, fingers crossed. Check here).

Let’s admit it, there’s only so much al fresco Mamma Mia you can take. With time to spare before lunch we take a shuttle out to Herring Cove Beach and the tranquil outer reaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore – a 40 mile stretch of park preserving 44,000 acres of forest, marsh, bog, and ponds, lighthouses, windmills and shacks… from Chatham in the mid-Cape to the scorpion tail spit that slides into the Atlantic above Provincetown. Back in 1961 it was created by President John Kennedy, no stranger to this neck of Massachusetts.

We walk back through the dunes to take further refuge in The Canteen, a fabulously laidback seafood snack and craft beer haven, recommended by a Boston acquaintance. Clam chowder, shrimp bahn-mi and the obligatory lobster rolls wolfed in a ramshackle garden terrace overlooking the ocean. What’s not to swoon over?

Its owner Rob Anderson recommends a raft of other Provincetown diversions… Tim’s Used Books, army-navy-surplus emporium Marine Specialties, the nautical-rock star outfitter Map, pleasure-and-safe sex shop Full Kit Gear, and the bohemian marine utopia Loveland, the Albert Merola Gallery, the quirky and eclectic John Derian shop, Four Eleven Gallery, hippy-dippy Shop Therapy, and Julie Heller Gallery.

This hedonistic party town also pays its dues to to its rich cultural heritage, most notably at the lovely Provincetown Art Association and Museum. It has been around over 100 years. In its early years Eugene O’Neill frequented its bar, along with many other mavericks (check out the Old Colony Tap). He premiered the play that won him the first of his four Pulitzers, Anna Christie, in 1916 at Provincetown Players’ East End theatre, converted from a Lewis Wharf fish shack. Arguably this was the wellspring of modern American drama.

At 577 Commercial Street you’ll find a round blue plaque that reads, “Eugene O’Neill 1888-1953 Dramatist Lived Here.” When the town got too hot for him he also dwelt for a time in a lifesaving station deep in the dunes.

Cut to 35 years later and another great dramatist, the young Tennessee Williams, spent four summer seasons in the town, falling in love and having his heart broken. He stayed at Captain Jack’s Wharf in the West End, where he wrote The Glass Menagerie on a borrowed typewriter. Amazingly at a theatre on that wharf he debuted A Street Car Named Desire with Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalski before the play appeared on Broadway

Alas, both these theatres are long gone, but Captain Jack’s Wharf remains, a colourful magnet, where you can rent out condominium cabins, and the town is again hosting its annual Provincetown Tennessee Williams Theater Festival this September (22-25) across various venues.

Truth is that all the resident literary heroes who found congenial refuge in the town are now ghosts – the most recent Norman Mailer, who died in 2007 after spending 45 of his last 60 summers and writing most of his books there in his large brick seafront house. He once called it “the last democratic town in America – everybody is absolutely equal here”. 

Anthony Bourdain was, of course, only passing through, but his Provincetown rite of passage (with pan scrubbers) yielded extraordinary fruit…

Anthony Bourdain in Provincetown

Bourdain spoke at length about his time in Provincetown during that 2014 Massachusetts episode of his CNN show, Parts Unknown.

“It was here, all the way out at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown, Massachusetts, where the pilgrims first landed,” Bourdain said. “And it was where I first landed. 1972, washed into a town with a headful of orange sunshine and a few friends. Provincetown, a wonderland of tolerance, longtime tradition of accepting artists, writers, the badly behaved, the gay, the different. It was paradise.

“The joy that can only come with an absolute certainty that you’re invincible, that none of the choices that you make will have any repercussions or any effect on your later life,…Because we didn’t think about those things. I don’t even know what I thought I was going to be. At that point, I certainly didn’t think I was going to be a cook. I don’t know what I thought I was going to be. I was just, you know, hanging out in a beautiful place.

“The Flagship, it’s where my cooking career started. Where I started washing dishes, where I started to have pretensions of culinary grandeur. It would seem like a good gig for anybody. Who else got to live like that during that time?”

The Flagship, aka the Dreadnaught, is long shut and converted into apartments, but one of Bourdain’s few remaining locals remains. It’s my regret I never got to Atlantic House Bar in Masonic Place (above). Dating back to 1798 and in the same family hands for more than 75 years, it is ‘America’s oldest operating gay bar’, according to Bourdain. In the episode current owner April Cabral tells how her dad invited Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nina Simone to perform at the bar. Tennessee Williams was also a frequent guest, once frolicking in the nude there. So Provincetown.

For full tourism information on Provincetown visit https://ptowntourism.com; for Massachusetts try http://www.massholiday.co.uk and for specific tips on how to enjoy Cape Cod go to https://www.capecodchamber.org.

“Don’t worry about me. I’m not gonna be slinging pizza for the rest of my life.” Little did Julia Roberts realise in her movie breakthrough, 1988’s Mystic Pizza, that that line might come back to haunt her. Flash forward to Manchester 2022 and you’ll find the veteran Hollywood star up in lights at the city’s latest topped dough emporium, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele

A bit of a mouthful to follow Zizzi – the previous Italian incarnation squatting in this palatial Edwardian bank building – but then so is the Napoletana in front of me. A huge and hugely satisfying mouthful from a springy, chewy base to an intense but measured topping of tomato, basil, Agerola fior di latte, Cetar anchovies, capers and oregano. ‘The greatest pizza in the world’ as the Da Michelebrand pushers proclaim? Up there, maybe, but it was rapidly cooling as it arrived at table from a distant oven and stone cold by half way through. That wouldn’t have been acceptable back in Naples, where the original pizzeria of this name has forged its reputation against fierce competition for over 130 years. 

Matt Goulding, in his fascinating exploration of Italian cuisine, Pasta, Pane, Vino, details the competitive zeal of the city’s pizzaioli and their commitment to their way of making arguably the world’s finest fast food. 

And there is an argument, as he writes: “Neapolitan pizza may be the original form of pizza  as we know it today, but for some – for those who like their pizza with textural contrast, who don’t consider pizza a knife and fork proposition – it doesn’t always deliver. Neapolitan pizza can be a violent enterprise – the high temperatures, the aggressive blistering, the miasma of cheese and sauce and rendered fat that leaves the centre of a pizza almost empty. The resulting pizza is relentlessly soft, yielding, fickle, unforgiving. It is a game of centimetres and seconds – the difference between a subpar pizza and a superlative one is a blink of an eye in the mouth of the oven.”

Julia Roberts only entered the Da Michele story just over a decade ago when she reprised her pizza schtick, starring in Eat Pray Love as globe-trotting seeker after self Elizabeth Gilbert, who falls head over heels for the modest restaurant on the Via Cesare Sersale, declaring she was “having a relationship with her pizza.” This someway explains critic Mark Kermode’s four word summary of the movie: “Eat, Pray, Love, vomit”.

On a wall of the new King Street branch a golden scrawl of the film’s title shares billing with a still of Julia scoffing a slice and there’s also further gush in pink neon: “I want someone to look at me the same way I look at pizza”, which is not up there with my fave doughy quote: “The perfect lover is one who turns into a pizza at 4am.”

All of which diverts from the big da Michele question: Why here, now?

I saw ample evidence on a trip to Naples of how popular the original is, with its strong local fanbase bolstered by the tourist traffic generated by Gilbert’s book and the film. You have to book a slot to gain entrance to a very basic venue. Averse to queuing, I surveyed the gathering crowds from across the square as I enjoyed a Margherita in theatrically themed rival Trianon da Ciro. It was excellent, only bettered by the plate overlapping monster at De Matteo on the Via dei Tribunali. 

At all three venues you’d pay around six euros for a classic Margherita; in Manchester they charge £9.90 for this basic topping of tomato, basil and mozzarella, rising to nearly double that price for more elaborate toppings. No pizzas at Manchester’s acclaimed Rudy’s cost over a tenner, while their cocktails are each three quid cheaper that at Da Michele, where for six quid you get just the one arancino as a starter (we asked).

My Napoletana, generously topped though it was, felt steep at £12.90. Not as steep as the accompanying 250ml glass of (excellent) Badioli Chianti Riserva for £15.90, which I estimate is a 400 per cent mark-up on store prices. 

Strangely, when I sought to double check our bill the online menu didn’t run to prices. I wanted to register how much the wagyu steaks cost as well as the pastas, salads and desserts that join the 13-strong pizza roster that climaxes in a wagyu burger version. Above are dishes of tuna tartare and truffle ravioli, both pretty dishes but they scream Italian restaurant staple grafted onto the original Da Michele selling point

In the Naples restaurant they have proudly served only two types of pizza – Margherita and Marinara (the one without the cheese). 

The decision to expand the brand globally has also vastly expanded the menu. A constant among the pizzas is a predominant use of Agerola fior di latte cow’s milk mozzarella and soy bean oil over buffalo mozzarella and olive oil. Was this the formula from the start, five generations ago? The leavening and kneading nous created by Michele Condurro has surely never been tampered with. 

My research shows me that the first L’Antica Pizzeria launched over here in Stoke Newington followed the two pizzas only template but that split to trade under a new name (and presumably new ownership) when branches in Soho and Baker Street appeared. All a bit vague. Neither setting comes near the high-ceilinged grandeur of 43 King Street, much of the current style inherited from the unlamented Zizzi but with some odd tweaks.

My eyes may have deceived me, but they appear to have replaced Zizzi’s dove grey upholstery with a dusty pink version. A more strident pink decor, in many swirling shades, helps the bar dominate the front of the room. Pink is definitely the colour of the moment in the city.

It’s good (in an ironic way) to see restaurant trees are making a comeback. Zizzi scatted some gaunt saplings scattered around the dining space but they have been replaced by two ‘flourishing’ white artificial specimens, which forge a kind of glitzy symmetry with the vast dangling chandelier. It almost makes up for the inexorable deforestation of Manchester’s restaurant scene. Long gone the giant steel tree of Sakana, so too the more modest shrub inside Mr Cooper’s House and Garden in the Midland Hotel refurb. Still indelibly etched into Spinningfield’s Tattu, though, is its colourful dried cherry blossom tree. That matches its pan-Asian cuisine. Olive trees might have been a more authentic fit for Da Michele. Or maybe not. 

This brand expansion, which includes the USA, all seems a case of spreading it a bit thin once again. Remember the one true Harry Ramsden in Guiseley or The Ivy in London’s theatreland before all the cloning began? Now everywhere. Or on a less iconic level, take the original indie Real Greek launching in Hoxton in 1999. We eventually got a chain version in Manchester last year, joining its corporate stablemate Franco Manca. That does pizza, too, and they’ve got rivals seemingly on every corner. Sourdough, New York style, Detroit, Chicago deep dish, vegan and all the rest (sadly now minu our homegrown stalwart, the original Croma). You takes yer pick. Never has choice felt more homogenised. 

It all makes me yearn for the formica tables of old Napoli, where the pizzas conform and the people don’t. To quote Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend: “The plebs were us. The plebs were that fight for food and wine, that quarrel over who should be served first and better, that dirty floor on which the waiters clattered back and forth, those increasingly vulgar toasts.” 

L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, 53 King Street, Manchester M2 4LQ. 0161 204 7068.

So what did Santa bring you? I bet it wasn’t an Osaka-style octopus ball kit. With all the responsibility such a gift bestows. Especially, post-Christmas in the Pennines, when fresh cephalods are thin on the ground and my store cupboard kombu looks as frazzled as me.

Still can’t complain. This portal into the gooey street food world of Takoyaki is the latest in a series of surprise prezzies from my brother, always keen to encourage my Japanese culinary skills. 

Takoyaki, literally translates as ‘octopus fried’, but they’re more than that – golf ball sized piping hot, crispy doughnuts, a dashi batter encasing a squidgy filling of octopus tentacle, benishoga (pickled ginger), spring onion, a soupcon of soy maybe. This iconic dish originated in the late night stalls of party city Osaka, but you’ll find it all over Japan. The batter is poured into griddle moulds, the filling follows, each sphere being flipped with skewers until sealed. Street theatre as much as street food. 

How could I match that? Well, New Year, new challenge, so I gathered the necessary raw materials, substituting prawns for octopus. Both have recently been acknowledged as ‘sentient beings’, so I may have to recalibrate either ingredient in future.

As part of my kit, my sibling had provided addictively creamy Kewpie mayo and his own gloopy blend of Takoyaki sauce, featuring Worcestershire sauce, mirin, sake, ginger, garlic and sugar, both to be squirted over the piping hot crispy batter balls.

To get there I used my dinky black cast iron pan with 16 semi-spherical moulds. There are electrical versions, but mine was the traditional model that sits on the stove top. My one fear was it would not reach the necessary sizzling point on the Aga ring. It did take longer than expected, but it worked out deliciously well.

Firstly, I had to assemble the batter, which entailed making my own simple dashi stock by steeping kombu (kelp seaweed) and katsuobushi (bonito flakes) in water for several hours. This is not a quick fix, though, in a rush, you could substitute dashi powder in the batter mix – which is 200ml dashi, 100g flour and one beaten egg, thoroughly mixed but on the thin side. Oil the moulds well to encourage a savoury browning and when they are served take care: the filling inside the tiny spheres can be molten hot. All the more umami, though, when you sprinkle on some bonus bonito flakes.

Nothing, of course, is likely to beat the experience of snaffling your takoyakis in Osaka’s neon-lit Dotonburi district after a few Asahis, but to recreate the dish itself at home you can buy a pan from Amazon or improvise with an Ebelskiver Danish pancake pan. You can also purchase online a squeeze bottle of ready-made takoyaki sauce, complete with a cute octopus label.

I’ll use octopus next time but I concur with seasoned Japanese culinary explorer Michael Booth it doesn’t have to be the de rigueur filling. Prawn or squid are obvious replacements. In Booth’s The Meaning of Rice and other tales from the belly of Japan (Jonathan Cape, £14.99) he sacrilegiously suggests pork belly slowly simmered in sake or mirin, lighty pickled mackerel or even a chocolate version. The world is your Takoyaki.

How an English family’s foodie travelogue became a Japanese animation hit…

Michael Booth’s first travel book, 2007’s  bestselling Sushi and Beyond (Vintage £8.99) was sparked by picking up a book on Japanese food, falling in love with with it and on the spur of the moment whisking his wife and two sons off on a trip to that country. In 2015 it inspired an animation series over there. Hardly Simpsons with Sushi, it is a quirky primer for a fascinating food culture. Here’s a taster.

In Episode 18, The World’s Fastest Fast Food: Michael and his family go to Osaka, which with its gaudy neon lights and people always on the go, presents an energetic vibe altogether different from Kyoto. While Lissen is left to buy some souvenirs, Michael and his two boys go in search of places serving the local specialties: Okonomi-yaki (savory pancakes) and Tako-yaki (octopus balls). They can’t decide which of them to eat. A strange old lady appears and more or less drags them to her establishment, which offers both dishes. What happens next? Spoiler alert above.